I have a confession. I’ve been hanging around the personal finance blogosphere for nearly 5 years now (holy cow, that’s a long time) and only recently found my way inside an Aldi. There have been a couple of times I’ve walked past an Aldi – most notably in the Blue Mountains in Australia! But I had never actually been inside one until now.
For those as out of the loop as I was, Aldi is a discount supermarket chain. It’s low-cost to the extreme, to the point that the check-out folks won’t bag your groceries for you (or provide bags), and you need to bring a quarter in order to unlock a cart if you want to use one while you’re shopping. But frugal folk seem to swear by it as a way to keep grocery costs nice and low!
An Aldi finally opened up near-ish to us, so while Mr PoP was out of town on a long weekend, I (armed with a quarter for the cart – though I forgot my reusable grocery bags!) made the time to drive down there and check it out.
And I’m sorry to say… Aldi didn’t really live up to the hype.
First, the good.
Good #1 – The Food Was Cheap
As promised by hundreds of visitors to personal finance blogs over the years, the food was, in fact, quite inexpensive. I managed to leave the store with the equivalent of ~3 Publix-sized bags of groceries for a grand total of $21.20. That’s a heck of a screaming deal, especially considering it was at least half produce (in hindsight another package of $0.89 blackberries would not have been a bad move).
Good #2 – The Employees Were Friendly and Seem Fairly Compensated
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I try and keep my grocery shopping to chains that are known to treat their employees well (which I’ve also found to correlate pretty well to a positive customer experience). While Aldi didn’t seem to have a ton of employees around (actually the only ones I saw were the two manning the cash registers), the sign out front that stated they were hiring with wages from $12-$16/hr (that’s roughly 1.5x – 2x Florida minimum wage) made me smile.
But for me the bad seemed to outweigh the good.
Bad #1 – It’s Super Inconvenient
I can (and do, quite often!) bike to all of the other grocery stores I frequent (Publix, Trader Joes, and Whole Foods). I stop on my way to or from work all the time. Aldi, however, is further away from us, and in an area of town (that I call Big Box Land) where I would NOT feel safe riding my bike. It also has really weird hours… Why on earth does it not open until 9am? All that means that going there requires advance thought, not to mention the patience to put up with bad drivers while being behind the wheel of a car myself. It made the whole experience a lot less pleasant.
Bad #2 – There Seemed To Be a Reason The Food Was Cheap
It was not an uncommon occurrence for me to encounter rotting food sitting out for sale during my brief trip to Aldi. Apples seemed like a steal at 3lbs for $0.99, until I grabbed a bag and felt my hand squish into a completely rotten apple inside the bag. I had the same experience with a spaghetti squash, had to put back a package of cilantro that was starting to get slimy, and saw eggplants that were dimpling as they started to go bad.
Intellectually, I know that for us to avoid food waste as a society, we need to be more okay with seeing foods like this and being able to use the parts that were still edible… but I’m not there. Sorry, I’m just not. I got totally grossed out and probably spent too much time ruminating on the fact that while we’re often quite near the geographic end of most supply chains*, other stores seem to avoid grossing me out with food going bad on the shelf. And then I had to reflect on how much unseen waste those other stores also have and felt bad about it. So I ended up not only grossed out, but also feeling mildly bad about the large amount of waste in our food supply as a whole.
Bad #3 – The Selection Wasn’t Awesome
The “natural” peanut butter wasn’t*. The dried bean selection had only 3 beans, none of which were the two we eat most often – kidney and garbanzo**. All the dried fruit had sugar added and none of the nuts were raw.
I get that having too many choices can be overwhelming and I’m generally a fan of streamlined shopping – I actually tend to like stores like Trader Joes that have smaller selections, but it seemed like there weren’t nearly as many options for the unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods to which we’ve grown accustomed.
(Sidenote – I apologize for how much of a food snob I sound like here… I didn’t think we were food snobs, but maybe we’ve become them so gradually we haven’t noticed?)
My Aldi Take-Home
As long as I don’t have super-high hopes going in, adding the occasional trip to Aldi (likely when I’m already in a car in that area of town) would probably be good on the whole. But for now, despite the good prices on most items, it didn’t seem like it was worth going out of my way for (round trip it’s ~1 gallon of gas from home) on a regular basis.
* We’re pretty darned far south in Florida, so we’re probably not the first stop when food is getting distributed from other parts of the country. =/
** A few years ago I started only buying peanut butter with 2 ingredients, peanuts and salt. The old-school “Jif” style peanut butter actually tastes sickly sweet to me now and I am occasionally baffled when I see “natural” peanut butter have sugar and palm oil listed as ingredients. WTF?!?
*** Recipe for Mr PoP’s “Healthy CornNuts”: soak 1lb garbanzo beans overnight, then cook in pressure cooker (15 min on high with natural release). Alternatively, drain and rinse ~4 cans of garbanzos (aka chickpeas). Arrange the beans across 2 baking pans. Onto each baking pan, toss 1-2Tbsp olive oil, 1-2tsp salt, 1 tsp onion powder, 1tsp garlic powder, 1-2 tsp oregano, 1-2 tsp basil and mix with garbanzos. Roast pans at 400 degrees in oven for ~45 minutes, removing every 15 minutes to stir and rotate the pans so they brown but nothing burns. Let the garbanzos cool on the counter. When done, they will be salty and crunchy – like CornNuts, but better. =)
What’s your take on Aldi? Was my experience about par for the course? Or was it way off base?