When I was in graduate school (almost 20 years ago), Aldi opened in my neighborhood, and I was hooked. The food then was inexpensive, high quality, and it was right down the street. I bought my first wheely suitcase at Aldi for $20 (because my German friend had one just like it), and believe it or not, the suitcase has been through the war, and I still use it today.
Well, about a year ago, I made a resolution to stop spending hundreds of dollars a week on groceries, and I paid a visit to Aldi. I was STUNNED to find that Aldi not only stocked a ton of organic staples, but also organic produce and lots of things—as a gluten free vegetarian—that I could eat.
So for the last year, I have cut down convenience shopping at my local co-op (great food, but crazy expensive) and my local Wegmans (good food, but crazy expensive, and ridiculously busy all the time.)
The result is that our grocery bill has gone from about $200 a week to about $60 a week. We eat better, make more healthy choices, and waste less.
Everyone knows that I love grocery shopping—and supermarkets. I’ve often said that if I could be a grocery store historian, I would gladly be one. I have fond memories of shopping at A&P, Loblaws and scores of other stores when I was a kid. To this day, grocery stores are one of my very first stops in any city I visit. They are a unique capsule of standardization and local flavor.
Aldi reminds me a bit of grocery shopping in Europe, which (perhaps not surprisingly) is very different from shopping in the US. European stores are smaller, refrigerate less, are more no-nonsense, and are often curiously organized. They are a bit of a novelty in that they are not standard in their typology. They fit in whatever spaces are available and make use of every centimeter.
American supermarkets are all about theatrics, packaging, and lighting to entice impulse buying. They all conform to a similar typology (a long rectangle) and rely on the customer following a zig-zag type pattern up and down each aisle.
Aldi tracks the Euro model more than the American model. Stores are smaller, less theatrical, more practical. Items are clearly marked with signage above, and refrigeration is reserved for things that need it.
One of the biggest differences at Aldi is the produce department. It’s very European. Food comes in crates from the farm (or sometimes pre-packaged) but it’s not dramatically lighted. It’s not sprayed with water. It’s not refrigerated. It’s just there. Oddly, I have noticed over the past year that it also lasts a lot longer. Probably because it’s not soaking wet for days before I buy it.
Another big difference is the Aldi Finds section. Each week, Aldi features general (non-grocery) merchandise organized around some seasonal theme. The products are incredibly smart, well designed, high quality, and inexpensive. I mentioned above that I have purchased luggage, but I’ve also purchased a power washer, a food dehydrator, some great portable salad bowls, a picnic blanket, and some really great blankets for a fraction of what I would have paid elsewhere.
My parents were a bit leary of Aldi, and I led a field trip to show them how it works. Next week, my two good friends and I are going on a similar field trip. I’ll report back soon on our experience… and maybe, if I’m brave enough, might even include some pictures.