Good Cheap Food: Shopping at Surplus Grocery Stores

I spent about $38 on these two boxes. If I could persuade my husband to eat hot cereal for breakfast, I could have spent less!

Food prices have increased and continue to climb. I have lowered our food bills in various ways: barter, coupons, rebates, no-waste scratch cooking, gardening, canning, drying, freezing, end cap and loss leader shopping, distribution warehouse bulk buying, co-oping, and buying directly from the local producer.

My biggest savings, however, have come from shopping at surplus grocery stores (aka Bent and Dents). Surplus grocery stores purchase their stock from distributors that buy back slightly damaged and past or near date items from regular grocery and chain stores. These distributors also purchase closeouts and overruns. They sell to surplus grocers by the pallet, case, or by the truck load in mixed banana boxes (“mixed banana boxed grocery loads”), depending on the item. I did a short search on “Surplus Groceries,” and here are some of the more interesting sites if you want to learn more: , , and .

Some surplus groceries are modern and well lit, while others are sheds with a wood stove in one corner and only the light that comes in the windows. The Bent and Dent I patronize the most fits the latter description. It is in the country –as these places so often are in my area—and is run by a large Amish family.  I LOVE this place, but I’ve learned over the years that not everything is priced cheaper than I can get it at a regular grocery store, some things are not worth buying at all, and other things are worth a the gamble for the price. Here are some tips for shopping surplus groceries:

  • Always check the condition of the packaging. In the excitement of finding food for such a good price (in sometimes dim lighting), you may overlook the state of the box or can. If it is a cereal or grain, you need to be sure that there are no gaps or breaks in the bag or box. This is especially important for such items as flour, rice, pasta, bread crumbs, and cereals. Watch for tape covering a hole. Even a small hole can cause staleness or contamination.
  • Always check the expiration dates. This is not always easy. Sometimes these codes are indicated by a series of seemingly random numbers and letters. Usually you will be able to see month, day, and year clearly. Other times, month and day will be reversed, and the year will be two digits. When in doubt, don’t buy the item if you are uncomfortable with not knowing the date. (By the way, it is also a good idea to check expiration dates in regular grocery stores. They don’t always keep up with their stock or follow up on how employees are stocking the shelves.)
  • Keep up on the current price of groceries. Surplus groceries carry an incredible assortment of brands and sizes, and pricing can be a challenge. Sometimes if the surplus grocer doesn’t value or is not familiar with a product, they will price low. If it is an item they value or are familiar with, they will price higher.  I often will see items that are a better deal on sale or as a loss leader (or even at normal mark up!) in a regular store.   If you’re are a scratch cook, you will want to know the cheapest price per pound for such staples as rice, beans, flour, sugars, pastas, or cereals. Sometimes I can find a better price by the pound in a bulk food store or a store that deals in volume sales like Aldi, Sam’s Club, or a large grocery store.
  • Beware of loading up on luxury items and junk food. You can easily cancel out your savings by buying too many of these items.  It is very easy to indulge a sweet tooth or support a chip habit at surplus groceries. Do you really need that cheap case of candy bars and fifteen 50-cent bags of Doritos? Man does not live on bread alone, but you can buy a lot of items with actual food value for the money you squander on treats.
  • Don’t buy if you aren’t sure. Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is always the rule in salvage grocery buying! I generally don’t buy items that are too far past date. How far past date you are comfortable buying is an individual decision.  A can of tomatoes I would buy past date—but not a bottle of creamy salad dressing.

What you buy is up to you, but here are some of the things I don’t buy surplus:

  • I don’t buy items that are high in fat that can easily go rancid—like tortillas, taco shells, salad dressings, chips, peanut butter, etc.
  • I don’t buy anything with broken seals, torn inner packaging, or pieces of tape covering holes (or teas with boxes that have broken cellophane, unless the tea bags are individually foil or plastic wrapped).
  • I don’t buy any powders or mixes that have started to solidify. (Drink mixes will do this and brown sugar that is too old.)
  • I don’t buy anything that has melted, is discolored, or has sun-faded packaging.
  • I don’t buy cans or containers that are rusty or too dented, especially around the rims.
  • I don’t buy frozen or perishable items.

My best buys are usually condiments (salsa, ketchup, mayonnaise, vinegars, mustards), tea, coffee, tuna, breakfast cereals, baking chips and chocolate, chewing gum, olive oil, and canned vegetables, fruit, and beans. Sometimes there will be a lot of an item and it will be priced extra low. That is when I buy cake mixes, some types of candy, crackers, and soup as treats. I like to pay 50% or less of the regular store price and way less than regular store price on items that are past their expiration date.

A few final tips:

  • I will at times make exceptions to my “no tape” rule. Sometimes labels fall off and are taped back on; or you can see that someone got overzealous with a box cutter and a cereal or cake mix box is taped shut again, but the inner packaging is intact (Shake the box. If the stuff inside sounds like it is rattling against cardboard, don’t buy it.)
  • Sometimes there will be dried product on the outside of a bottle. This doesn’t always indicate a leak. Sometimes one bottle will break in a case and the grocer can’t sell the whole case.
  • I always rinse, wipe, or wash the tops of all bottles and cans before opening.

I hope I’ve helped some of you cut your grocery expenses a bit. It is one of the strategies that keeps me on My Little Farm in Town and not commuting to a cubicle somewhere in order to pay the grocery bill! Take Care, Begonia.

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