Written by Art Petrosemolo
For the past several weeks, I have been researching the discount grocery phenomenon in Lancaster County, which means visiting, talking to the owners, browsing and shopping. I visited national discount grocers like Aldi’s as well as a neighbor-to-neighbor “barn” store that my Plain Community friend almost made me drive to blindfolded.
It has been an adventure and has turned into a three part—4,000 word—story for the Ephrata and Lititz weekly newspapers that will run in February. If you have never shopped at a discount grocer, it’s time to make a visit. The inventory can be eclectic, the organization chaotic, the savings fantastic and the experience a “hoot.” Let me tell you about them.
First, you probably already know that discount grocery stores have been around since the 1980s. Because central Pennsylvania was (and is) a hub for food processing and distribution, damaged goods and overstocked goods are readily available. Initially, manufacturers sent the processed/canned food or boxes to landfills. The Lancaster Plain community always objected to that as wasteful and began to take the overstock, damaged or dated foods for their animals. It wasn’t long before they realized much of what they took for animal consumption was suitable for human consumption and they began to use it themselves and share with their neighbors through small, under the radar, farm stores. These stores still exist; one store is within just a few miles of us at Garden Spot Village. They are owned and operated by and for the Plain Community on an honor system. You are not welcome to shop there.
However, you are welcome to shop at the numerous other discount grocers here in Lancaster County. We also enjoy discount prices on local produce from farm markets and stores or from locals who sell the “extras” from their garden right in front of their home.
What are discount goods? What do I need to look for? First, discount goods were once exclusively D&D which stands for “damaged and dated” goods. The stores that sold them were pretty “rough” and the merchandise was packed helter-skelter and many of the “best if sell by” dates were way, I mean way, overdue. BB’s (an Amish-owned chain of four stores) started out as a barn store and today sells a lot of damaged goods and still is a little “rough.”
Today, locally owned and national discount grocers have cleaned up their act and those that sell damaged or dated goods sort and display the items many times like your regular grocery store. With regard to “best when sold by” dates, they are not “spoilage” dates. They are the dates, usually a year from being packaged when a manufacturer feels comfortable that no one will get sick or sue them. However, most of the packaged and canned foods today are good for consumption long after the “best if sell by” date and Lancaster County discount grocery shoppers know that. With that said, even discount grocers pull products from their shelves if they get too dated.
Discount grocers also will buy goods—direct from a manufacturer or distributor—that did not sell well in stores or that were over-produced. These are first-quality goods and they can and do change weekly in the discount grocer.
Also, discounters will buy salvage boxes from brokers. They are “shelf pulls” from large, national stores where the “best if sold by” date is within sight. Some of the merchandise may have some bumps and bruises and the manufacturer’s sell by date might be close, but discounters price these items to sell quickly.
Discounters also will purchase first quality items from food distributors to help make their store attractive. These include staples like bread, milk, and eggs and they might offer freshly sliced deli meats and price them competitively.
Each store has a niche and knowing it makes you a better discount shopper. For example, Aldi’s (Ephrata) the largest national discounter, specializes in private label processed foods so if you want Hunts catsup or Campbell’s tomato soup, Aldi’s is not the place to find it.
Grocery Outlet Bargain Market with a store in New Holland also is a national chain based on the west coast but the stores are independently operated. They have a changing inventory as you probably have observed and do sell salvage goods.
The locally owned discount grocers are all extremely clean, well-lighted and organized. Some sell salvaged goods, some do not. Many sell bulk items for baking which attract the Plain Community.
There are a few family owned stores I visited and liked. They include:
Glenwood Foods Discount Grocery on Division Highway, east of Ephrata. It is a large store and resembles a supermarket. Their niche is fresh produce.
Ebenezer Groceries on North Reading Road in Ephrata sells regular meats as well as deli meats and a lot of salvaged goods that have been sorted, cleaned up and displayed properly.
Sharp Shopper is a locally owned chain that started in Ephrata. They have nine stores, six in Pennsylvania and three locally. Sharp Shopper does not sell salvage goods but offers goods in extremely organized stores with rows and rows of overstock items right from the manufacturer that you can even purchase in case lots.
Green Hills Farm Discount Grocer north of Lititz was the final store I visited. It actually started as a farm store and has been operating for more than 30 years. Green Hills prides itself on its deli meat market but also offers, like the competitors, deeply discounted salvage items plus overstocks as well as staple items.
You may have shied away from discount grocers because you were afraid everything was dated merchandise in damaged boxes. It’s not the case today. Be adventuresome and visit one of the stores. The Bargain Grocery in New Holland and Glenwood Foods in Ephrata are the closest.
Go with an open mind and you may find some “treasures” that make you smile. You may even become a regular visitor.
Look for my three part series on these discount grocers in the Lititz Record and the Ephrata Review.