Culture

What's Good at Aldi? Test-Driving the German Import

germanstuff

A Germanic haul from Aldi

Striking fear in the hearts of every Walmart protester in the world, German discount chain Aldi is apparently taking over the globe. And they have begun taking over my neighborhood, so I had to investigate.

I’m glad that I Googled the deep secrets of Aldi before heading over to the new store, which opened in a location once occupied by an Office Depot. Bring your own bags or pay for them at the register, so I stuffed several plastic bags from Wegmans (also known as the emergency Puppacita poop bag stash) into my purse. Bring a quarter deposit if you want a shopping cart, a small price to pay to avoid stray carts hitting cars in the parking lot. Make sure you’re paying with a debit card or cash, as they keep prices down by not accepting credit cards. And block off enough time to properly comb through the store.

Aldi stores are so minimalist there’s no ’90s soundtrack piped through the store, and you shop in silence through a fraction of the selection of a regular grocery store with mostly store brands. The bag-your-own-groceries model was nothing new to me; in California, a chain called Food-4-Less kept me equipped in $1.99 10-pound bags of potatoes and 10-for-a-buck ramen in college. Food was also displayed in the packing boxes or pallets, but that chain was a full-size grocery store with bakery and meat counters.

Aldi is the compact version. The name brands I did see weren’t offered at much of a discount — the Kraft chipotle mayo I picked up, for example, was slightly more expensive than at Walmart. The store brands were, for the most part, dirt cheap.

One of the products I tried, among a cornucopia of Sunday football snacks, was the faux Cheez-It. Horrible crackers with a weird aftertaste. However, the Chili Cheese Fritos knockoff was very close to the real thing, as my taste buds from 3 a.m. college cuisine remembered.

I confess I was hoping for piles of cheap greens to more economically feed my bunnies, but the produce selection was hit and miss. Four Anjou pears for $1.49 equalled a good find. Baby carrots for 69 cents rocks. A bag of very good grapes from California’s San Joaquin Valley was $2.49. I got one clamshell of baby lettuces, but the bagged salad was the same price as Trader Joe’s ($1.99) with superior selection and quality at the wonderful marvelous fantastic chain owned by Aldi.

In fact, I needed to set aside my deep, abiding love for Trader Joe’s to accurately judge Aldi.

Aldi has extensive stashes of organic and gluten-free products, and some “gourmet” products that I found intriguing, such as the gouda snack sticks for $3.29. Not the richest gouda in the world (try Trader Joe’s double cream gouda, mmm), but a nice change from string cheese. A big bag of faux Chex Mix in the “bold” flavor (when I make this stuff fresh, it’s drowned in Worcestershire sauce) was $1.49. Their fresh meat section did look fresh, and the frozen selection was vast (and creative if slightly scary — a gyro-making kit).

I found myself hunting for the German imports: big jars of Austrian beer mustard and Bavarian sweet mustard for $1.29 each, a tower of doppelkek cookies for $1.99, frozen cinnamon apple or fruits-of-the-forest strudel for $2.49, and a roll of pretzels that you bake like biscuits (complete with the rock salt) for $2.49. In other words, the Cost Plus World Imports grocery section gets walloped on price points.

I hear, too, that the German goodies increase exponentially when the holidays roll around, so much so that they need to reorganize the store to make extra room. Intrigued.

The next day, I drove to a different Aldi to see if products were the same at each store. Since I realized their customer service was so minimal, I accurately predicted that I could put the Puppacita in her tote in the child seat of the cart and no one would raise an eyebrow. This location had beer and wine, random brands at cheap prices — but I love the store that sells Charles Shaw two-buck-chuck, so who am I to judge.

The selections didn’t vary greatly, though I did pick up German dark chocolate for 99 cents and faux Sun Chips for $1.99. The middle of each store had kitchen and home goods, and even some plants. I understand that the “special buys” section rotates frequently and if you see something you like you should buy it. At both locations, I was pleasantly surprised by the low total at the register.

So Aldi is giving supermarkets heartburn wherever it goes. Have you tried this German import and found favorite products?