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The Zen Master's Guide to Shopping at ALDI

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Get a quarter and a stack of reusable grocery bags and take a deeeeeeeeep breath. It is time. You are one with the universe. You are one with the now. You are one of the people reading this story about how to shop at ALDI.

First, you must rent a shopping cart.

The First Tenet: Shopping Carts

Put the quarter in the lock and get yourself a shopping cart. That right, you are renting a shopping cart. It’s not any nicer than other shopping carts, but this is what they do here. I used to think it was to deter people stealing carts, but it’s actually so they don’t have to hire someone to drag them in from the parking lot.

Do not try to shop without a shopping cart, even if you’re “only picking up a few things.” You’re at ALDI now. You don’t know what you’re going to buy, but everything is pretty cheap, so you’ll probably be getting more than you intended when you parked your car.

Always bring more reusable shopping bags than you think you’ll need. Ask yourself this question: Is it worse to carry unused bags back to your car or to try and juggle the four items that didn’t fit in the single bag you brought, very nearly dropping them? Take extra. This is 2018. You have more reusable bags than you know what to do with. Just shove them all in your trunk and put them in the cart when you get there.

If you forget them in the car or at home, you can buy plastic and paper bags at checkout. Yes. It’s not terribly expensive — it’s ALDI — but it does add up over time. You might make this mistake once. You won’t make it again, IF you go ahead and put all those bags in your trunk right now.

Get ready for a wild ride.

The Second Tenet: There Is No List

Many of us have this weird idea about grocery shopping in which we make a list of the things we need and then we go to the store and we buy the things we need and then we go home. That’s not how ALDI works.

You can make a list if you want, especially if there are some absolute must-have items, but it’s like playing jazz from sheet music. You can conceivably buy the things on that list, but ALDI has a frustrating and fascinating way of not having what you were sure you needed to buy.

There are staples. Milk. Eggs. Heads of iceberg lettuce. Spices you almost certainly paid 3x more for at another grocery store. But then you start wandering into the world of specifics and things get fuzzy awfully fast.

Unless you're getting freshly ground spices, you're probably paying too much for spices.

Is there chili powder? Yes. But you wrote down “arbol chili powder” and “cayenne” and neither of those are there. There are mountains of onion powder and onion salt, but allspice is conspicuous in its absence.

You will find cheddars in both sharp and mild, though none of them from a Kraft or Sargento, but other blends are a bit harder to guarantee. You have to get past the idea that this grocery store is built for you. It doesn’t mind you finding groceries inside it, but it isn’t terribly concerned if you can’t find something.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re looking for something you had last time, either. ALDI is a grocery store with amnesia. Each morning it wakes up a completely new store. It does not know what was on the shelves yesterday or what will be on the shelves tomorrow. It lives only in this moment and in this moment it wants to know if you want some cheap European chocolates.

The Third Tenet: The Tour

Once inside the store with your paid-for cart and your pile of reusable shopping bags, take a lap. Don’t pick anything up. Just go down each aisle — there aren’t that many — and get an idea of what is generally where. Dry goods. Cookies. Spices. Canned goods. Fresh produce. Meats, cheeses, yogurts. The freezer section. The weird home goods section.

In time, you will come to know them all intimately. They are like different levels of Super Mario Bros. Understand the patterns. Understand the secrets. Then you can rescue the princess.

ALDI is also like a golf course, in that there is a rate of play. You may pause for a certain amount of time in a section and then it is time to move on. ALDI moves in one direction. The aisles are barely wide enough for a two-way street, but that is not how they are used. Flow with the current and you will have a much happier trip.

The Fourth Tenet: ALDI brands

It’s not that you won’t find Coke at ALDI, but don’t expect to get a lot of brands with which you are previously familiar. This is a grocery store that relies heavily on its house brands. And the quality, so far as I’ve found, is comparable or better for a lower price.

Ghirardeli? No. But there’s Choceur and it’s cheap and delicious. They have Girl Scout-style cookies YEAR-ROUND. We’re talking Thin Mints on demand. Tagalongs that don’t require you to tag along with a Girl Scout.

The meats are good. It’s not quite as large a selection as a supermarket, but they’ve got the basics covered. And their Never Any brand has that non-hormonal meat all the kids are wild about. Or not wild. Whatever added hormones do to children, this doesn’t do, because there are no added hormones.

Scott Huska, VP of ALDI’s Denton division, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions regarding their private labels.

They got the store brands.

“More than 90 percent of our store is private label, and what we carry tastes as good as or better than name brands,” he said. “Shoppers rave about SimplyNature, which is free from more than 125 ingredients and includes many organic options. We are proud to be the first in the grocery industry to offer our own gluten-free line, liveGfree, which includes baking staples and mixes to breads, crackers, chewy bars and cookies.”

If you legitimately cannot deal with gluten, you're good.

When ALDI does have name brands, it’s because ALDI doesn’t make a version of it or because people ask for it.

“In our ALDI Test Kitchen, we test all of our products to ensure they meet or exceed the quality and taste of name brands,” Huska said. “If for any reason shoppers don’t like an ALDI-exclusive product, we’ll give them their money back and replace the item.”

ALDI Finds will 100% take over your life.

On your way out the door, pick up a circular for next week’s ALDI Finds. Or don’t. I do it and I love it. Maybe it’s the red-blooded capitalist consumer in me, but I find it deeply entertaining to see all the crazy stuff they’ll have. A $10 spiralizer, so I can make some zoodles? Yessir. Avengers underwear for my son (only because they don’t have them in my size: Men’s extra sad). You know it.

“We’ve perfected the art of selling ‘random’ items on purpose,” Huska said. “We anticipate what our customers need when they need it the most. Like rain boots in the spring or Dutch ovens near Thanksgiving.”

And ALDI knows I need to make some zoodles. ALDI is right.

That’s ALDI. That’s why it’s my favorite grocery store, hands down. Shopping at ALDI is my version of running a marathon or doing CrossFit — I tell everyone about it and I refuse to shut up even when they seem bored.

I don’t care. I love this weird German grocery store and I know a lot of you do, too. For the uninitiated, grab a quarter and a fistful of reusable grocery bags and give it a shot. You’ll be an ALDI marathon CrossFit enthusiast soon enough.

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About the Author

Founder and Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, Greg Elwell has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for more than a decade. Where a normal person orders one meal, this guy gets three. He is almost certainly going to die young and those who love him most are fairly ambivalent about it. You can email Greg at greg@iateoklahoma.com.

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