Confession time: I have never shopped at an Aldi.
Strike that. I had never shopped at an Aldi until last month, when I got invited to visit the Aldi “Test Kitchen” at the company’s North American headquarters in Batavia.
One reason I had never shopped at an Aldi was likely family preference. We were never a family who shopped at Aldi.
But of course I’ve not lived in my parents' home for many, many years now. Growing up, we never shopped at Meijer, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Blue Goose or Dominick’s, and I somehow have found myself regularly in all those stores while avoiding the Aldi locations that have been multiplying in the western suburbs in recent years.
My major concern was one of quality. When I thought of Aldi, I pictured cheap food and buying food straight from pallets in the middle of a store. I also wondered if an Aldi store – being as small as they are – could really have all the grocery items I need on a weekly basis.
But I have a number of friends who I know shop at Aldi at least semi-regularly, and they put great, nutritious meals on the table.
So when I got the invite to visit the Aldi Test Kitchen on a Thursday afternoon in October, I thought “Why not?”
But I was honest with the public relations contact who invited me – telling her I couldn’t guarantee I would write a story. I also turned down the offer of a car service, since I only live about 10 minutes away!
If you don’t already know, Aldi’s North American headquarters are located on Kirk Road in Batavia. When I arrived, I was escorted into a large, bright white room that featured four islands, all loaded down with delicious-looking food. It was like a holiday buffet in October! In addition to me, there were two newspaper reporters, a blogger and a longtime Aldi shopper. Through open windows, we could see chefs working in the kitchen.
The point of the event was to highlight Aldi’s “Switch & Save” promotional campaign, in which the company is urging shoppers to switch from national brands to Aldi’s private label brands during the upcoming holiday season. Aldi says that shoppers can save up to 50 percent by doing so.
I had no doubt you could save money by shopping at Aldi, but of course that pesky quality issue comes up.
So during the test kitchen event, we did blind taste testing. We tried both the “A” sample and the “B” sample, and then told the Aldi corporate executives which ones we preferred and why.
Here’s a list of most of the foods we tasted: Spiral sliced ham; spring mix salad with salad dressing; broccoli; crescent rolls; entertainment crackers; brie cheese; deep dish apple pie; a sharp cedar cheese ball; sparkling juice cocktail; a Riesling; a sweet red wine; shrimp cocktail; hummus; pita chips; cocktail hot dogs; Colby Jack block cheese; chicken breast; brownies and chocolate chip cookies. Some of the foods were served basically how you’d bring them home from the store (the crackers, the hummus, etc.) while others were part of a recipe (the brie cheese; the chocolate chip cookies made from scratch using all Aldi ingredients.)
And in a big surprise to me, there were a number of those items where I actually preferred the Aldi choice to the national brand, including the shrimp, the Riesling, the pita crackers, cheese ball, cheese slices, chicken breast, hummus and apple pie.
Most of the rest were a toss-up. And the few where I preferred the national brand, I’d say it seemed more an issue of personal taste preference – not quality.
Once we had all expressed our preferences for either “A” or “B,” and the Aldi sample was revealed, we were also told the prices of both. The price for the national brand was usually based on the regular price at Jewel. That was impressive, too – such as $1.49 for Aldi’s “Bake House Creations” crescent rolls compared to $1.98 for Pillsbury, $1.49 for Aldi’s “Savoritz Entertainment Crackers” compared to $1.98 for Dare brand and $4.99 for Aldis “Belmost Deep Disph Apple Pie” compared to $6.51 for Mrs. Smith’s.
The Aldi item that most blew me away was the “edenVale Brie Cheese Round.” It was prepared as a baked brie with dried cranberries, chardonnay and black currant fruit spread. (I'll share the recipe soon). It was so much creamier and richer than the alternative, in this case a “President Brie Cheese Round” that sells at Jewel for $4.48, compared to $2.99 for the edenVale round.
While we tried the food and discussed its merits (and yes, this truly was a great way to spend an afternoon!), Aldi’s director of public relations and a top executive who works with Aldi’s team of buyers answered our questions and made their pitches.
They told us customers can find about 1,400 of the most frequently purchased items at Aldi. (The easy way they explained this was this if a group of people – like the taste testers – all made out their weekly grocery lists, Aldi would likely carry the items that were common among those lists.)
During the holiday season, Aldi adds about 100 seasonal items to its stores, such as chocolate and almond bark, nuts, candies and more.
The company does private in-house testing in its own kitchen as well as third-party testing an national labs. All products must meet or exceed the quality and taste of the national brand it is being compared to. And Aldi offers a “double quality guarantee,” meaning that if you are dissatisfied with a product, the store will replace it and also refund your money.
As you’ve probably gathered by driving around the western suburbs, Aldi is in the midst of an expansion kick in the United States. It currently has more than 1,100 stores in 31 states; it opened 84 new stores last year and plans to open 81 more in 2011.
I heard enough and certainly tasted enough to think that maybe my prejudice against Aldi was misguided. So the next step was to actually shop at an Aldi store. Tune in tomorrow to read about my impressions, and about how I managed to screw up the easy, quarter-in-the-cart system!
Disclosure: I was invited with journalists and bloggers to attend the Aldi “Switch & Save” Test Kitchen event. I received an Aldi reusable bag with about a dozen food items, including two bottles of wine, boxes of crackers, chocolates, cookies, olive oil, minced garlic, coffee and some baking supplies.