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« Weekend Spotlight: Joseph, Horton and Little Red Riding Hood | Main | A Visit to the Aldi Test Kitchen in Batavia »

My First Visit to an Aldi Grocery Store

Yesterday I told you how I got to visit the Aldi Test Kitchen in Batavia, and how impressed I was with the quality of the food I tasted there.

So of course I next needed to shop at an actual Aldi, something I’ve never done before.

An aisle in Aldi. Photo by Tara Burghart.I gotta admit: I was a bit nervous. I knew I would have to bag my own groceries, and pay a nominal fee for bags if I didn’t bring enough of my own. I knew Aldi doesn't accept credit cards, so I brought my debit card. I knew that the food wasn’t arranged on shelves like I’m used to, and that much of it would be coming from the packaging boxes. And I just knew I’d mess up the grocery cart situation somehow.

OK. Those “fears” all seem really silly when I type them out.

So on a Tuesday night, I headed to the Aldi on State Street on the east side of Geneva. I got there shortly after 7 p.m. and grabbed a few quarters from my car.

But when I tried to put the quarter in the box to retrieve a grocery cart, it wouldn’t fit. I tried several times. What on earth was I doing wrong?

I had heard at the Test Kitchen event how veteran Aldi shoppers liked to help out newbies with me on the unique aspects of the store. So I asked a man coming out of the store for help with the cart. He wasn’t unfriendly, but I can’t say he was jumping for joy, either – especially once he pointed out that I was trying to cram a Susan B. Anthony dollar in the cart box. Ha! That’s funny, right? He didn’t seem to think so.

So I used one of the “other” quarters I’d brought from my car and headed inside. I was a bit discombobulated initially; I’m used to tackling the produce section first, but at Aldi I landed in a long aisle full of crackers, cookies, potato chips and specialty products from Germany. (Aldi’s origins are in Germany.)

But I quickly got my bearings and was definitely wowed by the low prices.  I found myself putting multiple boxes of snack crackers in my cart – they were so cheap! And with a preschooler, we eat a lot of cheddar crackers, triscuits, etc.

I didn’t have a grocery list. Since this was my first trip, it was more of a reconnaissance missions. But I did want to pick up items for at least several dinners.

I bought a few of the items I’d like so much at the Test Kitchen event, such as the pita chips and the hummus.  I was a sucker for the products from Germany, just because I love buying items that are unique from my normal humdrum grocery purchases. And because everything else seemed like such a good deal, I splurged on a $4.99 “haunted house” brownie kit that came with all sorts of decorations.

It cracked me up how much these looked like Cheerio's. Photo by Tara Burghart.I was pleased to see the milk was not only inexpensive but free of bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which we try to avoid as much as we can. It did not look like the other dairy products made the same claim, however.

I am a very sloooooow grocery shopper, agonizing over brand choices and sizes and vareities. So I liked how the limited selection and the store's smaller size made me zip along quite quickly. The aisles were nice and wide and the store bright and well maintained.

But about halfway through the store, I seriously thought I had somehow stumbled upon an Aldi with no produce section. Of course I just had not spotted it yet. When I did come across it, I was disappointed in the fruit and vegetable selection. There just wasn’t much of it, although everything that was there looked fine. And I picked up a bag of darling mini cucumbers – I’d never seen those before! I also picked up a couple bagged salads, one of them being the “spring mix” that had impressed me in the test kitchen, and a bag of clementines.

When I made it to the checkout counter, I was the 2nd to last person left in the store, which closed at 8 p.m. (I told you I’m a slow grocery shopper!) I thought I’d have a bit of a wait, but before I could really even full form that thought, it was my turn! The checkout staff is super fast, partly because Aldi puts UPC barcodes for scanning all over the packages, not just in one spot. Aldi doesn't offer coupons and you bag your own groceries at a counter at the front of the store, two other aspects that move things along quickly in the checkout line.

The woman working the checkout was so friendly, and she was very happy to hear it was my first time in Aldi and that I’d had a good experience.

My bill came to $93.30. Here’s what I bought:

  • Haunted House Brownie Kit: $4.99
  • Imported Zucchini Strudel: $4.99
  • 3 Small Bags of Peanuts : 39 cents each
  • Muesli Cereal: $2.89
  • Stuffed Tortelli: $1.99
  • Honey Nut Oats: $1.59
  • Tortilla Chips: $2.39
  • Clementines: $3.29
  • Papa’s Italian Beef: $4.49
  • Pretzel Dough: $2.19
  • Benita Frozen Fruit Bars: $2.89
  • Havarti Cheese: $2.99
  • Premium Salsa: $1.99
  • Cheese Wedges: 75 cents
  • Pork Boneless Chops: $5.04
  • Ridged Potato Chips: $1.29
  • Vegetable Chips: $1.69
  • Bananas: $1.15
  • Sour Cream: $1.29
  • Whip Cream Cheese: $1.59
  • Cheese Sharks: $1.49
  • Center Cut Bacon: $3.49
  • Priano Rissoto: $1.79 (2)
  • Whole Kernel Corn:  59 cents
  • Cream Corn: 59 cents
  • Hummus: $1.69
  • Woven Wheats: $1.29
  • Pita Bite Crackers: !.99
  • Saltines: 89 cents
  • Guacamole: $2.99
  • Corn Tortillas: 35 cents
  • Mini Cucumbers: $1.99
  • Lite String Spiral Chees: $3.29
  • Fresh Mozzarella: $1.99
  • Spring/Butter Salad Mix: $1.99
  • Italian/Caesar Salad Kit: $1.99
  • Large Eggs: $1.49
  • Bread Loaf: 89 cents

Looking at my receipt again for this story reminded me of my initial impression as I walked out of Aldi – that I had bought a lot of fun snack foods or foods for special treats, such as the Havarti cheese for myself. But I didn’t buy a lot for meals.

We really enjoyed the pork chops and ate the Italian beef for a quick dinner one night. The bacon was tasty and great with breakfast, and we’ll likely eat the pork schnitzel and zucchini strudel (which were frozen) soon for dinner and lunch, respectively.

But I usually buy high-quality cuts of meat and – when they are available and somewhat affordable – as much organic fruits and vegetables as possible. Those are two places where I didn’t feel Aldi met my needs.

However, I write that with one huge caveat that is personal to my experience: Here in my household, we still eat out (or get takeout) too often, a bad habit we are always striving to fix. So anytime I go to the grocery store and actually meal plan, I am saving us money. I’m telling you, I could probably do all my grocery shopping at Whole Foods (aka “Whole Paycheck,” as one of my friends aptly calls it) and still save us money on our food bills, compared to when we eat out or order in.

So for me, I can definitely see putting Aldi in the mix of grocery stores I visit, a list that currently also includes Meijer, Blue Goose, Jewel and Trader Joe’s. And it would be a place I would seek out when hosting a party or when were running low on those fun, healthy-ish snacks that you need around the house with a preschooler.

I’m certainly glad I visited both the Aldi Test Kitchen and an Aldi store – and next time, I will make sure to bring an actual quarter for the carts!

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.

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Reader Comments (9)

Great article as always. But I was surprised you didn't list Woodman's on your list of stops. Have you been there? It's huge so it takes a long time to shop but has great selection and friendly service. I have picky eaters and their Pumpkin Ravioli is one of my staple kid-dinners. :)

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMandy

Thanks, Mandy! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I have never shopped at Woodman's, although I've heard good things about it and have meant to try it out. It's just that I kinda hate grocery shopping and will come up with all sorts of excuses why to put it off, so it's best for me if the grocery store is close. I'm lucky to live within 10 minutes of at least five grocery stores, and Woodman's is about a 25-minute drive for me. But I will definitely have to try it out now!

Are you getting the picture that I'm not exactly Suzie Homemaker? :)

November 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterTara Burghart

oh of course! makes perfect sense. It is about 10-15 min for me in Sugar grove. Yes too far for you. But of course I would have to make the drive for that ravioli no matter how far it was *eyeroll* :)

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMandy

I love this article expecially since last week I went to Aldi for the first time in 10+ years. We have a brand new Aldi really close to my house. I find it funny that you were nervous about doing it "right" -- me too! I didn't even see where to get a cart, so I just went with what I could carry.
I went to Aldi for the whole pinapples advertised at just $.99. I left with celery, carrots, 2 pineapples, and 3 BEAUTIFUL pinkish purple orchids which were only $6 each! Needless to say my arms were full without a cart. I went back for more orchids for others, but they were understandably all gone.
I can't do our entire weekly shopping there, but I plan to return whenever their pinapple or red peppers are advertised for super cheap.
By the way, my orchid now has 15 blooms!

November 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaureen

I have a love/hate relationship with Woodmans.
It is way cheaper than our other grocery stores (well, maybe other than Aldi) and there is so much to choose from - including a large organic/healthy dry goods sections, endless varieties of hummus and pita chips, cheese from around the world, etc. On the down side, our Woodmans is huge, crowded, and has tile floors in the produce that make pushing a cart with a kid or two rather annoying. Now that my kids are old enough to not need pushed in the cart, Woodmans is our regular grocery store (unless I need deli meat in which case I go elsewhere.) To avoid crowds, I try to get there by 8:30am. (They open up a lot of checkout lanes at 9am.)
Free cart, they usually bag, but no credit cards. Debit cards are now allowed at ours.

November 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarta

I had to try out Aldi after our conversation about the test kitchen and bc I got a $5 off $25 purchase coupon in the mail. The last time I went to an Aldi was in college. So, its been a long time. I REALLY wanted Aldi to work out for me but it just didn't. The produce was reasonably priced as were the snack foods you described, but like you, I was not able to find enough products to make meals. The meat and chicken were the same price as at Meijer. I don't like that they only sell their brands as my children are not that open to new foods and don't even want to venture trying a different brand of macaroni & cheese or frozen chicken nuggets. We tried the bagels, donuts, and other bread products and unfortunately my 6 yr old can taste the difference. (so can I) The aisles are somewhat small making it more of a challenge when shopping with 3 kids. Also, bc of my 3 kids I need a one stop shop. So, sorry Aldi, I have to stick with the new SuperWalmart that just opened by my house or to my staple-Meijer.

I'm glad to say I at least tried the Aldi though.

Thanks for the review of Aldi. Your article about the test kitchen was great and very informative!

November 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

Yes, Aldi is lacking in the organics dept, but that why it's so cheap! This just makes me think about why we have such a problem with kids eating healthy - it's so much cheaper to feed them processed, not-so-great for you food. I have had good luck with Aldi's produce, and they have my favorite frozen skinny green beans. Would be interesting if Aldi would start including menus in their ads for a healthy meal with all ingredients available at Aldi.

November 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

I want to thank everyone who commented on the Aldi stories. Writing these -- and thinking about grocery shopping way more deeply than I ever have -- made me realize how *personal* grocery shopping is: How what matters to you might not matter to your neighbor, how your priority for your shopping experience (price, customer service, store size, selection, quality, etc.) might be totally different from that of your close friend. It's been really fascinating to read your comments and talk to readers about.

One thing we can agree on: That we're very lucky in the western suburbs of Chicago to have so many grocery stores to choose from!

November 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTara Burghart

After reading all the comments I had to help out aldi a little. I think if you are the type of shopper to head in with a meal plan in mind and pocket, you can totally find what you need for quite a few meals...healthy too. No the frozen section is not going to be very healthy...too much sodium and too little whole wheat. But Aldi carries whole wheat pasta, whole grain bread, a decent selection of produce(although not organic), a variety of low fat/skim cheese and dairy products and much more. I can make lasagna and other pasta dishes, homemade pizza, stuffed peppers, chili and many crockpot chicken/pork dishes. My biggest issue with Aldi is there is no deli counter. Obviously another reason their prices are low...so I do multi store shop, but I think I would regardless of Aldi/Jewel/meijer/trader joes...

Again, I think you just have to be specific with the meals you are looking to make in order to make Aldi work for you. On that note, Aldi is wonderful for parties, school snacks and food pantry donations.

November 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

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