Grocery Shopping At Costco
My friend Arthur is a passionate and superb home cook. He also has a very small Manhattan kitchen.
We had recently been swapping stories about classic Italian ragus and I was raving about one from The Southern Italian Table, by Arthur Schwartz, that uses big chunks of pork shoulder that are simply and slowly cooked in a pot of crushed canned tomatoes. After three hours the pork is silken and the sauce is complex. On the other hand, my friend was favoring a more sophisticated Bolognese ragu, one of the several offered up by Lynne Rossetto Kasper in her fabulous cookbook, The Splendid Table. This recipe, too, used pieces of pork shoulder.
So I shouldn't have been surprised when a few days later Arthur called me from a meat department with a question about pork shoulders. "How much shoulder do you need for the ragu?" he asked. Remembering the last one I had bought at a west side market, I said, "oh, about three or four pounds. Why?" There was silence for a moment before Arthur said, "This one weighs 16 pounds. " Pause. "But it's only $2.99 a pound."
And where was Arthur? In Costco.
Grocery Shopping In Costco
Costco does nothing small. The stores are huge. The shopping baskets oversized. The ceilings are soaring. Crowds of customers continuously swarm into the stores. The values and prices are audacious. The spaces vibrate with a constant energy of intensive consumption. And the typical packaging? If big is good, bigger is better.
At least in the New York stores, which are the only Costcos I've ever visited, grocery items dominate. The front of the stores may showcase flat screen TVs, phones and computers, eyeglass and hearing aids, mattresses and appliances, but most of the selling real estate goes to food.
But is it a place for city cooks to regularly go grocery shopping?
If you're not familiar with Costco, you must become a member to shop there. Annual membership is $55 a year, with a $110 option that gives you 2% cash back at the end of a year. Even though their prices are excellent, you first must make back that $55 before you start saving money.
The next challenge is that everything is sold super-sized. If the container itself isn't huge, the store gathers several together to make it so. It's not one can of tuna but four. Not one pound of boneless chicken thighs but nine pounds, sold in three-pound plastic pouches, which in turn are packaged together. Olive oil comes in two liter bottles. Mayonnaise in gallon jars. Twelve boxes of tissues. Two-packs of 67 oz. jars of tomato sauce. And so on.
So if your household is small. Or your storage is limited. Or you're buying an ingredient you use infrequently, the Costco approach may not work for you, despite the great prices.
Next, unlike at most grocery markets where it's safe to assume you can find everything on your shopping list, at Costco it's not so certain. On my last Costco trip to Manhattan's store on East 117th Street, I was looking for canned cannellini beans and I would have gladly bought a six-pack of 15 oz. cans. But they had no cannellini beans of any kind, in any quantity, in any size can. The fresh fish was limited to salmon and tilapia. The fresh produce was the smallest section of the store.
Next, the super-sized packing can be a risky temptation if only because the prices (per pound or per ounce) can provoke you to buy something that you otherwise would not. A HUGE 51-oz. box of Go Lean cereal at a fraction of what it costs at Food Emporium? Well, that's not really a bargain unless you eat Go Lean every day. Be cautious, too, before buying ingredients that can spoil, like olive oil, or condiments that will go bad before you get to the bottom of the jar.
Pass by the bargains that are really better suited to professional kitchens. Like the 6-pound, 15-oz. cans of Contadina tomato paste I saw for $3.99. Once opened, tomato paste -- an ingredient most of us use by the tablespoon -- won't keep, even if refrigerated, and on a cost-per-ounce-as-used basis, we're better off paying Fairway $.89 for a 6-oz. can (also a good price). To save you the math, there are 222 tablespoons in that Costco can, versus 12 in the conventional 6 oz. size.
Buying at Costco should get the same practical discipline as when you buy anything else on sale: unless it's an item you'd pay full price for, you shouldn't buy it on sale.
Making Costco A Helpful And Money-Saving Solution
But let's not rule Costco out as a valuable grocery store for city cooks. As food prices are rising, with more price spikes yet to come, we need every means to save our grocery dollars. With a few strategies, shopping at Costco can be a very smart choice.
- Begin by doing a surveillance trip to gauge if what Costco sells fits with how you cook. Doing this can be a little tricky because Costco's protocol is to only let customers with a Costco card get inside (they card you at the door). But if you can tag-along with someone with a card, you can check out the inventory to see if that $55 is a wise investment.
- Buy the stuff you use often that has a long shelf life. I may not have found cannellini beans on my last trip, but I did find excellent values on chickpeas, canned salmon, and soy milk for my husband's protein drinks. Plus toothpaste and dish detergent -- enough of both to last me a year!
- If you cook meat, fish and poultry, check your freezer for space before heading to Costco because you'll find outstanding prices for aged prime beef, wild salmon, and organic chicken. You can buy a side of salmon and once home, cut it into serving sizes and freeze it for three months, or buy a four-pack of strip steaks and freeze three of them. And if you love fresh osso buco (veal knuckle) but refuse to pay Citarella's $20 per pound, at Costco it's $6.99 per pound, sold four pieces to a pack.
- Shop with a friend and divide the spoils. This doesn't work easily for everything, although it is possible to decant a gallon of extra virgin olive oil into smaller bottles. But splitting up huge bags of rice, dried beans, pasta, or packs of canned goods and snack foods can let you get the best prices without having to buy twice as much as you need.
- Be flexible on brands. Unlike a conventional grocery store, Costco doesn't sell multiple brands for every product. While national names dominate, Costco also sells some items under their own house brand, Kirkland, which costs even less. I totally understand having favorites and certainly have my own, but you can be surprised to find out how many grocery items are all made in the same factory and then packaged with different labels. For some things you may find the brand really won't matter.
- For those of us who take transit instead of driving, remember to bring your own shopping bags. It's another way to save money and if you know the capacity of the bags you bring, it can help you gauge how much to buy. The Manhattan Costco on East 117th Street also has a taxi stand, which is good to know about when you buy more than can be carried on the bus or subway.
Customer Service and the 16-Pound Pork Shoulder
So returning to my friend Arthur and his 16-pound pork shoulder --
After I told him that my 3-pound shoulder, bought at a butcher shop, had cost $8.00 a pound, he bought the 16-pound piece and took it home with the plan to cut it into quarters and freeze what he didn't need for his ragu. But a look at the huge piece of meat and the space in his freezer sent him back to Costco to return the roast.
The safely chilled, unopened package with the 16-pound roast got returned for a full $48 refund. He then went to a neighborhood market and bought 3 pounds of pork shoulder having decided that value is best judged by what you need and not what you save.