Cheapest food this side of the dumpster: Salvage grocery stores

What happens to that bag of cookies on the grocery shelf once it has passed the "best if eaten by date"? The cans of green beans that are dented in shipping? The cans of something from which the label has been torn? They may well end up in that little-known outlet, the salvage grocery store.

These stores buy up the groceries that the full-price retail chains would be too embarrassed to have on their shelves. The products are still edible (albeit perhaps stale), and sold at a steep discount. As you might expect, though, the selection can vary greatly. After all, who can predict just when the clod on the forklift in the grocery warehouse is going to drop a skid of pineapple juice off the dock?

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    Salvage groceries are items that get returned to warehouses for some reason -- dented cans, over-ordering, use-by dates are getting close or items that don't sell well. This "remainders" business is getting hot in our bad economy.

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    Blaming inflation and rising food and energy prices, the 99 Cents Only discount store announced it was bumping its top price to 99.99 cents -- or one-hundredth of a cent less than a dollar -- the first price increase in the chain's 26-year history.

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    As economic troubles keep diners at home, restaurants are starting to cut back on portion sizes and are using cheaper ingredients -- even high-end hot spots. In New York, restaurant owners admit to shrinking lobsters, subbing shiitake mushrooms for morels and offering discount appetizers.

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    To combat high food prices, many shoppers are turning to bulk purchases, which is driving up sales of stand-alone freezers. A new study shows that sales were up 7 percent in the first six months of the year.

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    Soaring prices for scrap metal may make demolition derbies a thing of the past. Owners who used to sell their worn-out wheels for $50 to $100 are turning to scrap dealers instead, getting nearly triple the price.

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In addition to 'best if eaten by' foods, salvage groceries also offer food that is approaching its expiration, or 'use by', date. While many consumers believe that these dates are mandated by government regulations, they are, in fact, simply manufacturer estimates based on their own best judgments. The exception is baby formula and baby foods, which the government does regulate. A safety-conscious consumer will avoid eating any food after its 'use by' or 'expiration' date.

The stores also snatch up bulk lots of slow-selling items from retail grocers who need the shelf space. I'm expecting a lot of peanut butter to hit the salvage grocery shelves in the near future, perfectly good batches left unsold to consumers frightened away from all brands of the stuff because of the salmonella scare blamed on a couple of minor brands.

Salvage grocery stores are scattered across the U.S., including small chains such as Amelia's, Sharpshopper and the So Low Grocery Outlet. Check Anderson's Country Market and Frugal Village for lists of locations.


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