ASHEVILLE, NC — In a world where a jar of peanut butter costs a dollar more than last year and the price of a gallon of conventional milk rises to $6 in some cities, paying $1.49 for a family box of crispy rice cereal can be a seem like a good idea, even if it’s August and the grain is dyed red and green for Christmas.
An appointment is made at the salvage shop.
With supermarket prices up 13.1 percent from a year ago, according to the Consumer Price Index for July, a new batch of shoppers have discovered the joys and pitfalls of shopping at salvage stores, where a crushed box is never a problem, packaging dates are mere suggestions and questionable marketing attempts (hostess SnoBall coffee pods?) fail.
The stores, which trade in what mainstream food retailers call “unsaleable” products, operate in a gray zone between food banks and major discount chains such as German import Aldi or Dollar General, which has grown to more than 18,000 stores.
With names like Sharp Shopper, the Dented Can, and Stretch-a-Buck, salvage stores have long been a savior for families on tight food budgets and naturally frugal people. Adventurous shoppers looking for bargains use them for culinary quests. Now the inflation weary are joining their ranks.
Maggie Kilpatrick, a celiac food blogger and cooking teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, first visited a salvage store in June after the cost of her favorite gluten-free products skyrocketed. Someone in a gluten-free Facebook group mentioned a salvage store about 20 miles away.
“I was shocked,” she said. “There were a lot of high-quality, gluten-free, organic things you never thought you’d find in this little shop in Fridley, Minn.”
A pack of two baguettes from a company she loves usually sells for about $6.99. She picked up three packages for $5. Vegan butter was $1.99, about $5 less than she would pay at Whole Foods Market.
“I can see people getting addicted to it,” she said.
Many of the stores are small and some don’t use cash register scanners or credit cards, so getting a complete picture of sales nationwide is a challenge. An analysis of 405,101 receipts consumers submitted to the consumer rewards app Fetch found that the number of households shopping at salvage stores in the first half of this year was more than 8 percent higher than a year earlier.
The manager of Dickies, a small North Carolina chain, said sales were up 36 percent from last summer. Other store managers reported double-digit increases. “I’ve seen some people come in who haven’t been here before,” said Nicholas Duke, 27, who is in charge of what, until recently, is the price right in this tourist-friendly town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. .
The owners recently rebranded the store as Uplifting Deals. It’s part of a rebranding plan that they hope will attract new buyers, including those who have once turned their noses up at places that sell tubes of frozen hamburger for $2 a pound, fading lemons and a jumble of items, from canned tomatoes. up to 99 cents bottles of celebrity chef marinade.
“We’re trying to clean it up and show people that it can be a real shopping experience,” said Mr. Duke.
In another twist, rescue food stores are attracting environmentally conscious consumers to do what they can to reduce the $161 billion worth of food that the Department of Agriculture estimates is dumped in landfills every year.
That’s why Lynne Ziobro started the Buy Salvage Food website two years ago. She maintains a nationwide map of food stores and offers advice on ways to reduce food waste.
“Most people who visit my site are looking for ways to save money on groceries, and I hope I can make them aware of food waste while there,” she said.
The idea came to her after she became frustrated when she helped a friend find a store to sell his flavored nuts, which Amazon pulled from its platform as the expiration date approached. Visits to her site, she said, have more than tripled since last year and now hover around 11,000 a month.
A handful of new waste-conscious companies have adopted the salvage store concept online, offering bargains on meat and dairy products, stock overruns and farmers’ food that would otherwise be thrown away.
“I think the food waste warrior mindset has gone hand in hand with the value seekers,” said Abhi Ramesh, who founded home delivery company Misfits Market in 2018. The company is growing rapidly and has shipped more than 14 million. orders since it started.
Salvage shopping has even spawned a small subgenre on social media, where people record their trips to the stores and display their catches like trophies piled on the counter. In March, a TikTok video went viral sending hundreds of people to an unprepared Oklahoma City store, where they cleared the shelves. Shortly afterwards, the store closed.
One fan of the store was Tahn Tran, 53, a waste-conscious cook who has invested deeply in food politics and locally grown foods. “I have no problem eating things after the due date,” she said. ‘I’m not a germophobe. I just use my sense of smell.”
As any savvy salvage shopper knows, dates on food packages usually don’t say much. Whether they’re ‘selling out’, ‘best before’ or ‘expires on’, they are intended to help stores and manufacturers manage inventory and let consumers know when a product is top quality.
The federal government does not require or regulate food dates except for infant formula. Most states have rules about food dates, but they vary widely.
Last year, Congress began considering a unified national rule that would use just two sentences: “Best if used by” to indicate quality and “use until” to indicate when a food may become unsafe to eat. Refed, a food waste research organization, said a universal standard would end the confusion that drives people to throw away $29 billion worth of safe, edible food each year.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with salvaged food or anything that’s expired,” says Sarah Kaplan, 29, who runs the four Dickies salvage food stores in Asheville. “I’ve been raised with it all my life and I’m not dead.”
Salvage shopping veterans suggest newbies get to know the store and its staff, who can point out the real bargains.
Trust yourself and not labels, they say. Find out which days merchandise will be delivered to the store and come early for the best selection. And make sure you choose a good store. They range from chains whose stores would be at home in affluent suburbs to homemade markets with cluttered shelves and softening vegetables.
“I’ve told many of my friends and colleagues, ‘You have to be willing to sort the things that aren’t right to find what it is,'” said Molly Nicholie, the executive director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, based in Asheville. .
Mrs. Nicholie recently loaded $100 worth of groceries into her Prius. Her three boys can go through a bag of muesli and a gallon of milk a day, she said, “so either I spend $5 on a bag of muesli at the regular grocery store or 98 cents here.”
With the money she saves, she buys pasture-raised meat and fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets.
Although she appreciates the savings, Mrs. Nicholie enjoys the hunt. On her most recent trip, she found a pound of European-style foil-wrapped butter for $2.50. The shipping box, which held 36 pounds, was torn open and a wrapper was torn, so the distributor sold the entire box to a food salvage company.
Food brokers can be as small as a few ambitious people with a truck and some connections in a restaurant distribution warehouse. Others are advanced operations that work directly with food giants such as Hormel or Mondelez.
Food manufacturers have to unload huge amounts of extra inventory because they reformulated a product or changed the packaging. Sometimes sales forecasts have changed. Manufacturers sell to stores or brokers who agree to keep the food out of the retail mainstream so that the pricing strategy and brand image don’t suffer.
Some salvage store owners have direct relationships with supermarket chains who have to clear out foods they haven’t discounted or are approaching expiration dates. Some owners buy bread directly from the person driving a local delivery route.
It is an unpredictable system whose currency is reputation, connections and crowds. And it has its share of bad actors.
“I knew people who would wipe dates off mayonnaise,” said David Fox, president of Java Holdings, a food and merchandise curator in Los Angeles. He started 31 years ago at a company that sold dented cans of vegetables from canneries in Northern California that were hit by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Now his company has 11 employees, several distribution centers and the ability to repackage and relabel surplus goods to hide the names of national brands. When the pandemic halted travel and left cruise ships and airlines with tons of frozen meals and barrels of orange juice, he found buyers. When PepsiCo discontinued the Aunt Jemima brand in 2021 due to its racist undertones, it liquidated 50 truckloads of syrup and pancake mix.
“I’m addicted,” he said. “My best friend calls it a casino.”
Salvage shops and food banks don’t compete for surplus food, he said. The government sets a maximum amount of food a company can donate for tax purposes. Food banks turn to salvage brokers when they need to buy specific items, such as canned tuna or pinto beans, to round out what they give to families.
Some salvage store owners, especially in rural communities, see their stores as extensions of food banks and view their work as a religious mission.
Hunter’s Salvage Grocery, near the Tennessee border in Trenton, Georgia, is one of them. Stephanie Hunter, 47, runs the 4,000-square-foot store in a small shopping center. Customers switch between her store and the Dollar General next door.
She has many clients who struggled to feed their families before inflation drove up food prices. It’s worse for them now, she said.
She prices her food as low as she can, although inflation is also hitting the discount food market. At Hunter’s, cans of tomatoes are six for a dollar. A loaf of bread costs $1. Last month, she decided to offer a five-to-one infant formula special to a father who was close to tears because he couldn’t afford more than one bottle.
Mrs. Hunter orders food from a broker who assembles pallets of banana boxes filled with similar products, labeled “drinks” or “groceries.” But she never knows what she’s going to get.
She unwraps every order with the hope of a birthday girl. Sometimes the boxes contain nothing but disappointment.
“We get some things and you think, ‘It’s no wonder we have this because it’s disgusting,'” she said. “Sometimes it’s really good, but something where someone clearly jumped on that trend train late.”
And then there are those days when she goes down, like a shipment of coffee in K-cups, which go fast, or a case of Velveeta cheese, which she sells for $5 a block.
“That,” she said, “is pure gold.”