When the pandemic first hit, we quickly watched various staples become hard to purchase, including — as plenty of memes gleefully remind us — toilet paper. Though less attention grabbing, meat, milk and other essentials also became harder to find and that pushed me to rediscover an old friend: Aldi.
The privately held German grocer — or, properly speaking “grocers,” since the two founding brothers split the world and serve different countries in closely associated but independent companies — was long known for its no-frills stores and low priced store brands.
Many people I’ve known speak of it disdainfully as merely “cheap.” However, those who actually patronize Aldi know its deep discounter façade hides something intriguing.
I’ve long found many of the Aldi store brands to be better than the name brands they knock off. Throw in wonderful internationally imported foods priced insanely affordably and a “double guarantee” (money back and replacement) if there’s a problem and Aldi isn’t just “cheap.” It’s good.
I knew all that decades ago, but over time, so did more and more people. At some point, I started avoiding Aldi, not because I disliked their products, but because the store near me would be almost impossibly crowded, built for an era when only the bargain hunters and those of us in the secret Aldi cult shopped there. Long lines, even with their famously fast cashiers added to the unpleasantness after dodging people and carts to try to get whatever I was shopping for.
It took a pandemic to remind me of what I was missing. The shortages of the early COVID period brought me back as my local traditional grocers struggled and Aldi seemed to have a relative abundance of core staples. (Along with the added flourish that they had plenty of pleasant things beyond the staples throughout 2020 as well.)
Another funny thing happened in the midst of the pandemic and it has helped keep me in my Aldi mindset, namely, I discovered the joy of Instacart. I knew about it and had played with it previously, but in trying to reduce my activities in crowds during those early months, I came to see another handy aspect of it: Instacart made Aldi all the more accessible.
While the vast majority of what I need at the store is available at Aldi, not everything is. And that often diverted me from a trip to my local Aldi. Given a busy schedule, it was all too tempting to just go to Schnucks, St. Louis’s locally based, regional chain, since I could get everything in one stop. Wading through the Aldi crowds and still needing to go to another store often was just too much on a busy week.
Here’s my “Aldi pro-tip:” Instacart Express has changed that for me. It is no more trouble to go to two stores than one when using Instacart. And so two years since “flatten the curve,” my initial multi-store ordering pattern that was meant to get the missing staples from wherever I could find them has turned into my normal shopping habit. With how much cheaper Aldi often is, it easily pays for the cost of Instacart and then some.
The joy of all of this is that Aldi not only has really cheap prices and good substitutes for name brands, but those great “Aldi Find” special buys each week. Nearly every week, Aldi’s specials will have a theme — say, Mexican week or Lenten fish fries — and have various special items from fresh meats to prepared meals to fit. Feeling in a meal planning rut? Aldi will help. And that’s not even touching their seasonal decor, electronics and other various interesting items that show up in the same weekly specials section.
I can splurge and get some macaroons imported from France or a stick vacuum cleaner (not kidding) and still come out cheaper than shopping the usual grocery store for just staples.
If it sounds like I could do an infomercial for Aldi, I probably could. A tech reviewer reviewing a grocery store seems… odd. But, In this case, it is a most delicious odd.
After I finish this column, in fact, I’m going to have a slice of pie. Today’s Aldi excursion brought in several pies (most of which I will have the willpower to freeze), including a strawberry rhubarb and a Dutch apple. Obviously other grocery stores have bakeries, but they rarely rival the taste of Aldi and I never see a whole pie elsewhere for $4.99.
So, uh, excuse me… anyway I slice it, it is going to be delicious.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.
You need to be logged in if you wish to comment on this article. Sign in or sign up here.
Start the Conversation