I've had to tweak my grocery spending just a little, to reduce our grocery bill, with our new income. I've slightly changed my thinking on how I stock our pantry. I am now approaching this task as if I were stocking an institutional kitchen.
I already buy the bulk of my grocery basics at a wholesaler that caters to restaurants and institutional kitchens. But wanting to save BIG on groceries, then shopping like a restaurant on some items, seems to be the way to go. Restaurants don't buy teeny tiny boxes or cans. So, for a few of my items, neither will I.
I first read about shopping at a cash and carry restaurant supply in the mid-90s, in the Tightwad Gazette. I searched around our area, looking for a cash and carry wholesaler and I found 3. Costco Business, Sysco Foods and United Cash and Carry. (You may be familiar with Smart and Final. It's a well-known, national chain of cash and carry.)
United Cash and Carry was my choice, as I it's close to home and doesn't require membership. Back in the day (18 years ago), they were strictly cash and carry, no credit, no personal checks. Today, our local store takes credit, debit, cash and business checks.
Many of the packages are black and white, no enticing colorful images. No product placement of name brands at eye level, and off-brands up high or down low. Nothing, really, to lure you into buying something just on impulse. And certainly not much that a toddler in tow with me, would have whined for.
Some of the same big names that you find in mainstream grocery stores are also found at restaurant supplies. For example, the oats I buy (in a 25 pound, plain paper sack), are Bob's Red Mill. They carry Hunt's tomato products in #10 cans (those cans that hold almost a gallon). I buy Darigold Butter in 30 pound cases. For greatest savings, I often choose one of their house brands, First Street and Simply Value.
What you won't find at an institutional cash and carry is an entire aisle, dedicated to colorful boxes of cold cereal, or chips and crackers, or cookies. They do have those items, but they take up very little of the warehouse foot print.
There is no Starbucks in the store, nor sample ladies (although, I have seen vendors with samples on two occasions).
While they welcome any one with cash in hand (and they take credit), their primary customer is a small restaurant owner/chef, or, someone planning a large event for their social or work group, or, a small cafeteria cook. Very few "soccer moms" shop here.
There is no unit pricing on the shelf, so I always bring a calculator. I have a good memory for regular store product prices and standard sizes, so I can make my comparisons in my head. Someday, when I can no longer remember product prices, I'll likely bring a price book, for the items I buy there.
So, how do the prices stack up?
I'll give you what I paid in common unit pricing, at the cash and carry, and compare it to what I would have paid, if I bought in smaller quantities.
Vegetable oil: My normal is to buy 1 gallon at a time. This month, I bought a 35-pound container of vegetable oil. It was $24.17. I used my empty, 1-gallon oil jug, and refilled it with oil from this new container. This requires a steady arm, funnel and 4-cup measuring container with a sharp pour spout. I poured the oil from the 35-pound container into the 4-cup measuring cup. Then poured that into the gallon container. I also keep a small bottle of this oil on the kitchen counter, for quickly adding oil to food prep. I've once before bought a 35-lb container of vegetable oil. The oil kept just fine, but it was a hassle to manipulate the large box/jug.
A 35-pound box is equal to 4.37 gallons. At $24.17, my purchase came out to $5.53 per gallon. The price on vegetable oil in a 1-gallon container was $8.27. I saved $2.74 per gallon, or $11.96 on the 35-pound container. This size is a 6-7 month supply for us. If this sounds like we go through a lot of oil, consider that we cook and bake almost everything from scratch. I use vegetable oil in baking, cooking, frying, salad dressings, bath oil, furniture polish, and hot-oil hair treatments. And I've been considering making soap, using some of the vegetable oil in that process.
the spout drips, so until I can get all of this into 1-gallon containers,
I've pulled a plastic bag onto the bottom of the box
It's important to know that oil can go rancid. Most vegetable oils have a shelf life of between 6 and 12 months. Cool storage is imperative to get the longest life from oils (below 72 degrees F. 55 degrees F is considered ideal for oil storage). Our pantry is quite cool from mid-September through April (about 66 degrees F). But still, I'll be storing most of this in the fridge, in well-rinsed 1-gallon vinegar jugs. Refrigeration can retard spoilage of many types of oils.
Storing oil in a dark location will prolong the life of oils. Fortunately, this oil came packed in a cardboard box that is usable as its storage container.
The type of oil matters as to how long it will keep, as well. I bought soybean oil. Soybean oil is one of the slower-to-spoil oils, not the slowest, but slower than many. Canola and corn oil (two other very common vegetable oils), spoil more rapidly than soybean.
Canned tomato paste: My normal is to buy 1 #10 can at a time. A #10 can of tomato paste is 6lbs 15oz, or the equivalent of 18 & 1/2 small 6-ounce cans of tomato paste. Buying 1 of these #10 cans, at the regular price of $4.99, is like paying 27 cents per 6-oz can, which in itself is a very good price for tomato paste, in my area.
These #10 cans are also sold in cases of 6, for $26.65, which works out to $4.44 per #10 can, for a savings of 55 cents per #10 can. This brings the cost per 6-oz use, to 24 cents. The case of 6 #10 cans is about an 8 month supply for us. I use tomato paste in pasta/pizza sauce, homemade tomato soup, added to other soups and beef stew, Tex-Mex dishes, and now in our own homemade ketchup.
On this purchase, I saved $3.29 buying the case, over buying 1 large can at a time (my usual).
Long grain brown rice: My normal is to buy one 25-pound sack at a time, at about $12.79. Not a bad per pound price at 51 cents/pound.
We actually do eat a lot of rice in our house. It's the one grain that I can count on being able to eat, with my food issues. I grind it into flour for some of my non-wheat baking. I use it to make homemade rice milk (for my dairy intolerance) for cooking with. And we have rice with meals about 3 times per week.
So, this month, I went ahead and bought the 50-pound sack. I've only bought this size one other time, and it lasted about 9-10 months. This much grain needs to be cycled through a 24-hour freezing, in 1-gallon plastic containers, to insure no pests have hitch-hiked.
The 50-lb sack was $22.78, or 46 cents per pound. I saved $2.80 by buying the 50-lb sack, instead of the 25-lb sack.
White vinegar: My normal is to buy 1 gallon of white vinegar at a time, at $3.37/gallon. I use white vinegar for cleaning, hair rinse, cooking, pickling, salsa making, homemade ketchup and teriyaki sauce, salad dressings and as a cheap substitute for the acid part of quick bread leavening agents.
I go through 1 gallon every 2-4 months, depending on whether or not it's pickling, seasoned vinegar or salsa-making season. This month, I decided to buy the 4-gallon case, at $11.29. This works out to $2.82 per gallon, or a savings of about $2.19 for the case, over buying just 1 gallon at a time.
Yellow onions: For most of the year, my normal is to buy a 25-pound sack of onions. Late summer I usually buy a 50-lb sack, as I use quite a few in pickling and making salsa. 50 pounds will last us through Christmas. I keep most of them in the fridge. (See why I need that spare fridge in the garage?) I triage the onions when I get them home from the wholesaler, picking out the ones that need using or freezing immediately. The rest go into the drawers in the fridge. A 50-lb sack of onions in late summer sells for $8.95 at the cash and carry, or 18 cents per pound. I love onions. A favorite side dish is grilled onions with a pinch of salt and dab of butter.
upside down -- too heavy to right side up the bag just for the photo
I also bought a 25-lb sack of lentils ($12.89), a 50-lb sack of whole wheat flour ($19.18), and a 50-lb sack of granulated sugar ($19.25). But these are normal sizes for us, so no new savings here.
You may be interested to know, pinto beans are generally the least expensive dried beans for us, around $18 or so for a 50-lb sack. Green lentils and green split peas follow at around $12-13 for a 25-lb sack. So, these are the beans we consume in greatest quantity. I like to have one other type of bean, just for variety. Sometimes it's black beans, sometimes garbanzos, sometimes small white beans. I rotate between those, but they are priced around $20 for 25 pounds.
While at the wholesaler, I priced cocoa powder in the 5-lb bag (a size I used to buy). But Trader Joe's cocoa powder, at $2.49 for 9-ounce container is still a better price per pound than the cash and carry's 5-pound bag. And popcorn, in the 12.5 pound bags were about 79 cents per pound, at the cash and carry. Although we've been out of popcorn for a while, and it is a good, inexpensive snack food, I passed this month. 79 cents per pound is too high for my price point on grains (around 50 cents per pound). I knew I would find it on sale at a local grocery store this fall (common sale time for popcorn in our area). And I did. Yesterday I found it for 55 cents per pound in a 32-ounce bag at a nearby grocery store. I bought several bags.
This month, shopping with the idea of buying institutional sizes, I saved $20.24 over what I would normally spend with my usual stock-up method (based only on how I changed my shopping, meaning my savings on the first 4 items on this list). That savings right there, is half of what I need to shave, to make my grocery budget reduction of $40/month. Woo hoo!!
My husband and I won't always be able to go through these large quantities. There will come an empty nest time for us, too. At that point, I see two scenarios. One, my kids continue to come home and shop mom's pantry. Or two, I find a few friends who want to form an informal co-op with us, and we can cost-share these large sizes.
Shopping in these large sizes is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Many people don't have the storage space, or couldn't use it all before it went bad. Some people just don't like to have all that much on hand at any one time. I understand that. Maybe you just found some entertainment value reading this. or maybe you're cheering me on, in my pursuit to reduce our spending. For whatever reason, I hope you enjoyed my shopping ramblings, today!