Do you know Aldi Foods, my yuppie friend?
They are basically Trader Joe’s for non-yuppies. We were on the West side for some reason a month or two ago near our local Aldi and Sarah mentioned that her deeply-broke painter friend Annie loves it, so we decided to give it a try. I was a bit weirded out by the whole experience but had to admit that it was very, very cheap. Later I read this article about it in the NY Times where I learned the whole fascinating Aldi saga.
The chain’s low-key style reflects its reclusive, elderly founders, the octogenarian German billionaires Theo and Karl Albrecht, who reportedly live on the island of Föhr in the North Sea, where they are said to collect typewriters, play golf and tend to orchids. In 1971, Theo was kidnapped for 17 days, and the brothers have kept a low profile ever since.
The brothers split the business in two in the early 1960s, after a disagreement over whether to sell cigarettes. There are now two companies, Aldi Nord and Aldi Sud, which owns the United States division. In 1979, Theo Albrecht bought the Trader Joe’s chain, which shares Aldi’s small-store format, its reliance on private-label brands and its reputation for value, albeit in a hipper and more upscale way.
So, it’s not that Aldi is like Trader Joe’s, it’s that Trader Joe’s is the latest incarnation/secondary rebranding of Aldi. Trader Joe’s is just Aldi with more attitude and better graphic design. To quote the Times again,
Its stores are small and spartan, with minimal décor and a limited selection of products. They are often found in nondescript shopping strips and lack the flashy signs and window displays of some competitors. Grocery carts cost a quarter apiece, which is refundable after the cart is returned….What makes Aldi so special is that, quite simply, its prices are cheaper than just about anyone else’s, including Wal-Mart’s.
We returned to Aldi this weekend, and I will testify that, yes, the prices are really low. Like, I am used to paying $3.50 or something at the organic co-op for a jar of raspberry jelly (the girls go through that stuff at a frightening rate as it is one of the 5 or so food types they will eat); maybe at Kroger’s I’d pay $2.79 for a larger jar. At Aldi it was $1.49 a jar. Now, I haven’t tried it yet, so maybe it’s crap [note: it turned out to be excellent], but the ingredients seem fine and the Times article reassured me that the food at Aldi was not there because it was lead-contaminated or anything like that, but instead because those typewriter-collecting octogenarian German billionaires drive a hard bargain, get bulk discounts and do not indulge in any frills like free shopping bags, free use of grocery carts, credit cards (debit only) or much shelving. Nope, they basically stick the crate of food on the floor with a little sign and let the thrifty customers do the rest.
Some of the items are a bit sketchy-seeming and you’re definitely not going to find organic food here — we didn’t buy any meat — but on the other hand, you do find some surprising little European items like those chewy candy Haribo raspberries (for 75 cents a bag or some such). There’s only one kind of most items and the corn flakes are not the brand you’re used to, but they are $1.15 a box.
Being a real cheapskate, I kind of dig the no-free-shopping-cart or shopping bags atmosphere, which almost feels East German or something. It’s almost perverse — how much money do they really save by making you shell out the quarter for use of the cart, which you get back if you return the cart properly? They need fewer employees, I guess, so it sort of makes sense.
I should buy some Aldi stock.
This post inaugurates a new category, btw: Livin’ in the Recession.