Some folks get their thrills from garage-sale finds -- an original Fiestaware plate for $5, an original Elvis 8-track for 50 cents, that sort of thing. Other bargain lovers surf the Net for half-price closeouts and overstocks. Me, I hunt for cheap groceries at the crash-and-dent stores. That's what my mother-in-law called the places selling an ever-changing assortment of goods with damaged packaging. My best find to date was six large bottles of Newman's Balsamic Vinaigrette, the salad dressing of choice for garden greens at our house. Regular chain-store cost: $3.29 each. My low, low, price -- due to some label stains -- 79 cents. I couldn't wait to get home and show my wife what I'd scored.
But what's the story, you might well ask, behind the flotsam and jetsam of groceries? I asked Craig Gutchell, the 56-year-old manager of the seven-store Mr. G's empire. You might think the "G" in Mr. G's stands for Gutchell, but the reference is to Dave Gorham, the owner and founder who is still actively involved.
Gutchell presides over what he calls the "surplus and salvage" business from his office in Winooski at the former Grand Union -- the now defunct grocery chain in whose employ he spent 40 years, plying the trade of traditional retail food management.
Mr. G's has three other locations in Vermont -- Williston, Rutland and Windsor -- and three more in New Hampshire. The company has an arrangement with one of the nation's largest food wholesalers to purchase what are known as "reclaim" goods. At all times, two of Mr. G's tractor-trailers are parked at the wholesaler's site, so products deemed unsuitable for regular distribution can be loaded onto them.
Of course, they're not the only local outfit in the surplus business. Cheese Traders in South Burlington has long offered such bargains -- though they've come to focus on natural food items and, of course, cheese deals as well as wine. There are also discount food stores in Vergennes and Middlebury, to name just two. When it comes to sheer volume and variety of goods, though, Mr. G's tops 'em all. And unlike at Costco, where you can get great deals but must buy in quantity and have a membership, at a crash-and-dent the price is low even if you buy just one item.
There are basically four categories in the surplus and salvage supply stream. "Damaged goods" consist of dented cans, torn boxes and stained packaging. "Discontinued" means some marketing executive has issued a death sentence for that item. "Overstocks" are goods produced in excess of orders or sales, and "code" items are those whose "best if used by..." dates are either close to or just past the current date.
Since everything must look perfect in today's corporate food world, these misfits need an alternative home, which opens the door to operations like Mr. G's. The ongoing horsetrading carries a risk, of course -- a buyer for Mr. G's knows the cost for a lot of reclaim goods, but not what the return will be. They don't know what's in those semis before they pay for them. The lot may contain hot items or harbor a bunch of hidden duds.
Thirty or 40 years ago, each food manufacturer had its own field reps who would drive from supermarket to supermarket, talking to the store manager, rotating and taking back old and damaged stock, and providing promotional offers and signs. These tasks were eliminated with the advent of the "mega-mart," as it became less expensive to simply write off oddball items and find a cheap and easy means of disposal that didn't involve landfills.
It's also possible to buy off-price goodies direct. When a store goes out of business or into bankruptcy -- as the Grand Union did -- its stock is put up for bid to liquidators. Cast-offs inevitably result, as well, when a grocery store resets its shelves to reflect a different mix of products. A Vermont manufacturer like Maple Grove Farms may have an overstock or discontinued item, or a local beverage distributor might be stuck with, say, some New Age iced tea that hasn't sold well and needs to be moved. And sometimes, somebody in the food chain simply screws up.
That was the case this summer, when Gutchell took delivery of two semi-loads of marshmallows -- 48 pallets, each holding 24 cases, 24 bags per case. He never was able to find out why these puffy white sugar pillows were diverted from their intended home, but the price was right, so he took the whole kit and kaboodle. All summer long, Mr. G's sold three bags of marshmallows for a dollar. No doubt this resulted in an impressive increase in Vermonters' consumption of s'mores.
According to Gutchell, part of his staff's job is education -- assuring customers that the damaged products are safe. Dented cans are OK; cans that are bulging or "swelled," as they're known in the trade, are not, and therefore don't make it to the shelves. Cans that show any sign of leakage are also rejected. All the food items are inspected to make sure they are still sanitary, and that there's a difference between the code date stamped on the package and the actual shelf life of an item, which is always longer. There is a "no questions asked" return policy for everything.
Mr. G's makes donations to local food shelves and actively encourages folks with Electronic Benefits Transfer cards -- the technological equivalent of food stamps -- to shop at his establishment and make their dollars go further.
In addition to food items, Mr. G's will buy and sell other categories, such as health and beauty aids (a.k.a. HABA), hardware items or toys. On their shelves this week were lots of Barbie dolls at prices even your kids could afford with their allowance money, used Swiss-made snowboards at $49 each, and tons of plastic tarps.
The best part about shopping the crash-and-dent stores? Seeing the amazing diversity of products and prices. Some might work for your personal palate; others may leave you shaking your head. For example, most of us who went through college poor -- or spent our money on stuff we couldn't tell Mom and Dad about -- found the Asian noodles called ramen to be a dietary staple. Five packages for a dollar, occasionally eight for a dollar, would be a good deal. Right now, you can purchase 24 "shrimp flavored" ramen packets for a buck-99. How's that for freeing up some beer money?
Or perhaps your daughter is having a birthday party, inviting around 100 of her closest associates, and insists on Smurf cookies for all. Fear not. You can obtain a five-gallon bucket of blue-colored "But-R-Creme" frosting for less than the price of a new CD.
Three liters of olive oil in a dented can for $5.99, a case of 24 mac-and-cheese boxes for $4, and all the jars of turkey gravy you could possibly want at 79 cents a pop -- these are among the current bargains at Mr. G's. Unless, of course, they're gone by now. Bargains do have a way of disappearing fast, which is why you may want to do what I do: Stop by the "garage sale of food" before you go to the big, boring chain store. Call me crazy or call me cheap, but if you find any more bottles of Newman's Balsamic Vinaigrette... call me.