Since 2016, I’ve hosted an annual holiday tour of the northeast Wichita Aldi. Inspired by friends who were intrigued by my Aldi raves but intimidated by its mysterious European customs, I set out to demystify my favorite grocery store. I chose early December for the tour because the winter holidays are the most wonderful time of the year at Aldi, when the aisles are stacked with delicious German treats of all kinds. At this point, I can take credit for adding a handful of folks to Aldi’s rabid fan base.
Part I: What To Expect
Shopping Carts: In order to use a shopping cart, you will need to unlock one with a quarter, which you’ll get back when you return it. Be prepared for a fellow shopper to offer you the cart they’ve finished using as you walk toward the store. In fact, you may want to have coin in hand when you exit your vehicle. Aldi etiquette dictates that you proffer your quarter when offered a cart, but don’t be surprised if you’re waved off, as many Aldi customers indulge in this small kindness.
Store Brands: Though Aldi carries some brand-name products, the vast majority of their offerings are store brands. They range from “basic” brands such as Clancy’s (shelf-stable meltable cheese, potato chips) and Bremmer’s (semi-unpalatable frozen dinners). Others connote a more premium offering, such as Specially Selected (tapenade, “artisanal” crackers). It is pretty easy to figure out the difference based on the product name and packaging. Basic brands aren’t subpar at all; rather, they’re more typical of a mass-market grocery-store offering. If you don’t use Velveeta, you’re unlikely to enjoy the Clancy’s version – but if you make crock-pot cheese dip every once in a while, you’ll find it an excellent substitute.
Seasonal Items: Aldi stocks “evergreen” products available year-round as well as a large number of seasonal items at certain times of year. Signage and placement will clue you in as to whether an item is seasonal. The east Wichita store clusters seasonal goods to the right of the entryway, in aisles 2B and 3A in the middle of the store, and on the endcaps around the registers. Before big shopping holidays and during the planting season, you’ll often find an island of seasonal items toward the front of the store, near the freezer case. If you enjoy something with a short shelf-life, you’d best stock up. My favorite pasta for baked macaroni and cheese is stocked biannually, so I snag four packages when I see them.
Bags and Bagging: Aldi resembles warehouse shopping clubs such as Sam’s or Costco in that bags are not provided and employees do not bag your groceries. Your options are to bring your own bags, purchase reusable or single-use bags at the checkout (single-use bags are under the conveyor belt), or snag a box. You may pick up a carton while you wander around the store, or sometimes they are stacked at the front near the door or accessible in a big bin. You may stow a box under your cart’s basket while you shop. After your transaction is complete, wheel your cart to the ledge opposite the registers and start bagging or packing your purchases.
Checkout: Aldi staffs its stores with a minimal crew, so you may find yourself in a relatively long line behind at least two carts groaning with groceries. Don’t despair! The checkout process is lightning quick. (“All our lanes are express lanes,” quipped an Aldi employee during the 2017 holiday tour). Once you’ve loaded your items onto the belt one-by-one, it’s best to get your cash, check, debit card, or major credit card ready. Trust me, you’ll need to act sooner than seems humanly possible. Cashiers are mostly friendly and polite, but they are not messing around. If you use a debit card, you may request up to $200 cash back (I call it the Bank of Aldi).
It is common practice (but not expected/required) to let someone carrying a handful of items cut in front of you if you’re buying a cartful of groceries.
Other Customers: A cross-section of humanity shops at Aldi. I frequently see out-of towners on their monthly shopping stock-up trips (including many traditionally dressed Mennonites). You might spot college students, people who work at shelters and other nonprofits that serve food, families paying with Vision cards, restaurant owners, and Real Housewives types stocking up on cocktail-party fare. I’ve heard a half-dozen languages spoken while shopping at Aldi.
My interactions with other Aldi shoppers have been almost exclusively positive. Sometimes it feels as though we’re all in on this huge secret that’s hiding in plain sight, or we’re a little high on the crazy-low prices. Or maybe it’s just me. I’m always surprised when I hear people dislike shopping at Aldi, because I genuinely love it—and I’m so happy to be able to share it with you. Thanks for joining me tonight!
Part II: Aldi Favorites
Don’t know where to start? Aldi excels in these categories:
House brands typically hail from über Belgian or German chocolatiers. Everyday options are comparable in cost to Hershey’s products but taste eight thousand times better. Salted caramel and coconut chocolate-covered almonds are favorites, and I could write an ode to the chocolate peanut butter cups.
Every Aldi cheese I’ve sampled has been of good value and quality, including the sliced and string varietals. But the pride of the cheese case is the specialty cheeses offered for a limited time. Aged cheddars are always a good bet, and I die for the holiday cheese selection. Hellooo, manchego!
We’re big fans of the peanuts, which are roasted without MSG, and also the almonds, cashews, and mixed nuts. If you like a little kick to your nuts (ahem), the chili lime cashews are tasty.
- Crackers & Cookies
Aldi stocks both name-brand analogs (Triscuit, Wheat Thins, and Cheez-It taste-alikes) as well as crisp and buttery varieties well suited to a cheese board. I’m not much of a cookie monster, but every Aldi cookie I’ve eaten has been solid.
Italian-made, bronze-cut pastas are in stock every day, along with basic noodles such as spaghetti and linguine, egg noodles, and organic and gluten-free options. Seasonally available pastas are worth a look, too.
- Frozen Food
The frozen foods section at Aldi has made my life so much easier. Freezer cases along the wall stock mostly regular products, and you’ll find the seasonal and limited-quantity offerings in a stand-alone case near the produce. Try the frozen pizzas, organic pasta meals, quinoa mixes, and ice cream.
- Cured Meats
I remember a time when I couldn’t find prosciutto anywhere in Wichita. Now I regularly purchase it from Aldi, along with other delicious cured meats. You’ll find Specialty Selected red- and white-wine salami in the snack area, bacon in the refrigerator near the dairy, and assorted sliced varieties in the deli case
Salad dressing, tapenades, relishes, sriracha … oops, I just drifted into a condi-reverie. Aldi comes through with all the basics, plus they are always adding new items and bringing back seasonal faves. Unsurprisingly for a German-owned concern, the mustards deserve a special shout-out.
I confess I usually buy locally roasted coffee or Cafe Du Monde, but Aldi’s coffee selection is worth a mention because it’s so solid and reasonably priced.
Worth exploring for the insanely cheap baguettes alone, Aldi offers a surprising number of standard and specialty breads. We like the sliced sourdough, ciabatta buns, and naan. The incredibly cheap sandwich bread is comparable to the not-as-cheap grocery-store sandwich bread. Some products (I’m looking at you, English muffins) are notch under the “premium” grocery- and specialty-store offerings in quality, but I continue to buy them due to the low, low prices.
- Home Goods
I truly cannot believe I am writing this even as I know good and well it’s perfectly true: Aldi stocks great, always-seasonal home goods. You can’t buy gardening implements in November, Christmas lights in July, or an ice-cream maker in January, but you’ll see these and other items rotating in and out over the course of the year. I’ve picked up cast-iron comals (yes, plural), knives, a buffet warmer, a spiralizer, and bath mats, among other random things.