The two celebrity chefs knew it was cheeky—to be standing in a hotel where the rooms could easily run over $500 a night, in the hippest hotel in the hippest neighborhood in Brooklyn, teaching a room full of foodies how to make an entree and a dessert from dollar-store ingredients.
Though they now top the New York food elite, Milk Bar chef Christina Tosi and Mission Chinese Food chef and co-founder Danny Bowien have become fans of dollar-store cooking for fun, and at a Taste Talks event with Bowien at the Wythe Hotel last October, Tosi demonstrated a recipe that’s now in her recently released cookbook, Milk Bar Life—an Ice Box Cake recipe with dollar-store Ritz crackers, grape jelly, and Cool Whip.
Unfortunately, dollar store and discount store cooking is not necessarily a fun choice, but a daily reality for so many Americans. Slate and Forbes have reported that many Walmart employees find themselves subscribing to SNAP, our national food stamp program, because of their low Walmart wages. These Walmart workers then return to the very same shelves they may have stocked hours earlier to purchase cheap, packaged groceries with their food stamps.
Post-recession, everyone from underemployed 20-something college grads to baby boomers are heading to the local dollar store for groceries. Business Insider reported in February that both the young and elderly are increasingly turning to dollar stores for dinner, especially because there are often single-serving packets of items such as Velveeta sauce. Packaged food sales were a dud in grocery stores because of Michael Pollan-ed consumers turning more healthful, fresh food choices, but “in other types of stores, such as dollar, drug and club, sales are growing faster than grocery store sales, prompting companies to expand distribution.” Business Insider reports that such dollar stores prospered during the recession and continue to do so.
When it comes to stores, there are several differentiations. There are the one-off dollar stores that are not chains (in New York City, these are often operated by Chinese families and many things truly are a dollar), the regional and national chain dollar stores like Jack’s 99 Cent Store, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and Dollar General (are more deep discount than dollar-everything), and then mid-level discount supermarkets and big box chain stores like Walmart, Aldi, Meijer, Roses and Target (which usually sell groceries at prices lower than typical market value, but these prices fluctuate greatly percentage-wise).
Though we could look at an increase in American dollar store shopping as just plain bad health, it’s also possible the dollar store may also offer some creatively delicious (and even healthy) options. Items such as ramen noodles can be repurposed and used in fun new ways, from a DIY ramen burger to a noodle salad tossed with olive oil and fresh herbs and tomatoes from the local fruit market. Day-old high-fiber breads may sometimes be available, and oatmeal, peanut butter and beans are often available. Hummus can be made from dried or canned chickpeas. Dollar stores also increasingly offer organic packaged options such as tomato sauce and granola bars.
Shoppers can increasingly find gluten-free and sugar-free options at dollar stores, and some stores offer frozen vegetables, which are often frozen at the optimal harvesting moment and can be steamed or used in soups. Other dollar stores offer frozen or refrigerated meat, seafood and cheese. For a person who can’t afford a $10 steak at the regular grocery store, a $5 frozen pack of four decent-quality beef, chicken or veggie burger patties can be a boon to the wallet and the diet.
Dollar stores aren’t just unsold leftovers anymore. Now companies such as General Mills are packaging single serving sizes specifically for their consumers at dollar stores, and Dollar Tree stores in the Northeast have begun carrying a line of vegetarian frozen foods called Chef Ernesto—veggie burgers, vegetable samosas, and battered mushrooms that retail for, yes, only one dollar. Companies marketing specifically to the dollar-store shopper means targeted goods like single serving sizes for the cash-strapped single shopper who lives alone, including students and senior citizens. This might mean even less waste and rotting leftovers in the fridge for the single shopper.
However, there is criticism that the dollar store formula preys upon the shopper who can’t afford a large package of food at one time, since the per unit cost may be more cost effective when purchasing in bulk, Sam’s or BJ’s style. Size matters when it comes to grocery purchases, but if a shopper can’t finish a large portion size, he or she might waste it. Also, might there be a hidden, uncalculated long-term health cost to eating higher-calorie, preservative-laden foods from dollar stores?
When I was a child, I was so embarrassed every time our car pulled up to the Aldi, a discount grocery store that I perceived as lesser than … well, everything. Aldi has since become known for nicer, more bourgeois items, but it was not gourmet when I was a kid, and I was embarrassed that we didn’t have money and that my mother zestily bargain hunted and double- and triple-couponed. What I didn’t realize at the time was that she was a survivor—we didn’t have Whole Foods money, and this was our means of survival. She did an amazing job on the budget we had, often cobbling together 100 percent whole-wheat bread and huge bags of rice from Aldi with the lowest-priced fresh fish from the fishmonger and fresh vegetables and fruit from the Korean store. Little did I know or think that the mortifying dollar-store grocery shopping of my youth would ever become the source of a fashionable demonstration by world-renowned chefs in 2014!
Like mother, like daughter. Now I am an avid dollar store shopper, and among the gems I have found are Paul Newman tomato sauce, organic frozen vegetables such as edamame (and there always seem to be plentiful bags of okra—I don’t know if that’s because New York has so many West Indian immigrants), and frozen gluten-free pizza (and ahem … those fake creme cookies that twist off like Oreos…and perhaps some Archway oatmeal cookies from time to time). I’m lucky to live in a city like New York, where I have a huge variety of dollar stores, from Jack’s 99-cent store in Manhattan to Family Dollar in Bushwick. I check all expiration dates and will usually budge a couple days on an expiration date. Like this New York Times writer who favors my dollar store primary partner, Jack’s 99 Cent Store, nothing has ever made me sick.
Beyond the food favorites like the aforementioned “creme” twist-off cookies, I relish being in a small, independent New York City dollar store. I love the feeling of possibility when I step over the threshold into this Chinese world—that almost anything in this clean, colorful, bustling space could be mine, for a song. Little treasures are to be found everywhere, from the humorous faux rhinestones that advertise, in broken English, their ability to liven up the outside of your trash can, to huge, flamboyant plastic lily pad flowers that formed the basis of my Halloween costume. On days when I can’t afford a manicure, I can always afford a bottle of supersparkly nail polish that shines with gold. I buy my hardware needs at the dollar store instead of at the hardware store, since they are so much cheaper, and usually the extension cords and lightbulbs work. Hey, at least the nails, hammers and gift wrap always work!
I also enjoy the shoppers at dollar stores. Don’t get me wrong—there are sometimes more difficult or irregular varietals of shoppers at dollar stores than regularly-priced grocery stores, but there are also more interactions in my experience. That can be a plus or a minus depending upon what you want from your shopping experience. I’ve had surprisingly interesting or friendly conversations with West Indian grandmas who need help reaching the top shelf or 20-something gals picking an ELF makeup product. I don’t ever have these conversations at my regular Key Foods, Associated or Whole Foods, where a sterile middle-class to upper-class environment pervades.
If I’m going on a more serious food sweep, I head to a larger discount store like DII, Jack’s, Deals or Family Dollar. Jack’s in three floors of pure discount bliss. The ground floor is a thronging organism of madness, with after-work shoppers flooding into every available nook and cranny to pluck out frozen broccoli and entrees, gluten-free bread, organic fruit snacks, and seemingly every chip imaginable. Jack’s has an amazing collection of gourmet chocolate and cookies on its third floor, and was the source of my entire Christmas gifting process one year (wine decanter for 10 bucks? Dutch cookies in that cute blue tin for two dollars? Yes please!).
Family Dollar in Bushwick is much of the same on a smaller scale—various packaged snacks as well as basic stock items like bread, canned vegetables and juices. Because I’m stubborn, I resent paying five to seven dollars for the same juice at a regular grocery store. Both orange juices are pasteurized and packaged in Florida, so it’s not a difference of China versus America in this specific case (many dollar store shoppers will caution you to avoid Chinese products as much as possible). I am somewhat wary of Chinese-made products, since I’m not sure I want my frozen fish from so far away, and there was the 2007 melamine pet food recall that killed as many as 3,600 pets.
Nonetheless, I love the entire dollar store experience, and the long receipt in the double digits that I get when shopping at a discount store. I have this fantasy that one of these days I’ll look up and run into Christina Tosi at Jack’s 99-Cent Store. She’ll ask what I’m making, and I’ll show her the Ritz crackers and strawberry marshmallows I have for her Ice Box Cake.
Dakota Kim is a food writer, gardener, mushroom hunter and burlesque producer living in Brooklyn. She likes to brew strange Korean medicinal teas and bake vegan desserts. She is currently working on a cookbook featuring burlesque performers called Bombshell Baker. Tweet her at @dakotakim1.