My dear, departed mom was a housewife in the ’60s and ’70s. In addition to being enamored of all sorts of convenience foods (such as skillet-dinner-in-a-box and instant mashed potatoes), she was a starry-eyed brand-name-foods aficionada.
A devotee of Del Monte, a fan of Frito-Lay, she fed us what she thought was only the finest, even though our grocery budget was by no means limitless. I don’t remember ever having off-brand sodas or staples in the house. Mom made up for the price difference through diligent coupon-clipping and store-hopping.
It wasn’t until I was in college (and poorer than I ever let on to Mom) that I even considered buying Big K Cola instead of Pepsi, or Ocean’s Best tuna instead of Chicken of the Sea. Even then, my epiphany happened only because I was prompted by a friend while shopping. Dubiously, I bought a store-brand tomato soup instead of Campbell’s. I figured it would be bland and need a lot of tinkering to make it edible. I half-expected I’d end up tipping it into the sink, watching with dismay as the discarded soup mockingly formed a dollar sign near the drain.
To my surprise and delight, the store-brand soup was as good (if not better) than the one I’d eaten all my life. This led to a spate of enthusiastic store-brand shopping in all categories. Eight times out of 10, the store-brand products were comparable to or surpassed their flashy brand-name counterparts. Nine times out of 10, I was sure the price difference was down to the label graphics. I’d choose the frozen corn with the slightly less plump kernels pictured on the bag, only to discover plumper, more golden kernels within.
Sure, I got burned sometimes. Some products are just irreplaceable; we all have childhood favorites and comfort foods that need a certain ingredient to be “just right.” As Consumer Reports advises: “If you’re particular about the tartness of A1 Steak Sauce or the exact flavor of Miracle Whip, generic options may not be right for you.” And naturally, every so often I’d stumble across a clunker that would vault straight into the gawd-awful category. But those experiences were few and far between.
When I started working in restaurants, all this shopping groundwork was validated. The staples that eateries (even the best restaurants) buy from their suppliers are largely supplier-brands, comparable to store brands: the tomato sauces, the vinegars, the flours, sugars and salts. Butter, yogurt, standard cheeses — believe me, kitchen managers are not spending a penny they don’t have to on brand-name products.
Career cooks know this secret, too. What they don’t make themselves or buy fresh, they find a way to work with. If it’s really crappy, they’ll complain to the guy who does the purchasing and make a plan to substitute something else. But savvy chefs and managers know that money saved by smart shopping goes straight to the bottom line.
So, give your bottom line a little love. Next time you’re shopping, check out that puffed rice with the silly parody of a brand name (the one that makes you chuckle in the cereal aisle). Baby, don’t fear the store brand!
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She is currently a teaching assistant at Sullivan University, her alma mater.