In its infancy, Chowhound favorite Grocery Outlet was the invention of a guy who had a line on military surplus food in San Francisco in 1946. He bought the surplus, stacked it in stores, sold it at a big discount, and today there are more than 150 stores in Arizona, California (the company's headquarters), Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Nevada. Closeouts and overstocks are the name of the game here, and thus the merchandise sold at each store turns over quickly. Those baked beans you liked last month may have been replaced by another brand, or may have been replaced by something completely insane: strawberry M&M's, say, or mango-flavored peanuts.
Nonetheless, the store does have some products that seem fairly universal, such as the Betty Baker mac 'n' cheese (heinous) and the Aunt Penny's beans (delicious). We bought these brands and others at the Berkeley, California, Grocery Outlet, and tasted them against similar products purchased at an upscale San Francisco grocery store. Products were tasted by a seven-person panel that included five adults and two children. The results:
Finest Brand Traditional Refried Beans (Grocery Outlet), 79 cents for 16 ounces, vs. Rosarita Traditional Refried Beans, $1.39 for 16 ounces
No contest. Finest tasted watery with a tiny bit of spiciness at the very end. Rosarita tasted beany, round, and meaty. Trust the señorita on this one.
Betty Baker Macaroni & Cheese Dinner (Grocery Outlet), 34 cents for 8 ounces, vs. Annie's Shells & Real Aged Cheddar, $2.49 for 6 ounces
Package directions called for slightly different preparations: Annie's asked for less butter and more milk; vice versa on the Betty Baker box. We prepared each according to the directions; aside from the differences in pasta shape they looked much the same in the pot. Differences emerged upon tasting. "Annie's tastes like actual cheese," said one taster. "And the Betty Baker tastes like Cheez Whiz." That says it all, huh? Even the youthful members of the panel agreed.
Lil' Dutch Maid Old Fashioned Ginger Snaps (Grocery Outlet), $1.49 for 16 ounces, vs. Mi-Del All Natural Swedish Style Ginger Snaps, $3.39 for 10 ounces
This was a toughie. We expected Lil' Dutch Maid, which boasts partially hydrogenated oil and high-fructose corn syrup, to taste absolutely terrible. It didn't. The cookies were crisp, with a nose-burning ginger flavor. Mi-Del had an even better flavor (smoother, more molasses-y, with a nice ginger burn and an almost black pepper–like aftertaste), but the texture was all wrong, soft and cakey instead of crisp. Internet investigation led us to believe that we might have gotten a bum bag. Ginger snaps are supposed to snap, right? We liked both, but the Mi-Del slightly more.
Batth Farms Fancy Mixed Raisins (Grocery Outlet), $2.99 for 16 ounces, vs. Sun-Maid Natural California Raisins, $3.09 for 15 ounces
Hard to screw up raisins, but somehow Batth Farms managed it! The mixed bag of golden and black raisins looked pretty, but the raisins inside had an odd texture: dry and crystallized outside, moist inside. They were still good enough for cooking, but not for eating out of hand. The Sun-Maid, on the other hand, had that solid middle-of-the-road raisin taste you remember from childhood. Good stuff.
SunTree Roasted & Salted Sunflower Kernels (Grocery Outlet), 99 cents for 6 ounces, vs. 365 Organic Roasted & Salted Sunflower Kernels, $1.69 for 16 ounces
SunTree's sunflower seeds certainly weren't lookers. Puny, shriveled, and pale beige when compared to the greeny-brown, plump, and shiny 365 kernels, they came off second best. Sure enough, SunTree's kernels tasted mostly of salt; 365's had a savory, nutty flavor that won the tasting panel's admiration. One member requested that said seeds be packed in her lunch box for snack time the next day, truly the mark of a good sunflower seed.
Advantage: 365 Organic
Aunt Penny's Organic Garbanzo Beans (Grocery Outlet), 99 cents for 15 ounces, vs. Westbrae Natural Vegetarian Organic Garbanzo Beans, $2.39 for 15 ounces
When tasted plain, Westbrae's beans had a slightly more robust beany flavor and Aunt Penny's were slightly silkier in texture. When made into hummus, there was no perceptible difference.
Advantage: It's a tie, but the Aunt Penny's brand is significantly cheaper
Our Family Natural Cream Cheese (Grocery Outlet), 99 cents for 8 ounces, versus Horizon Organic Cream Cheese, $3.09 for 8 ounces
Eaten spread on bagels, the Horizon cream cheese had a fresh dairy flavor that came through loud and clear, making it our favorite. But baked into a pan of cream cheese brownies, the two products were comparable—the flavor differences disappeared.
Advantage: Horizon, but Our Family is acceptable for baking
Agrú Blood Orange Italian Soda (Grocery Outlet), $1.99 for 1 liter, vs. Orangina Sparkling Citrus Beverage with Natural Pulp, $2.15 for 1 liter
The real shockeroo for our panel was that Orangina tasted good at all. By all appearances it's a crappy orange soda, complete with our old friend high-fructose corn syrup. But it was tasty! Zingy! Zesty! And somehow, though both sodas contain the same amount of sugar per serving, the Orangina tasted far less sickeningly sweet. A look at the back of the label cleared things up: Orangina is made from a mix of citrus juice, including (not sweet) lemon and (kinda bitter) grapefruit, thus the complexity of taste. The Agrú looks classier, with its minimal label and cane sugar, but it's one-note and slightly metallic compared with Orangina.