SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
When your expensive tastes in food don’t match your ramen-noodle budget, you don’t have to give up in despair. If you’re able to drive a bit and have an open mind, there’s a goldmine of vegan, gluten-free, and organic food in Oak Cliff. The Grocery Clearance Center is a secret treasure trove of discount goodies, where you never know what you’re going to find. On the day I visited, I picked up a couple boxes of gluten-free cookies for $1.19 a box; I’ve bought the same brand before at Kroger for nearly $4 each. I would have bought many more items if I had allowed myself more time and will when I go back.
Does it seem too good to be true? Well, there is one small catch: The Grocery Clearance Center is a licensed salvage grocery store. That means that owner Gary Gluckman buys lots of food that is near or just past its sell-by dates. It’s not just packaged food; the store also has a large walk-in cooler that stocks fresh produce and a huge freezer section filled with deeply discounted frozen food.
If you’re nervous about buying food near to or past its sell-by dates, don’t be: Gluckman stands behind everything he sells. This is not spoiled food by any means. But if you happen to buy something that’s gone stale, you can always return it. The store has been open for 25 years, a fact that adds to the legitimacy of the food and the business model.
Gluckman takes his business very seriously, from his supplier connections to his customer relationships. Contractual obligations leave him unable to divulge his food sources, and similarly, he can’t advertise exactly which food he has in stock at any given time. Without advertising, he depends strictly on word of mouth. Almost everything on the shelves is a high-quality, recognizable brand name, usually at half-price or less.
He also has a serious commitment to his customers. Many of his customers came into the store as kids with their parents and are now adults who shop there themselves. The Grocery Clearance Center follows an old-school model: Gluckman tries to build connections with every customer who walks through the doors. He knows customers’ names and keeps track of what’s going on in their lives. “Just because our prices are cheap, it doesn’t mean we can’t also go the extra mile,” he said. The store is an important resource in its community, offering loyalty discounts through an app called FLOK to save regular customers even more money.
Part of the reason the store’s prices are so reasonable is about the psychology of food. Most of us are paying more than necessary for food that meets arbitrary freshness dates from stores that provide a luxury experience. The Grocery Clearance Center is not fancy or in a shiny suburb and there’s no latte bar at the entrance. Shoppers come here to find good deals, not an upscale shopping experience.
The issue of freshness dates is at the heart of the store’s philosophy. These sell-by dates have created an impression that food automatically becomes spoiled on that date, no longer safe to consume. This isn’t true at all, but it has led to an increase in food waste. Gluckman’s store keeps rows of perfectly usable food from being thrown away, instead putting it in the hands of people who will eat it. I can vouch for the fact that the items I purchased tasted perfectly fine, despite being past the sell-by date, and I was reassured by the explanation on the USDA website. The sell-by dates on packaged foods are essentially meaningless.
Modern shopper psychology means some people may never be comfortable eating food near the sell-by dates. But for those who can get past this socially conditioned bias, Gluckman is not only offering great discounts, he’s providing a public service. One of his regular customers, a single mother named Rachel, said, “Your store is the most important reason we didn’t starve last year.” His store is next door to a subsidized housing complex and is on the edge of being in a food desert. He brings affordable food, including fruits and vegetables, to a population which may not usually have access.
“Once people learn they can trust you, they’ll keep coming back,” Gluckman said. He has a loyal band of customers who have learned that he’s on their side. It’s definitely worth a trip here if you want to find good deals on normally-expensive foods.