The Dollar-Wise Gourmet: Under a Buck


Scan the grocery aisles at the 99¢ store and what do you expect to see? A sea of Spam, perhaps?
     That’s what I thought, too. So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a neatly organized fresh produce section, dried herbs galore, rows and rows of canned and packaged goods, a well-stocked refrigerator case and—are you ready?—organics and name brands. Fancy that!
     Here, then, is a sample of nine food finds from 99¢ Only Stores. (I shopped at the one at 2224 El Camino Ave.) As you’ll see, I also conducted a price comparison at a local mainstream market. I’m not naming the market because I wouldn’t want it to feel singled out or picked on. But its prices are comparable to most stores in the region, so this should give you a sense of what you might pay if you shopped at a “regular” store.

Item: Romaine lettuce in a bag (10 oz.)
99¢ Only: Dole brand 99¢
Other store: Fresh Express brand $2.99
Savings: $2
Comment: The rule “bagged lettuce costs more” flies out the window at the 99¢ store.

Item: Balsamic vinegar (8.5-oz. bottle)
99¢ Only: Gabriela brand 99¢
Other store: Star brand $3.99
Savings: $3
Comment: Great savings, and Gabriela is apparently no slouch: Its vinegars are produced in the Rioja region of Spain, known for its fine wines.

Item: Russet potatoes (5-lb. bag)
99¢ Only: 99¢
Other store: $2.99
Savings: $2
Comment: The ultimate comfort food at an even more comforting price.

Item: Taco shells (box of 12)
99¢ Only: Old El Paso brand 99¢
Other store: Mission brand $2.29
Savings: $1.30
Comment: You’ll want to check expiration dates, of course—but other than that, no problema.

Item: Fuji apples (1.5-lb. bag)
99¢ Only: 99¢
Other store: About $2.50 ($1.69/lb.)
Savings: $1.51
Comment: OK, I didn’t do a taste-test. But they were all Washington apples, and they all looked good and crisp.

Item: Organic green tea
99¢ Only: Dragon Fountain brand (24 bags) 99¢
Other store: Bigelow brand (20 bags) $3.69
Savings: $2.70
Comment: More tea for less money? I’m there.

Item: Chili powder (2.4-oz. jar)
99¢ Only: Santa Paula brand 99¢
Other store: Spice Islands brand $4.79
Savings: $3.80
Comment: All herbs and spices—not just chili powder—are 99¢ here. Why go anywhere else?

Item: Organic cherry tomatoes (1 pint)
99¢ Only: Del Cabo brand 99¢
Other store: Del Cabo brand $2.99
Savings: $2
Comment: It’s the same dang basket of tomatoes I’ve been buying at higher-priced stores for years. Think of the savings I’ve missed!

Item: Key limes (2 lb. bag)
99¢ Only: 99¢
Other store: $2.98
Savings: $1.99
Comment: Adorably petite, perfect for a pie—and just as fresh-looking at the 99¢ store.

Total Savings: $20.30
Other things I found for just 99¢: a quart of organic rice milk, a four-pack of Dannon la Crème Vanilla yogurt, Langers juices (a favorite at our house), a bag of fresh baby spinach and a box of Armour Turkey Sausage Links. But I’m spoiling your fun: Go take your own tour of this penny pincher’s palace! (For a list of store locations, visit
* Prices were checked in August 2009.