Wichita is a Dillon’s town, and its parent company, Kroger, has very little real competition in the market.
But there’s a little store that’s also earning an increasing following in the Wichita area even though it doesn’t offer fuel points. Or baggers. Or bags.
Aldi, a German discount grocery chain with more than 1,650 stores in the United States, has only four in Wichita – the recently remodeled deluxe store at 765 N. Maize plus stores at 2323 N. Amidon, 2826 S. Seneca and 6835 E. 21st St. (all of which are scheduled for their own remodels eventually.) There's also an Aldi at 1719 N. Rock Road in Derby.
They’re not nearly as big as Dillon’s stores and don’t carry the same variety of goods, but a growing number of locals are becoming Aldi devotees – discovering little treasures, good buys and unusual European-style snacks and party foods that aren’t available elsewhere.
The stores are nothing fancy, and many local shoppers don’t know they exist or assume they’re too weird to check out.
But those who know otherwise indicate they’d rather keep their secret. In preparation to write this story, I recently asked my Dining with Denise Facebook followers to let me know if they shopped at Aldi and to tell me specifically what they liked to buy there. In just a few days, my post earned nearly 400 “likes” and 500 comments from people listing all the reasons they love Aldi, and they had specific shopping suggestions.
“I must confess, I’m an Aldiholic,” wrote Jana Hollingshead, who said she loves the store’s grass-fed beef, pizza, almond milk and brownie mix, among other items. “I can’t even begin to list my loves, but I always look at what others are buying to see what I might be missing.”
Aldi is like a regular grocery store in that it has produce, meat, staples and bakery items. The stores sell about 1,500 of the most popular grocery items, almost all of which are Aldi store brands rather than national brands, as well as 30 or more rotating items, including unusual products from Germany. (Spaetzle, anyone?)
Like at Sam’s Club, the products are displayed in their shipping boxes rather than arranged on the shelves.
Despite the lack of frills, Wichita cooks and foodies say they are increasingly discovering that Aldi is a perfect place to expand their culinary horizons or find funky ingredients.
“I’ve been able to experiment and branch out in my cooking with the items they offer,” wrote Sarah Jane Silvers.
Many who responded to my call extolled Aldi’s huge selection of party foods, including gourmet cheeses, fancy jarred olives, roasted nuts, smoked salmon, jarred pesto, hummus, cured meats and fancy chocolates. Just the right ingredients for a charcuterie board or a party buffet are always occupying Aldi’s shelves, they said.
Others said they loved the unusual foods they could occasionally find, including several European items like German sausages, Belgian chocolates, Brioche hamburger buns and Kerrygold Irish Butter, priced at 2.89.
Still others said they found that Aldi versions of certain products are the best ones they’ve tried. Shoppers insist that the Aldi’s brownie mix, corn tortilla chips, jarred spaghetti sauce and $5 ready-made pizzas were must-buys.
And many said they loved the section in the middle of each store called “Aldi Finds,” which stocks an always rotating selection of random things you don’t expect to find in a discount grocery store, from heated mattress pads to scooters to gym socks to luggage to home decor.
Aldi also has decent-and-growing sections dedicated to both gluten-free and vegan shoppers.
“Their gluten-free options and labeling help my family of three people with Celiac disease eat normal goods without breaking the bank,” said Jennifer Graham-Rateliff.
Aldi stores have only a few employees working at a time, and those who staff the registers get to sit while they work and move with almost superhuman speed, aided by giant bar codes that are stamped on several sides of each item. The checkers toss all the groceries in a cart at the end of the register, and it’s up to shoppers to bag or box it all up themselves.
People who are familiar with the store love that its lack of amenities keeps costs down. But those who aren’t are sometimes intimidated by the unusual rules and setup.
Shoppers must bring a quarter to free a shopping cart from the outdoor cart corral by the entrance, but they can get their quarters back when they return their carts at the end of their visits. They also must bring their own bags, or Sam’s style, they can help themselves to a cardboard flat or purchase plastic bags.
One reader, Emily Christensen, is such an Aldi fan she offers annual December tours to her friends and has written “Emily’s Guide to Aldi,” which she shares with friends. It outlines the how-tos of carts and bags and lists the various items people should always look for when shopping, including chocolate, cheese, cured meats, coffee, bread and home goods.
It’s not a weird discount store like some people think, she said. It’s a hidden gem that attracts Wichita’s smartest shoppers.
“My interactions with other Aldi shoppers have been almost exclusively positive,” she said. “Sometimes it feels as though we’re all in on this huge secret that’s hiding in plain sight.”
20 things you should try at Aldi
More than 500 people responded to our Facebook post asking for tips for shopping at Aldi, a local discount store growing in popularity in Wichita. Here are the most mentioned items:
1. Prepared pizzas: Aldi has a big section of prepared pizzas in cardboard boxes that sell for as little as $5, and those who’ve tried them say they’re delicious.
2. Brioche breads: Hamburger buns are basic at most Wichita grocery stores. But German-based Aldi carries delicate brioche buns as well as sinful chocolate chip and vanilla cream brioche loaves.
3. Jarred pesto: Aldi shoppers say it’s affordable and addictive.
4. Grass-fed beef: Aldi’s meats get high marks, and though they don’t have everything you might want, they do have the basics as well as high-quality grass-fed beef, many shoppers said. (Others highly recommended the store’s rib eyes.)
5. Seasonal items: One thing about Aldi is that items come and go. And apparently, the best items arrive at the holidays. People reported finding many unusual and wonderful items during certain times of the year, and some confessed to buying full cases when they find them. Examples: caramel pumpkin spice popcorn, chocolate marzipan poundcake and Nurnberger sausages.
6. Specialty cheeses: Throwing a party? Aldi has all kinds of fancy cheeses on the shelves, including a cinnamon cranberry goat cheese log, a wrapped brie, smoked gouda and more.
7. Belgian and European chocolates: Aldi also has a large selection of European chocolates that just taste different from American brands. My favorite: the Choceur-brand dark chocolate bar that’s $1.49 and is remarkably creamy.
8. Eggs: The store has high-quality eggs, and they’re usually pretty cheap. At the moment, they’re 95 cents a dozen.
9. Boxed brownies: The Aldi brand of brownie mixes are incredibly inexpensive (I grabbed one for 89 cents) but the finished product emerges from the oven incredibly tasty.
10. Organic, gluten free and vegan items: Several shoppers with dietary preferences and restrictions report that Aldi has an affordable and unexpectedly large selection of organic, gluten free and vegan items.
11. Frozen seafood: Several shoppers said that Aldi’s frozen scallops, shrimp and ahi tuna steaks are hard to beat, both in quality and price.
12. Vanilla extract: The real stuff has gotten pricy. But at Aldi, it’s still $3.49 a bottle.
13. Salad dressings: Aldi stocks a big variety, and people say they’re good. The Greek dressing is a must-try.
14. Plastic storage bags: People swear by Aldi’s store brand, and some people also praise its laundry detergent and toilet paper.
15. Cured meats: Charcuterie fans can find inexpensive prosciutto, salami and other cured meats.
16. Tortilla chips: People love the flavor and the price of Aldi’s tortilla chips. Multigrain chips and organic corn chips are at the top of the list.
17. Coffee: Bags of Aldi-brand coffee, comparable to Starbucks and Seattle’s best, are $3.99 a bag.
18. Almond milk: Lots of lactose-free shoppers said Aldi is the place to pick up almond milk.
19. Gym socks: The store has packs of gym socks for $5, and people insist they don’t slip off the ankle.
20. Anything in the Aldi Finds aisle: The highlight of any trip to Aldi is a perusal of this section, which is always full of unexpected toys, household goods, clothing items and more. Whole websites are dedicated to the strange and wonderful things people find in the Aldi Finds aisle.