Several years ago, I noticed a new store perched on a mountain overlooking the William Penn Highway–the main road of Monroeville’s huge shopping district east of Pittsburgh.
I guessed from the name that Gordon Food Service must be a store where you can get food in big packages. (I was already a member of Costco but frustrated that so many of their products are in small packages held together with still more packaging!) My frugal instincts, honed by experience as a Girl Scout camp cook, swirled into excitement about what I could buy for my family and stockpile until we ate it all.
You don’t have to work for a restaurant, camp, or other large-scale cooking operation: Anyone can shop at Gordon Food Service without membership, and even a small family can find some great deals! Not everything is in a huge package. GFS doesn’t have everything I want from a grocery store, but it offers enough good deals that I supplement my other grocery shopping with a GFS run every month or two.
Also, GFS sells some things I can’t find in any other store: equipment restaurants can use in the kitchen, dining room, and restrooms. Some of these items are exactly what I need for a special project!
My local GFS store is clean and pleasant and never really crowded. It’s much smaller than Costco and has a lower ceiling, and it’s less cluttered than the supermarket, so it’s a less stressful shopping experience than many stores. It has abundant free parking, clean restrooms, and a drinking fountain.
GFS has stores in 10 Midwestern states and also in Florida. Even if you don’t live in one of these regions, my evaluation of GFS can be your model for how to decide if a new store is worth your time. The key issues are what you want to buy and whether you’d save enough money to make shopping an additional store worthwhile.
Does Gordon Food Service Sell “Real” Food?
Because GFS is geared to the needs of restaurants, its inventory tends toward mainstream American food. That includes plenty of nourishing, whole foods like vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and meat. But it also includes heavily-processed substances like canned liquid cheese and snow-cone syrup!
GFS offers a smaller selection of organic foods than most grocery stores do these days. However, I find that GFS is less likely to sell imported versions of foods that can be grown in the United States than some other stores.
You’ll have to shop carefully and think about your priorities: Which of these things is most important to you?
- low price
- plain food without preservatives and additives
- organic food without pesticides and herbicides
- food grown and processed nearby so that it travels a shorter distance to you
- minimal packaging
- not too large a quantity
Some things at GFS are a great deal all around! Others are a great price only in a crazy-huge package or if you have relaxed standards for that type of food. And then there are a few things that are more expensive at GFS than at other stores like Aldi or Costco.
How to Evaluate and Compare Grocery Stores
Wandering through a store and deciding what to buy, your judgment of prices and quality relative to other stores can be affected by all kinds of factors–marketing gimmicks, lighting, how information is presented on signs, your mood, your hunger level, your kid’s comments–so it’s important to do an objective evaluation every few years. You might find that you’re unthinkingly spending extra on a food that actually costs less at another of your regular stores.
Here are the basic steps for evaluating stores and applying what you learn:
- Make a list of 10-30 foods you buy frequently. Include your most expensive foods, which will likely be animal foods like dairy products, eggs, meat, and honey.
- Set up your list on paper or in a smartphone so that you can fill it in at the store. Keep it simple and TRY OUR PRINTABLE BELOW!
- At the store, gather information on each food:
- Size of package, or number of items in a package
- Unit price (like dollars per pound), if available. Some stores put this on shelf tags. If it’s there, you may as well write it down to save yourself some arithmetic!
- Optional: Other information that’s important to you. If you’ll only buy organic apples, or you want to know whether shredded cheese costs more than block cheese, make sure you get all the details.
- At home, do the math to compare prices across stores: Convert all prices to the same unit, such as dollars per pound. Which is cheapest?
- Now think about your other considerations. If the price difference is small, will you spend a little more to get lower-sugar jam or American garlic? Do you want to buy the cheapest grass-fed beef and disregard the prices of feedlot beef?
- Make a handy reference list showing which things you’ll routinely buy from which store. If you have multiple shopping lists sorted by store, like my family, hang up the reference list near your shopping lists. If you use some other method for shopping lists, color-code it by store or sort it in a way that works for you.
- Adapt your shopping habits so that you go to each store when you’re running out of several of the things that are especially good deals at that store. While you’re there, stock up on whatever you can use from that store’s good deals.
- Keep your eyes open for specials that may give you an unusually low price on something that’s normally more expensive in that store. Watch out for long-term price changes, too. When I compared prices for my article on buying bulk food in reused containers, I found that I was spending $1.80 per pound more on bulk peanut butter than I could spend on packaged natural peanut butter from the mainstream supermarket, because the packaged peanut butter’s price had dropped drastically as it became more popular.
I collected prices and other notable information from my local GFS, Costco, and ALDI stores in March 2018. I made a list of foods I buy a lot and added a few of Katie’s suggestions. Although all the stores I compared are multi-state chains, any individual store in a chain may carry products that are not in all of the stores, and prices may vary seasonally or between different geographic areas. Check your local stores to see if my price comparisons match up, and don’t forget that some things may be a better deal at your local food co-op or neighborhood supermarket!
What’s a Good Deal at Gordon Food Service?
My top GFS foods–the ones that motivate me to drive 9 miles out to Monroeville–are whole-wheat pasta, frozen non-breaded fish, and frozen vegetables. All of these are good quality at a good price in a reasonable-sized package for my needs.
No other store in my area carries 5-pound bags of whole-wheat pasta! GFS offers 4 different shapes (spaghetti, linguine, rotini, and penne) at $7.79, which is $1.56 per pound. This is similar to the supermarket price and more expensive than ALDI (1 pound for $1.09), but GFS pasta is really good quality! Whole-wheat pasta is often gritty or doesn’t taste as good as white pasta. GFS’s is delicious! Also, my ALDI store’s only whole-wheat pasta is spaghetti, and my family prefers rotini.
GFS whole-wheat pasta has no additives at all. Each serving has 7 grams of protein, 24% of the Daily Value of fiber, and 10% of the Daily Value of iron.
We love pasta! For our family of 4 people, 5 pounds is only about a 3-month supply. GFS puts 5 pounds of pasta in a simple plastic bag. After opening the bag, I store the pasta in big jars in the pantry. The bag can be recycled along with other plastic bags and wraps at any Target store or our local supermarket. It’s much less trash than 5 one-pound coated-cardboard boxes with plastic windows!
Overpackaging is the reason I never buy pasta at Costco (even when they have whole-wheat, which they currently don’t)–Costco gives you a lot of 1-pound boxes inside a larger box. And 1 pound is never the exact amount I want to cook!
Pasta can be stored on the shelf for about 2 years, so even if you don’t eat pasta very often, the GFS 5-pound bag may be a wise investment. However, the whole-wheat spaghetti at ALDI is organic, while the GFS pasta is not. Recent disturbing news about wheat being sprayed with glyphosate has made me wonder whether we should be choosing organic wheat! For now, I’m loving the GFS pasta, but I’d be thrilled to see them go organic.
In addition to price, I consider whether fish is sustainable and low in pollutants–and I won’t buy fish portions that are individually wrapped inside the larger bag, because that’s not just a lot of plastic but also really annoying to unpack! (That wrapping is unnecessary because fish fillets that are “individually quick-frozen” (IQF) will not stick together in the freezer unless you let them thaw and re-freeze.)
The least expensive frozen fish at GFS is swai, which I was buying regularly for a while, but I recently learned that swai is high in toxins, and my son had complained about its soft consistency. Flounder, haddock, pollock, and salmon are varieties of healthy, sustainable fish that tend to be affordably priced.
I usually buy frozen rather than fresh fish because I live in western Pennsylvania (far from the ocean) where fresh fish is usually not all that fresh, and it’s on a foam tray with plastic wrap that’s icky to unwrap and smells bad in the trash and can leak in the fridge–who needs it?! Also, I like the convenience of keeping fish in the freezer and deciding to use it whenever we like.
GFS has a 3-pound bag of frozen wild-caught Alaskan pollock for $10.49 = $3.50 a pound. 3 pounds is a size that fits easily into the freezer, and GFS’s reclosable frozen fish bags seal well and keep the fish in good condition. (Look! The bag stays sealed when I hold it upside down!)
If you have the freezer space for 10 pounds of fish, GFS has a box of pollock for $19.29 = $1.93 a pound–but that pollock is from China. (I try to avoid eating food from China because pollution is rampant there.) Other varieties of fish may actually be more expensive in the 10-pound than the 3-pound size, so check prices carefully!
For comparison, the cheapest frozen fish at ALDI is flounder, 1 pound for $4.29, wild-caught in China, individually wrapped. The cheapest at Costco is 2 pounds of flounder for $9.99 = $5 a pound, wild-caught in Thailand. I appreciate that GFS has American fish, well packaged, at a better price!
We use lots of frozen vegetables during the winter–especially this year when one of my 3-year-old’s 3 favorite foods is steamed broccoli (dipped in ketchup)! That’s why I chose broccoli for my price comparison.
GFS has a 4-pound bag of frozen USA broccoli for $6.29 = $1.57 a pound. That’s a few cents cheaper than ALDI (3/4 pound for $1.19 = $1.59 a pound) or Costco (5-pound bag for $7.99 = $1.60 a pound). This is another food that lasts a long time, so if you’ll be eating it regularly you may as well get the big size and discard less plastic. The 4-pound bag is a little easier to cram into the freezer than 5 pounds.
I think that GFS’s simple white plastic bag may be much less garbage than Costco’s heavy-duty bag with a zip-top that doesn’t stay closed once it gets broccoli specks in it. It certainly feels like less–I can crumple the empty GFS bag down to a volume I can easily enclose in my fist. Although GFS’s bag doesn’t include any way of holding it closed, it’s easy enough to twist up the loose end and close it with one of those tabs from a bread bag.
But if eating organic is more important to you than food’s country of origin, get your broccoli at Costco: For only 3 cents more per pound, Costco’s frozen broccoli is certified organic. (This was the only frozen broccoli in stock at my Costco.) It is from Spain.
Branching out from broccoli to a veggie blend, Costco’s organic “Normandy vegetables” blend of broccoli, yellow and orange carrots, and cauliflower actually costs less than plain broccoli: 5 1/2 pounds for $7.99 = $1.45 a pound. These vegetables are from USA and Mexico.
I didn’t collect all the numbers, but generally, GFS has had the best prices around on frozen cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and okra. I’m especially glad about the okra because it’s hard to find in Pittsburgh, and having grown up in Okrahoma, I mean Oklahoma, I sometimes want to eat okra! Try roasting okra with curry powder, mmmmm!
GFS also sells an array of frozen veggie blends, which go on sale at a significant discount a few times a year. That makes them similar in price to the options above. Their regular price is higher but still pretty reasonable–so there are lots of frozen veggie choices at GFS! Most are produced in the USA, but some include imported vegetables.
What Do You Have to Buy in a Big Package to Get a Bargain at GFS?
When I started shopping at GFS, my family was just one little kid and two adults. Now we have a new little kid, and the first one has grown into a teenager, so we need more food! Even so, we’re a relatively small family with a tiny kitchen and only 4 cubic feet of freezer space. Some of the best deals at GFS aren’t feasible for us, but if you’re cooking for a big group, check these out!
- Eggs are only 11c each if you buy the box of 180 for $19.99. (GFS also sells smaller packages of eggs at a slightly higher price per egg.)
- Whole-wheat flour is 32c/pound in a 50-pound bag.
- Brown rice is 62c/pound in a 25-pound bag.
- Dry green lentils are $1/pound in a 5-pound bag. (That’s really not much if you eat lentils often! My family uses about 15 pounds per year.)
If you plan to buy a really big package, consider how you’re going to get it from the store shelf to your home. I can lift 30 pounds easily when it’s in the shape of my daughter or a box. But a bag of soft stuff like flour or rice is harder to lift, so it feels heavier like it’s trying to land on your foot! Don’t hurt yourself!
Costco vs. Aldi vs. Gordon Food Service
It’s great to know which foods are similarly priced across stores, because then you can grab them when you’re in any of those stores, without spending extra! Katie has done a great job of showing us what to buy at Costco vs. Aldi, but how about Costco vs. Aldi vs. GFS?
These are the prices I found on eggs that are not certified organic:
- 11c each at GFS if you buy 180 eggs
- 13c each at Costco if you buy 60 eggs
- 14c each at Costco if you buy 24 eggs
- 15c each at ALDI if you buy 12 eggs
GFS doesn’t carry certified organic eggs. Costco’s organic eggs are 25c each in a carton of 24. ALDI’s organic eggs are 29c each in a carton of 12.
Prices vary by type of bean as well as the size of the can. My family uses many types of beans, so it’s important to compare prices:
- 62c/pound for black or pinto beans in a giant can (6.87 pounds) at GFS
- 69c/pound for pinto beans in a 30-ounce can at ALDI
- 71c/pound for black, kidney, cannellini, or great northern beans in a 15-ounce can (what you might call a “normal size” can) at ALDI
- 73c/pound for kidney beans or low-sodium black beans in a giant can at GFS
- 77c/pound for black beans in 8 cans, 15 ounces each, shrink-wrapped into a box, at Costco
- 95c/pound for organic pinto, black, or kidney beans in 15-ounce cans at ALDI
So, if you can possibly use a giant can (maybe by freezing some for later), get black and pinto beans at GFS. Also, if you need low-sodium black beans, GFS has them! For other varieties, will a giant can from GFS or a smaller can from ALDI suit you better? There’s no benefit to buying Costco’s multi-packs with all that extra packaging!
On this visit, I found kidney beans on sale in a 6.75 pound can for only $2.49 = 37c/pound! What a great deal! GFS’s weekly specials tend to be significant discounts (not just 10c off!) so be sure to check what’s on special when you’re deciding whether to drive out there. (At 9 miles from my home, GFS is the most distant grocery store I shop, so I try to combine it with other errands in the Monroeville area.)
Milk (Not Organic)
GFS carries Dean’s milk in plastic gallon jugs: $3.49 for 2% or $3.79 for whole milk. That’s just slightly more than the non-organic milk at Costco and ALDI: $3.32 for 2% or $3.56 for whole milk. ALDI also has 1% at $3.14. Costco also has skim milk at $2.99.
But if you want organic milk, ALDI’s is just $2.95 per half-gallon paper carton. That’s cheaper than Costco, which makes you buy 3 cartons in an outer cardboard box. GFS does not carry organic milk.
My family doesn’t buy meat other than fish, but Katie asked me to compare chicken prices because it’s a staple food for a lot of readers. The best price depends on which part of the chicken you want, how much chicken you can use, and how you feel about additives.
GFS sells Tyson brand chicken raised without antibiotics or hormones, with up to 10% broth, sea salt, and natural flavorings.
ALDI’s less-expensive chicken has up to 15% broth, sea salt, and natural flavorings. ALDI’s “better” chicken was fed a vegetarian diet without antibiotics or hormones; it has no added salt and <1% retained water.
Costco’s less-expensive chicken didn’t seem to have information about additives–but maybe I was just too distracted by my 3-year-old’s efforts to escape the meat department! Costco also has kosher chicken fed a vegetarian diet without antibiotics or hormones.
- Drumsticks are the cheapest chicken at every store: 79c/pound at Costco (package of 7-8 pounds), 89c/pound at GFS (package of 4-6 pounds), 99c/pound at ALDI (package of about 4 pounds).
- Boneless breasts are $2.29/pound at ALDI (package of about 2 pounds), $2.39/pound at GFS (package of 4-6 pounds), $2.79/pound at Costco (package of 7-8 pounds).
- The “better” boneless breasts are $4.79/pound at ALDI (package of about 1 pound), $4.99/pound at Costco (package of 5-6 pounds).
- Whole chickens are 99c/pound at Costco. GFS doesn’t sell whole chickens, and ALDI didn’t have them in their “regular” chicken selection.
- The “better” whole chickens are $1.49/pound at ALDI (1 chicken), $2.79/pound at Costco (2 chickens).
GFS sells 3 pounds of USA-grown yellow onions for $2.19 = 73c/pound. ALDI sells 2 pounds of USA-grown red onions for $1.49 = 75c/pound.
It’s possible to save 3 cents per pound by buying Mexican onions at Costco, but you have to buy 10 pounds. I’ve never been able to keep that many onions from spoiling before I can use them.
This choice is complicated because rice takes up arsenic from the soil where it’s grown. (This is an issue for brown rice as well as white–but the stores offer fewer choices in brown rice.) Last year’s hurricane in Texas contaminated rice fields with a variety of pollutants. Consumer Reports said California rice is safer than other American rice, but my local stores only have rice from Texas, Arkansas, or unspecified “USA.” So I’ve been buying Arkansas rice.
Another issue is whether or not the rice is parboiled: soaked, steamed, and dried before the husk is removed. Parboiled rice is a better source of fiber, calcium, potassium and vitamin B-6 than regular white rice and has a lower glycemic index. My family also prefers the richer flavor. Parboiled rice can be cooked and used just like ordinary white rice.
I get my parboiled Arkansas rice from GFS: 10-pound bag for $4.99 = 50c/pound.
The cheapest rice I found is at Costco, 36c/pound, but that’s a 50-pound bag and grown in Texas. The lowest price on a smaller bag is 43c/pound for ALDI’s 3-pound bag, grown in an unspecified USA location. Neither of these is parboiled. So I’m willing to spend the extra 7c/pound for tastier, more nutritious rice at GFS.
GFS sells 2 1/2 pounds for $13.99 = $5.60/pound. Costco sells 3 pounds for $14.99 = $5/pound. Either is a lot cheaper than little bags from the supermarket!
What’s a Better Deal Somewhere Else?
Costco has better prices than GFS on these items:
- Butter: Costco’s 4-pound package costs $2.62/pound unsalted or $2.47 salted. GFS sells a pound for $2.99, salted or unsalted.
- Cheddar cheese: 2-pound block costs $4.99 at Costco, $5.99 at GFS. (Can’t use 2 pounds before it gets moldy? Grate and freeze recipe-sized portions!) However, Costco doesn’t offer the full selection of basic, everyday cheese varieties that GFS has at the same price.
- Grated cheese: a 5-pound bag of cheddar costs $2.40/pound at Costco, $2.70/pound at GFS. A 5-pound bag of mozzarella costs $2.10/pound at Costco, $2.50/pound at GFS.
- Vinegar: Costco’s white vinegar is $2.27/gallon; GFS’s is $3.29. (Costco’s bottle is slightly larger, 1.32 gallons instead of 1 gallon.)
- Baking soda: Costco’s 13-pound pouch is 49c/pound; GFS’s 5-pound bucket is $1.10/pound.
- Blueberries (frozen): 5-pound bag, USA, not organic, costs $9.99 at Costco, $11.99 at GFS. (However, GFS had them on sale for $9.99 recently!)
- Canned garbanzo beans, a/k/a chickpeas: This is the only kind of bean Costco sells in a giant can, and they’re only 44c/pound! GFS’s are 58c/pound–but GFS has a wider variety of canned beans.
- Corn chips: Costco’s 2 1/2 pounds of organic corn chips are $1.96/pound, while GFS’s 1 1/2 pounds cost $2.66/pound and aren’t organic.
- Garlic: If you can use 2 pounds before it dries out or sprouts, Costco’s is the best deal at $2.90/pound; it’s from Spain. GFS’s garlic from California is $4.29 for a 1-pound bag. ALDI’s garlic is not only more expensive but grown in China. (I buy USA-grown garlic at the supermarket for $3-$4/pound.)
ALDI has better prices than GFS on these items:
- Carrots: ALDI’s 2-pound bag is 50c/pound. GFS’s 3-pound bag is 76c/pound. Both are from the USA.
- Apples: 3-pound bag costs $1.10/pound at ALDI, $1.27/pound at GFS. ALDI also has organic apples in a 3-pound bag for $1.33/pound.
- Salmon (frozen): ALDI’s 2-pound bag is $3.70/pound, wild-caught in Alaska. GFS’s 1-pound bag is $10.49, farmed in Norway.
- Ground beef: ALDI’s 73% lean is $2.19/pound fresh (in packages of about 5 pounds) or $2.50/pound in a 3-pound frozen package. GFS’s 5-pound frozen package is $2.74/pound. (That’s not a big difference, but if you use a lot of ground beef, it’ll add up.)
- Dry pinto beans: ALDI’s 2-pound bag is 75c/pound. GFS’s 5-pound bag is $1/pound. But if you want a different bean variety, go to GFS! Costco doesn’t have dry beans at all; ALDI sometimes has great northern beans at $1/pound but no other varieties.
- Raisins: ALDI’s 1 1/4-pound bag is $2.24/pound. GFS’s 2-pound bag is $3/pound. (For $2.70/pound, you can get organic raisins at Costco–but you have to buy 4 pounds with more packaging per pound.)
GFS Has More Variety, for Some Items
GFS has a wider selection of giant cans of food than any other store open to the public! I counted 16 varieties of canned vegetables, 7 varieties of canned beans, and 7 varieties of canned fruit–and that’s not counting variations like creamed vs. whole-kernel corn, low-sodium vs. regular, or different brands. GFS has a giant can of roasted red peppers, which freeze well if you can resist sucking down all that yumminess at once!
Sometimes I even find a food I’ve never heard of before. This time it was “sweety drop” peppers. I’d want to try one before I’d buy a whole can…but they do look good!
Almost any spice or herb you might desire is available in a big canister at GFS! Although I get great prices by buying in bulk in reused containers at the co-op, I sometimes find an even better price at GFS on those few spices I use in large quantities, like granulated garlic. (Be careful about stocking up on spices you use slowly because they do lose flavor over time.)
Although Costco has the lowest price on cheddar cheese, GFS has a whole range of cheeses in 2-pound blocks for $5.99 = $3/pound. Their Colby-jack is very appealing, sliced up for a cheese-and-crackers plate at a party!
GFS also has at least as good a selection of fancy cheeses as Costco or ALDI, at similar prices.
Although ALDI has the lowest price on dry pinto beans, GFS has dry kidney and black beans in 5-pound bags for $5.99 = $1.20/pound. My local ALDI doesn’t carry these varieties of dry beans, and my Costco doesn’t have any dry beans at all. GFS’s price is lower than the food co-op’s bulk bins. GFS also has split peas at an even lower price…which I forgot to write down.
GFS recently started carrying a whole range of frozen blends of whole grains and vegetables. We haven’t tried these for home cooking (I think I may have had them in restaurants!), but their Nutrition Facts are impressive!
What Else Can You Get at GFS?
In addition to food, GFS offers a wide range of products for food preparation and serving, both disposable and durable. They have lots of kitchen tools, many of which are feasible sizes for home cooking. At the moment, they have every size of ladle! I’ve gotten several sturdy cooking spoons at GFS.
They also have all those things you see on the table in restaurants. Need a dozen saltshakers? They’re only $1.37 each! How about squeeze bottles for your tie-dye party or your homemade sauces?
GFS also stocks some chef’s uniforms and work shoes. I haven’t tried any of these, but it’s good to know where to find them if I ever need a chef disguise.
Good kitchen stewardship means avoiding disposable stuff, but cloth napkins just aren’t practical for big events. I bought a case of 4,000 cocktail napkins made from 100% recycled paper–enough to stock church coffee hour for several years!–at GFS for only $18.50!
Those brown paper towels are recycled and frugally priced–even if you buy just one roll, that’s a lot of towel for $2.99–and you can tear off the exact amount you need! Try them with GFS’s plastic baskets (and wash the baskets for reuse) for a low-waste alternative to paper plates at backyard parties.
Speaking of parties, GFS has a variety of convenient frozen, fancy-looking appetizers to heat and serve! (These are hardly health foods for everyday family meals, but for a special event when I don’t have time to make everything from scratch, they’re great.)
If you’re sending campers home with a bag lunch or need small paper bags for some other reason, GFS has the bags for only 2 cents each!
We went straight to GFS when my son realized the bins for his pen-and-marker-recycling program had been misplaced in between school years! These plastic containers are perfect–many of them are now serving their third year of hard duty–and I appreciate that we didn’t have to buy lids we didn’t need.
I noticed that the restroom soap dispenser had a little sign advertising itself. Sure enough, you can buy one for only $8.99 and “improve your restroom image”! (Don’t tell my kids! I’m sure they’d be thrilled to have an automated foam-soap dispenser mounted on our bathroom wall, but I prefer refilling foamers that sit on the sink.)
Don’t miss the specials and clearance section!
In addition to the kidney bean and frozen-food sales mentioned above, on this visit, I found a big discount on. And if you’re planning to serve soda pop for a special occasion, several varieties were at less than half the usual price!
You never know what you’ll find on the GFS clearance rack! I got my favorite paring knives for $1 each there. My son is still complaining that I wouldn’t let him buy that 20-pound jar of mayonnaise one time–but it’s only a bargain if you can use it!