Here's a quick quiz for cooks: How much would you spend for the following?
* Organic Del Cabo cherry tomatoes, pint container
* Organic Earthbound Farm hearts of romaine, 12-ounce bag
* Sun-Maid dried apricots, 5.5-ounce box
* Hershey's Cacao Reserve chocolate bar, 3.53 ounces
* Sargento shredded mozzarella cheese, 4 ounces
* Pillsbury Pet-Ritz frozen pie crust (2 pack)
If you said more than $1, you're overpaying. All of the above items could be had for less than a buck last week at 99 Cents Only stores in L.A.
A few years ago, buying groceries at such places meant consigning yourself to a diet of Spam, boxes of off-brand cookies with Nixon-era expiration dates and bowls of ramen noodles with more sodium than the Great Salt Lake.
Now savvy shoppers can find many healthful, name-brand and even organic products (fresh, frozen and canned) at deep discounters such as 99 Cents Only and Big Lots. The stores are clean and well-lighted, and almost all get "A" grades from L.A. health inspectors. Still hesitant? Both chains will let you return any food item for a refund if you're not satisfied.
But is it the real deal? Surely something must be fishy?
Not so, says Rachel Jacobs, vice president of purchasing for the 99 Cents Only Stores chain, which is based in the City of Commerce and has more than 250 locations. These days, she says, much of the produce is grown specifically for the stores. Other times she buys lots "opportunistically" -- when growers or manufacturers simply have too much of an item on hand.
Other reasons a product might end up with a 99 Cents Only store sticker: a wrong UPC code, a change in packaging, a manufacturer's decision to discontinue a product, a flaw in the printing on a package.
"We try to have brand-name items," Jacobs says. "That way, you can easily know how much you're saving."
Christiane Jory, 38, of Hollywood Hills is such a devotee of 99 Cents Only groceries that she wrote a cookbook that will hit shelves next month. Among her 99 Cents Only recipes: a caramelized onion torte; flambeed bananas with dulce du leche and bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds.
Jory says she became a convert about seven years ago after eating out with pals. It was a memorable night with a sour note: One friend didn't come because he couldn't afford it. "Being broke can't mean not hanging out with your friends," Jory says.
Working with recipes from her mother's 1960s-era file, she started with dishes largely made from canned goods. (This was before the stores added fresh produce, or even sold milk.) She developed enough of a repertoire to have friends over for dinner parties -- and no one knew she was cooking on the cheap, unless she told them.
"My snobbiest of all friends came over and said, 'I'd never eat anything out of your cookbook,' " Jory recalls. "Of course, she was stuffing my hors d'oeuvres down her throat."
Inspired by this frugal foodie, I set out with my very good sport of a date to the 99 Cents Only store in Silverlake. Our challenge: find the fixings for a decent three-course meal.
We let serendipity guide our menu and settled on a quiche after spying eggs, milk, cream, cheese and pie crust, plus fresh tomatoes, green onions and sweet peppers.
Also tossed into our cart: for appetizers, corn chips and avocados (for guacamole), plus canned oysters; for dessert, a Pillsbury cake mix and ingredients to make milk-chocolate frosting.
We gambled on some Cornfield Brand turkey bacon. It wasn't until I got home that I read the fine print: "Formed from mechanically separated turkey." Not the most appetizing detail. Perhaps the manufacturer had decided to go back to the drawing board on its packaging, and that's why this ended up at the 99 Cents store.
We also took a chance on some canned asparagus, which were destined for the quiche until we opened it up and found the stalks as limp as cold spaghetti. Having paid only 99 cents, we didn't feel too bad about setting those aside.
Otherwise, all turned out well. The appetizers were simple but hit the spot. The quiche was tasty -- turkey bacon included. And the cupcakes, though not 100% homemade, satisfied our sweet tooth. Plus, we had 20 cupcakes and a third of a quiche left over for later.
Best of all, we spent just $19.80 -- which left us feeling flush enough to splurge on a bottle of wine. Which did not cost 99 cents.