A blog experiment by Brad Mills.

Aldi, the little store that could

Aldi logo I've recently discovered Aldi, and I've got to say I've become a little obsessed.

Some background is in order. I grew up in a Kroger house. Dad worked there for many years, and when he and Mom were first married, Kroger was their only source of income until Mom started her long career as an educator. It put food on the table, in all meanings of the phrase, for a large portion of my life. I also did my time working at Kroger through high school and college, as did my brother.

This isn't a snobbery thing at all, it's just what I've been used to over the years. I've ventured into other stores, yes — Food Lion, Foodland, Save-A-Lot, Food 4 Less, Harris Teeter, even Walmart and Sam's Club. But for the most part, all these stores are fundamentally the same as Kroger. Shopping carts strewn all over, thousands upon thousands of items to choose from, multiple brands, coupons to juggle, and in what seems to be a popular trend (probably inspired by Walmart), huge aisles and departments and spaces. It almost feels like a visit to a theme park anymore.

I've written here about Kroger before — more specifically, about the niftiness of the Plus Card coupon app. That still works, by the way, and they've added a feature where you can "download" a free item every Friday. It really is free. With the self-checkout, I can pop in, grab my free stuff, scan my card, not pay a cent, and roll on out of there like a smooth criminal.

Aldi is a different kind of grocery store. The stores are small. The one closest to me is in fact tucked away on the fringes of a residential neighborhood in Dunbar, about ten miles away (another one is opening on Corridor G soon). When I say "small" I'm talking about only four aisles in the entire store. That's it. The lot, also small, remains cleared of shopping carts. This is done through an ingenious system — a 25 cent deposit is required to use a cart. Do you want to get your quarter back when you're done shopping? Return your cart, stow it and lock it up properly, and your deposit is returned to you. The company doesn't have to pay anyone to clear the lot, and it doesn't lose any carts because the customer is incentivized to return them.

This is just one example of how the store operates as a whole. The entire operation is incredibly efficient from the minute you walk in the door until you leave. The first aisle of the store begins immediately inside the front door. It makes perfect sense — customers are there to buy groceries, so why waste the space on an expensive lobby which, relatively speaking, is an unprofitable wasteland? And why stay open at all hours when you might make only a few meager sales in the middle of the night? Aldi's hours reflect the shopping hours of regular people — not vampires — so there's another cost savings. As far as bagging groceries goes, you'll be doing that yourself. You can buy the bags Aldi sells at the register or you can bring your own (mine all say Kroger on them, haha) — or, just take an empty display box from the big wire bins in the store, which helps Aldi get rid of the boxes and gives you a free way to carry your stuff through the store and out to your car.

Let's get to the good stuff: prices. On a recent trip a couple of weeks ago, here are some of the deals I found without even trying:

  • "Toasted Oats" (Aldi brand Cheerios): 14 ounce box, $1.19
  • Baby carrots: Two pounds, $1.98
  • Tomato soup: One can, 49¢
  • Sour cream: 16 ounces, 99¢ (all natural ingredients)
  • "Toaster Tarts" (Aldi brand Pop-tarts): Box of 12, $1.99
  • Fresh strawberries: One pound, $1.29
  • Organic avocados: Four for $2.99
  • 2% milk: One gallon, $1.59
  • Potatoes: Ten pounds, $2.49

A trip with just these items (I actually got a lot more) would cost exactly $15. I haven't priced these products elsewhere, but I can say the prices on six of these nine items are the lowest I've seen in years. Milk for $1.59 per gallon? Yes, please. And just so you know, I didn't cherry-pick these items because their prices were lower. Just about everything I saw was inexpensive.

You'll see there are a couple of off-brand things listed. Almost everything Aldi sells is a brand they own. This lets them control the entire supply chain, and they can squeeze out savings all the way down to the point where the product cases are opened and the products are displayed in the store. The cases, in fact, become the displays and are engineered so they can be. And, the product packages themselves have barcodes on multiple sides and at multiple angles so when the cashiers scan them, they can do so in one swipe without having to search all over the box for them. As a former cashier (and a very fast one back in the day), I will say this is a brilliant idea which somebody should have implemented when barcodes were first introduced.

As for quality — it's pretty good. There are a few food things I'm very picky about (Cheez-it crackers and Grape Nuts cereal are two of these, a few others are here), so finding substitutes for those will be a futile effort, of course. Strawberries are... well, they're strawberries. I will note that some of the strawberries were spoiling on the day I went, so it's probably wise to check any produce item for obvious problems — but really, that's not a bad idea at any store that sells fresh produce. Yes, even Kroger. But for the prices, I was rather impressed with everything. It's almost like the food industry is profit-based, and Aldi is approaching it from the angle of spending less in other areas and passing those savings on to the consumer.

Pretty novel idea, I know. With my regular Kroger store being incapacitated due to flood damage, it's a good chance to try some different stores. Aldi is turning into a new favorite.

Fortune cookies

I cleaned my wallet out this morning and found quite a few fortunes from Chinese fortune cookies. There was a time when I posted the best of these on Facebook, but I stopped that practice when I left the site. Apparently I thought I might do that again at some point and kept collecting them.

I've decided to share them here instead. Calling these "the best" is a somewhat relative and subjective measure. From the looks of the fortunes, it looks like it could have meant funny, ironic, goofy, wise, interesting, or mildly prophetic. Further, I have no idea how long I've collected these, but I'm pretty sure some of them are four years old or more.

By the way, for those who don't know: the fortune cookie is not a Chinese tradition at all. It originates from a similar cookie sold in Kyoto, Japan in the 1800s and then again in Japanese restaurants in California around the late 1800s and early 1900s. During World War II they became more closely associated with Chinese culture (a shift likely influenced by the war). But that mental association is more marketing ploy than reality — fortune cookies in their modern form are very much an American creation. In fact, the world's largest manufacturer of fortune cookies is Wonton Food, Inc. with its headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and two additional locations in Texas and Tennessee. They even let you order cookies with custom fortunes inside, which is pretty cool and a unique promotional idea. And let's face it, nothing screams America more loudly than unique promotional items from New York, Texas, and Tennessee.

Here is my now discarded collection of fortunes, with all punctuation and grammar copied as printed.

  • Stop searching forever, happiness is just next to you.
  • Fate will find a way. (Note: Received twice)
  • Be on the lookout for coming events; They cast their shadows beforehand!
  • This could be an almost perfect day. Enjoy it.
  • All the troubles you have will pass away very quickly.
  • People make plans; fate makes the plan successful.
  • What makes an apple fall to the ground?
  • Big things coming in future. Only matter of time.
  • This instant is the only time there is.
  • Time to collect those good
  • Good things are coming to you in due course of time
  • You will stumble into the path that will lead your life to happiness.
  • All thing has a cause. Look into your pass for answer
  • You will strike it rich soon.
  • We are what we think.
  • A good way to keep healthy is to eat more Chinese food.
  • If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.
  • You are a happy man. (Note: What if a woman or child got this one?)
  • The one waiting for you when you get home will be your friend for life.
  • Actions speak louder than talks.
  • Your next interview will result in a job
  • First learn to "give" and then the universe will reward you. (Note: Received twice)

A dream chased into reality

Last weekend, at the West Virginia Writers Annual Conference, I submitted what I thought was a throwaway prose piece. It was a mostly polished page from my paper journal, slight edits applied and names removed to protect the... well, the guilty (based on a true story, as they say). In general, I don't feel as comfortable with prose as I do poetry, but I figured what the hell. Print it out, grab a pushpin, stick it up on the wall, and see what happens. It's not like it's doing any good gathering dust in a notebook, right?

WV Writers Award Much to my surprise, I got an award for it — second place. So I am now officially an award-winning West Virginia writer, an honor bestowed upon me by the largest, oldest, and most prestigious writing organization in the state.

I'm not bragging about this or tooting my horn, I promise. But this is the first award I've gotten for writing since 1988, so I'm quite happy about it and have basically been floating for the last week. This is also the first award I've gotten as an adult writer (not to be confused with a writer of adult things), so there's a little vindication for me there. Specifically, it's a proof: you've got it. You can do this. You are doing this.

I've placed the ribbon and certificate so they're the first things I see when I wake up in the morning. A reminder that yes, indeed, this is actually happening and it's not a dream. Or if it is a dream, it's coming true.


Enjoying the silence

This morning, I enjoyed a rather lengthy and rare period of silence. Life has been hella crazy busy for many weeks now, so it was nice to have some time to just be and not be somewhere or do something or anything but just sit and exist and enjoy.

It was a gray and quiet morning. At the same time, not. Rain fell — fast then slow then fast again as showers drifted through. Birds sang randomly in a language only they can understand. Up above my backyard, on US 119, cars passed — their tires pushing against the wet pavement, a sound as familiar as the surroundings in which I dwell.

My internal mental dialog silenced itself as I took everything in and poked around on the Internet. Eight, nine, ten browser tabs, some of my usual haunts. I am always online, consuming knowledge, absorbing all I can. But then, "online" is no longer a thing we do, but a thing we carry with us everywhere.

Part of that knowledge today: I learned that the universe is expanding faster than any speed we will ever reach. This means that eventually, the area around the Milky Way Galaxy (including us) will be completely isolated from everything else. We won't even be able to see anything else in the universe except what's fairly close to us. Separation — isolation — is thus, it seems, first: an intrinsic property of reality, and second: getting more pronounced as time advances.

In an era when we have — and carry with us, in our pockets — the means to contact every corner of the globe simultaneously, it's strange to think everything else in the universe is rushing away from us so fast that we will never get close to it.

And listening to the rain and birds this morning, a brief and welcome pause in the midst of chaos, I couldn't completely decide if that level of isolation was a good or a bad thing.

Butterfly Nebula

Faking it (and I guess making it)

A few months ago I polled — rather unscientifically — several people in a few diverse groups whose lives currently intersect mine. My poll consisted of only one question, to wit: "Do you have a plan in your life?" And if asked for clarification, I offered: "Do you feel like you're faking your way through life, making it up as you go?" I realized at some point that I don't have a real plan, at least not one that makes any sense. Most days I get up out of bed and just go at it. And I guess I needed to know if I was unique in that regard.

The answer was very strongly skewed toward the "I don't have a plan" camp. Honestly, there was relief in knowing I wasn't the only one.

I mean short term, yes, I guess we all have some plans... I plan to finish out today, and then join some friends for a (fast!!!) trip to Morgantown and back. I plan to go to a stupid meeting this afternoon (it's on my calendar, anyway). I plan to mow the lawn at some point between now and Sunday (blah). But these are all small things. I don't have a so-called bucket list. I used to, but the bucket kind of got tipped over, so now if I make any kind of list, it's more akin to the one Toad made (and lost):

The point to that story, I think, is that the best-laid plans — even the short-term ones — can easily become futile, and sometimes you have no choice but to roll with it and see what happens (or I guess sit on a hill with Frog and do absolutely nothing).

I've found that I often write in this manner — just jump in and start throwing things together, see what develops. Last night I passed a work in progress around at my writing group, and I was surprised at how many people picked up on an underlying theme. It developed on its own from what I thought was just a series of images. I didn't go into working on this piece with the idea that it would be a cohesive work at all. But there were apparently things happening at a deeper level, things I wasn't aware of consciously. With that in mind now, I can enhance the theme a little by choosing the right words and phrases and make it look like I had a plan all along. I didn't, though. I'm not sure if that's cheating or not, but it seems to work.

So perhaps similarly, our lives develop themes based on countless small actions, and we lack the objectivity to see it. I don't view my life as a cohesive whole in any way. Maybe it's developing (or has) a theme, but if so, I certainly don't see it here in the day to day. I'm just faking it, faking it, faking it... every single day, in some kind of smoke and mirrors sideshow. But — again — it seems to work.

Purple reign

Prince died yesterday at the age of 57. There have been lots of deaths in the music world this year — David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), Frank Sinatra Jr., Merle Haggard, and now Prince. Just a bizarre year unfolding.

Prince lost relevance for me in the mid-1990s I guess. I knew he was still making music, and in fact was doing so all the way up to his death — he was touring earlier this month. I listened to Purple Rain a great deal when it was hot, and a few other albums, and then he started getting weird and adopted that symbol thing as his name (which, if it were an html entity, should be &tafkap;). And I guess the novelty of songs with titles like "2 Horny 4 U 2 Have" or whatever just wore off.

There's no doubt he was a huge influence on music. Bowie was too, really. I don't think I'd call myself a "fan" of either, though, not like I'm a fan of Steven Wilson or Heart or Enya. Hell, even if The Bangles came to Charleston, I'd likely go see them (um... Susanna Hoffs!), but I'd probably skip out on Prince. Well... definitely now, since he's a little dead.

The Internet blew up about this latest celebrity death, and that's the part that interests me. Bowie was a big deal too. I don't recall hearing much about Merle Haggard or Glenn Frey, though. Why? Frey was a member of The Eagles; they were huge and spun off several successful solo artists — Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh. Prince kind of propped up Sheena Easton and Sheila E. and a handful of other 80s hotties (see also the aforementioned Bangles), but I think there was a good bit of sexy time going on there, too. Don Henley was (and is) talented in his own right, and even though he and Frey were bandmates, they didn't need to prop each other up, and I'm pretty sure they weren't playing sexy time (though I could be wrong there).

We cling to interesting heroes in this era of social media and (arguably) groupthink. Instead of a member of a solid rock band with a dependable work ethic, we gravitate toward a short and kind of freaky dude from Minneapolis who may in fact have loved males and females equally and who got out of a recording contract by pumping out several albums of garbage and writing "Slave" on his face. I have nothing against Prince, really... and maybe it's just a numbing effect from so many dead musicians over the last little bit. But this curious emergent phenomenon of rallying around some but not others is notable, and it makes me wonder who the next designated darling will be.