Forget Trader Joe's, let's hear it for Aldi!



Last week's opening of the two local Trader Joe's stores in the metro -- reported in Fat City by Jonathan Bender -- got lots of media hoopla, including an excellent radio report on KCUR 89.3's KC Currents program yesterday. (It will be rebroadcast tonight at 8.) The Ward Parkway store was wildly crowded on Sunday morning -- two days after the opening -- with fans of the California-based specialty grocery stores. The Ward Parkway and Leawood stores are expected to be busy all week.

Distinctly less busy and most definitively less glamorous are the Aldi stores in the area. But there are a few similarities: Both sell private-brand merchandise, including many imported items. Some of the better imports, such as the excellent Mozer Roth chocolate, are German imports. And why not? Both Trader Joe's and the Aldi stores are owned by the German food conglomerates owned by the Albrecht brothers -- Aldi is the conflation of Albrecht Discount. In other words, the stores are, well, cousins.

The Albrecht brothers Karl and Theo operated a single company from the

1940s until 1960, when a family rift reportedly developed over whether to

sell cigarettes. The brothers created  two separate companies that

year. The Aldi stores (which have been dubbed, not too kindly, the "ghetto Trader Joe's") are operated by Aldi Sud, or Aldi South. The Trader Joe's chain was created by California entrepreneur Joe Coulombe in 1967; he sold the company in 1979 to the family trust created by Aldi Nord, or Aldi North, founder Theo Albrecht..

Not everyone is going to love Aldi stores, where the rental of a shopping cart is a quarter (you get it back after returning the cart to the outdoor rack) and patrons can either bring their own shopping bags or buy them from the cashier. The selection of products is seriously limited -- most Aldi stores carry about 2,800 different products, while traditional supermarkets offer more than 30,000 -- but the prices are impressively cheaper. And the interior of stores, while clean and tidy, is ugly. But who's buying ambience?

The fresh produce at Aldi's -- bleh. And if you grew up in a household where name brands were all-important (as I did -- my mother, raised during the Depression, was totally brand-loyal right down to her detergent and toothpaste), you may be thrown off by the unfamiliar house brands: Cheese Club, Chef's Cupboard, Nature's Nectar, Dakota, Summit sodas.

Most of these private brands are just fine -- or better. The upscale Choceur chocolate candy is divine -- and inexpensive -- and the Berman's mayonnaise is as good as the more famous Hellman's, but cheaper. Packaged ground turkey is often a dollar less than at Price Chopper stores, and the signature brand Millville cereals are much less costly than the name brands at bigger supermarkets. The dairy products, including butter and a pretty decent array of packaged cheeses, are not significantly cheaper than at local supermarkets, but they are if you're counting pennies. The store's Grandessa products represent Aldi's more upscale product line, and there are some really nice choices; I love the German import coffee.

Sure, the Aldi stores don't have the trendy cachet of the Trader Joe's stores, but you can save enough money buying staples at Aldi's so that you can venture into the more pricey Trader Joe's and make a couple of snazzier purchases.

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