back to the Black Table

It's Sunday. You're starving and ready for lunch. But you've got a lot of shopping to do. Toilet paper, baby food, new tires, a memory card and a Wiggles DVD are all on your list.

Better go to Costco.

Normally, you'd make a side trip to the local diner or fast-food joint

  to fill up before entering the warehouse emporium. But then you go in, head to the food section in the back and notice that there is station after station of vittles being fried, microwaved and grilled, all being served to a waiting throng of salivating shoppers. You know what that means: free samples! Can there be two sweeter words in      

the English language?

As you grab a small cup of Chef Boyardee Ravioli and snarf it down, you think to yourself, "Jeez, look at all this stuff. It's too bad I went out to eat before I got here. I could probably fill up on samples alone."

But is that really possible? I decided to try to find out.

One Sunday not too long ago, I was getting photos printed at the one-hour booth at my local Costco. Hungry and with little else to do for an hour, I figured it was high time to try to settle the issue once and for all. What I found out is that going from starving to satisfied via Costco samples is possible, but a bit of planning is needed. Oh, and some mental toughness, too, because weary shoppers and free food can sometimes be a dangerous combination.

Here are some tips to consider if you are planning your own free food expedition:

#1: Search The Entire Store


You need to do some reconnaissance before you dig in. Even though most of the samples are situated by the freezers, there may be a sample table wedged into another section of the store, say, in the meat section or over by the 20-pound boxes of M&Ms. And even though there's a 99.99 percent chance that there aren't going to be samples in the photo, electronics and furniture areas, you never know when there might


be a bowl or plate of something out. Heck, even the tire center might have some mints.

#2: Go With The Flow
If you go up to the first sample station and there's nothing out, just go to the next one. If there's nothing ready there, go to the third. Keep going until you hit paydirt. Don't panic! You're not missing out on anything. Double back to the stations that were on the cooking phase and keep surveying until the food is ready.

#3: Be Ready To Throw Some Elbows

  I really feel bad for the people who man these sample stations. Not only do they have to slave away for eight hours in front of an electric grill while wearing a silly-looking hairnet, they also have to deal with the drooling hordes of customers as they cook up the next batch. People hover over the sample station like vultures waiting for the elk to die, barely letting the person put down the tray before snapping up every morsel.

Because of this, you have to be


assertive when you reach for a sample, because if you don't, you might not just lose out on a chance for a nice piece of chicken or cup of pasta salad, but you might also get some bruised ribs for your trouble. But you can't be too aggressive; if you see a little old lady make a beeline towards the Chinese dumplings, don't stand in her way. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about; I'm still picking shards of Lee Press-On Nails out of my neck.

#4: Go To Each Station More Than Once

  Sample etiquette dictates that you should not take more than one piece or cup or toothpick at a time. It makes you look like a glutton, or worse yet, George Costanza. But there's nothing wrong with coming back to a station after you've visited all the other ones. It's the only way you're going to be able to eat enough food to stave off your hunger. (Unless the aforementioned Boyardee ravioli is being served. Three cups of that is enough for anyone.)

The key here is to be nonchalant. The first time you go up to the station, you can pretend to be interested -- "Hey, what's this?" -- but you don't have to ask this every time you go up there. Remember, the besieged


attendants are too busy cooking, cutting and stiff-arming the customer herd to remember how many times you've stepped up to the trough. So, all you need to do is walk up, grab the goods and walk away nonchalantly. If you can approach a table from the side or back, like I did when I couldn't resist the lure of the bratwurst table, take advantage of it.

#5: Don't Think About What You're Eating

  Remember, this isn't an exercise in healthy eating. Most of what's being put out there is in one of four food groups: fried, creamy, sweet or greasy. However, you are eating really tiny portions of it, so the detrimental health effects of each consumed sample is small. Also, don't worry about it if a particular sample looks sketchy; it's a small risk to take to give it a try. If someone is mixing random      
  concoctions in a Vita-Mix, for instance, don't be shy about it. It could be a tasty tortilla soup or a disgusting V8 substitute. Either way, the experience will be over soon.

If you've never even heard of the brand or type of food that's being peddled -- I had to try to figure out what kind of fish a "kingclip" is, for instance -- just suck it up and eat it. Eliminating one station just means you'll have to go to the other ones more often. Why give the Hairnet Brigade any reason to look up from their electric frying pans?

#6: Look Like You're Actually Shopping

  This may seem obvious, but you'll feel a whole lot less conspicuous in your mission if you actually look like you're shopping. It doesn't matter if you're trolling the frozen foods section or trying to put a recliner in your cart, you'll look like a stalker if you don't have anything in your hands. A major mistake I made was to not have anything else to buy while I was waiting for my photos to get printed. So, I just circled the sample stations over and over with a hungry look in my eyes. I don't think I aroused suspicion from the attendants -- they were too busy keeping the customers from biting off their fingertips -- but I'm sure some of the other customers noticed. If I had made one more revolution around the      
  tables, I'm sure I would have had a shopping cart or two bashed into my knee.

#7: Don't Drive Away Hungry


Driving away from Costco, photos in hand, I regretted that I didn't go back for a few more rounds of tiny food. Yeah, the edge was off my hunger, but I wasn't full. As I pulled into Quiznos to buy a "toasted sub of shame," I swore that I would do better the next time. And so will you, now that you have a plan. Enjoy!


Joel Keller is a freelance writer from New Jersey. He wants to see if he can make a decent meal from stuff he buys at dollar stores.