Thrifty District: Salad Bar Shopping

Photo courtesy of Me

courtesy of Me

When the Murky Coffee Kerfuffle erupted last year one of the funniest comments I saw was over on Metafilter and wasn’t so much about the conflict as it was terminology. The writer took issue with the term “ghetto latte,” where a customer buys a cheaper espresso-only drink and dumps in the no-charge milk at the condiment bar.  “‘Latte arbitrage’ is a much better description, since if their pricing was consistent this type of operation would not be profitable.” You’ve got to be a little bit of a finance geek to be amused by this use of the word arbitrage, but I’ve spent enough time listening to Marketplace to be tickled by the statement.

The salad bar at your local grocery is another place where you can practice some consumer arbitrage, though there’s also advantage to be had in not buying things that spoil before you use them all. There’s also some things there that are pure and simple sucker items which you shouldn’t be buying in any quantity if you own a can opener.I can’t remember the last time I went through the grocery salad bar for the purpose of making an actual salad, but I’m quite fond of it as a way to pick up items I can’t use a whole container of. Taco or quesadilla night at the Whiteside household often has salad bar shopping, for lettuce if nothing else. Iceburg lettuce in a proper salad? Please. I could get a mix but that’s a bag of crunchy air. After I sprinkle some in my tortilla what am I going to do with the rest of the bag or head? Ditto the shredded cheese, which at $3.99 for 12oz makes for a slight markup when bought off the salad bar, but that’s no savings if half of it ends up being a penicillin factory down the road. The salad bar is a great way to shop in more sensible quantites and reduce your waste.

There’s also a good way to do a little waist-watching here, though you can tell yourself it’s about the money if you like: pudding and the other desert items. You bring pudding cups into my house and there’s no possibility of waste: they’re all going to be consumed. But let me tell you, even after you eat all four of the single-serving cups you still have to find something to do with the other half of the hour. The salad bar’s a great way to get that bit of sweet and not buy more than you really need. You’ll eat every bite of it whether it’s 3 or 300, so just dose out the 3 and don’t bring home the rest of the temptation.

Photo courtesy of Me


Hanging on to your cash when actually making salad is marginally more challenging, but not too much more so. Every grocery chain I’ve been in this decade has had labels that break down costs by the ounce so you can compare products. It works just as well for salad bar arbitrage if you do one quick calculation.

The Whole Foods on P and 14th where I did my quick reconnaissance prices their salad bar at $7.99 a pound. A quick divide by 16 – ounces, that is – turns that into $0.50/oz, which is all the information you need to determine if you should avoid a few items on the salad bar and add them yourself later.

Photo courtesy of Me

courtesy of Me

It’s pretty intuitive that most of the heavier items on the salad bar like cottage cheese work out to your disadvantage, but some others are less obvious. If you’re putting more than a sprinkle of corn or other beans on your salad you’re practically throwing money away.  At $0.11/oz that’s a $0.39 spread – buy 4 times what you really need and you’re still ahead of that salad bar rate. Chick peas, green beans, kidney – all are in the dime an ounce range, so if you like them on your salad you should grab some cans and add them yourself when you get back to the office.

Watch out for salad dressings too. If you’re a bleu cheese fan and have no way to refrigerate a bottle back at the office that’s one thing, but that italian may not need to be chilled. Liquids are heavy; buying them by the pound adds up quick. If you can just keep the bottle in your desk drawer you might shave some serious coin off over the course of several visits.

Lastly, if you’re looking on the salad bar for some of the other items like fried rice or couscous salads make sure you take a second to comparison shop the chill cases before you bite. Much of that stuff came over from the staffed counter and some is cheaper, paradoxically, when you have a grocery employee dole it out for you rather than serve yourself at the bar. Don’t be afraid to ask them to box up 1/8th of a pound of that green bean and almond.

Happy shopping.

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


3 thoughts on “Thrifty District: Salad Bar Shopping

  1. Good tips! However, I do have to point out that the canned foods are frequently packed with water which isn’t weightless. While it is ultimately cheaper to buy the canned version than from the salad bar, you’re paying for a good bit of water with that corn.

  2. I’ve also heard that salad bar operators typically put the most expensive items in the “inner” part of the bar, meaning you have to reach across one row of tubs to get to them. Makes sense – they want the cheap stuff to be as easily accessible as possible. The picture above actually shows that – I’m sure that shredded carrots and feta cheese are way cheaper than a salad of cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts.

    Anyway, now when I go to the salad bar I’ll always look first at the things that are hardest to reach.

  3. Nice idea to save money, but unless you’re at whole foods, salad bars are very, very iffy on cleanliness. I go to the Columbia Heights Giant and it’s a veritable petri dish.