Mon. May 20th, 2024

The checkout lines stretched far into the aisles of the 99 Cents Only store in Beverly Grove on Monday afternoon. Red and black signs that read “Store Closing Sale” greeted shoppers at the entrance. Store shelves were mostly bare and the fresh fruit bins almost empty. It felt like a trip to the grocery store in March 2020.

This month the discount chain announced plans to close all 371 locations. The closures will leave many who rely on the bargain prices looking to alternatives for grocery shopping.

Of all the discount chains with a dollar amount in the name, the 99 Cents Only Stores was one of the few that offered a wide selection of fresh food.

At the Beverly Grove location, I’ve found eggplant, tomatillos, bok choy, ground beef and turkey, bags of spinach and radish. And I could always count on some name-brand finds. On this last visit, there were packs of Buldak kimchi spicy chicken ramen for $1.49 (at Walmart, a five-pack is going for $15.95) and jars of Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp for $3.49.

Though it’s been years since the store capped its prices at 99 cents (the City of Commerce-based chain first raised its prices in 2008), the store was a reliable source for a wide assortment of reasonably priced foods and household items.

Mark J. Miller, CEO of Pic ‘N’ Save Bargains, expressed interest in buying the company earlier this week. If successful, he could save 143 stores in Southern California.

With the closures looming, I visited four additional discount stores with a budget of $20, to compare prices on basic items such as milk, bread, eggs, produce and some common packaged goods.

Most variety: Grocery Outlet

A selection of groceries bought from Grocery Outlet

A selection of groceries bought from Grocery Outlet including milk, eggs, cheese, fresh fruit, vegetables, dry pasta, pasta sauce and tuna.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times )

The Grocery Outlet store in Burbank feels more like a City Target than a discount chain with a selection of name-brand items, household supplies and even beer and wine. The stores rely on surplus inventory, product overruns, packaging changes and other variable circumstances for inventory and pricing. Independent owner-operators run the stores, and the selection will vary at each location. But you can count on milk, eggs, bread and fresh produce.

Here’s a breakdown of the $20:

Grocery Outlet receipt

Shopping notes: At the Burbank store, there was a sizable international foods section and I was able to find sheets of rice paper ($1.59) that I normally buy at 99 Ranch Market, instant Sriracha ramen noodle soup ($1.49), instant beef pho ($2.99) and a decent variety of salsa.

Best bargain: Dollar Tree

Food purchased from the Dollar Tree store

Food purchased from the Dollar Tree store within a $20 budget include milk, frozen vegetables, dried fruit, wheat bread, pasta sauce, dry pasta, frozen noodles, mayonnaise, a frozen lobster egg roll, cheese and lunch meat.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Not everything at the Dollar Tree is a dollar, like the name suggests. In 2022, the store changed its base price from $1 to $1.25. And just this week, the company announced that it plans to add $7 items to store shelves.

For this shopping trip, I visited the location on La Cienega Boulevard. More than half the store was devoted to housewares and party supplies and most everything is priced at $1.25. I was unable to find eggs or fresh produce, with the majority of the grocery items being frozen, canned or dried. I was most surprised by the frozen foods aisle, where I found individual egg rolls, frozen beef and broccoli noodles and a variety of other prepared meals and snacks.

Here’s a breakdown of what I bought:

Dollar Tree receipt

Shopping notes: Though there wasn’t much fresh food, I could have purchased more prepared items and stayed within the $20 budget. I tried the lobster egg roll (also sold at Walmart for $1.48), which came with a small packet of sweet and sour sauce. I followed the instructions on the package and baked the egg roll in the oven. It was no better or worse than an egg roll you might find at a fast-food Chinese takeout restaurant with a crunchy wonton wrapper. It was on the heftier side and well stuffed with shredded cabbage and imitation crab, but I couldn’t find the lobster. The beef and broccoli is the better buy (despite the unfortunate “Eat Asian Style!” name) with bits of beef and vegetables throughout.

Basics on a budget: Family Dollar

Groceries purchased from the Family Dollar store.

Groceries purchased from Family Dollar within a $20 budget include bread, milk, cheese, lunch meat, frozen vegetables, mayonnaise, tuna, dry pasta, pasta sauce and a frozen chicken sandwich.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

The Family Dollar stores are owned by the Dollar Tree, a chain based in Chesapeake, Va. Earlier this year, the company announced that it will close 600 Family Dollar stores this year and an additional 370 stores in the next couple of years. There are also plans to shutter 30 Dollar Tree locations after the leases expire over the next few years.

The selection of fresh foods at the Slauson Avenue Family Dollar is minimal, with items mostly confined to a single refrigerator and aisle. But there are basic canned and dried goods, snacks and frozen foods. This is a good option if you’re looking for prepared items or pantry staples.

Here’s a breakdown of what I bought:

Family Dollar receipt

Shopping notes: With an abundance of prepared frozen foods, I decided to purchase a few items outside the $20 budget to see if they were worth the splurge. At $1.35, the Fast Bites cheeseburger is twice the size of a White Castle frozen slider and substantial enough for lunch. The bun is soft and the meat is pressed and formed like the middle of a McRib sandwich. Skip the frozen Lunchables pack of two pizza grilled cheese sandwiches ($5.25). Each sandwich is filled with one piece of American cheeese, three slices of pepperoni and about a tablespoon of tomato sauce. For about half the price, you can buy a loaf of bread, a package of cheese and make eight fresh grilled cheese sandwiches instead.

Most like the major grocery chains: Food 4 Less

Grocery items from Food 4 Less

Grocery items from Food 4 Less include milk, wheat bread, dry pasta, pasta sauce, eggs, apples, lunchmeat, canned tuna, cheese and frozen vegetables.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

There are a total of 101 Food 4 Less stores in California, Illinois and Indiana, with the majority of the locations in California. Of all the discount chains I visited, Food 4 Less had the widest selection of fresh, frozen and packaged foods. Most have a bakery on site. While it wasn’t difficult to stick to the $20 budget for basics, most of the grocery item prices seemed similar to what you’ll find at any major grocery chain.

Food 4 Less receipt

Shopping notes: If you follow a plant-based diet, there’s plenty to choose from in the freezer aisle with products from Impossible, Beyond Meat and Gardein. A 15-ounce bag of Gardein plant-based chicken tenders was going for $8.99. I spotted some novelty items in the international foods aisle including 16-ounce bottles of Kogi BBQ Korean BBQ and Sweet Garlic Teriyaki sauces ($4.79 each) and instant boba kits ($7.99). This is also a good place to buy dried beans and rice, with a good selection of both at competitive prices. I found a 32-ounce bag of black beans for $1.49.

The original: 99 Cents Only

The 99 Cent Only Stores location in Santa Monica on April 5, 2024

The parking lot was full at the 99 Cents Only Stores location in Santa Monica last week.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

On this week’s visit, I was surprised by the price tags on some of the grocery items. Large bags of Lays chips were priced at $4.49 each (still $1 less than Target) . A single mango was $2.99 (at Vons market down the street, it was $1.99). There were 28-ounce jars of McCormick Mayonesa for $6.99. A pound of ground beef was $4.99.

Here’s a breakdown of similar items I purchased at the other stores above:

99 Cents Only receipt

Shopping notes: While it may no longer be the least expensive option, part of the store’s draw was always the hunt for a surprise good deal. I can still remember the time I found $2.99 bottles of Malbec wine (the same bottles were $12 elsewhere) at the 99 Cents Only store in North Hollywood. And the time I was able to buy all the extension cords and housewares I needed for a college apartment for $10.

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By admin