“My TikTok-famous GTA grocery outlet offers up to 70 per cent off food staples”

“My TikTok-famous GTA grocery outlet offers up to 70 per cent off food staples”

This family-owned chain keeps shoppers’ grocery bills low—and minimizes food waste—by buying and selling products at a discount. Here’s how they do it

This TikTok-famous GTA grocery outlet fights food inflation and waste by offering up to 70 per cent off staples

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you know that the cost of groceries has skyrocketed, with food inflation sending many Canadians in search of more affordable options. Enter Grocery Outlet, a liquidation food retailer that buys excess merchandise from manufacturers and sells it to consumers at a significant discount. Earlier this year, the 25-year-old chain had its moment in the virtual spotlight when the TikToker @bailsbarbosa posted her discount shopping excursion at the store (and more than 250,000 viewers marvelled at her haul).

“The next day we had lineups around the block,” says Carolyn Boiani, Grocery Outlet’s co-owner, who founded the company with her sister in 1998. Boiani says their model is a win-win-win, helping both shoppers and manufacturers save a buck while keeping perfectly good food out of landfills. Here, she explains the mechanics behind the major discounts and why, even though she’s the CEO, she loves to go undercover as a cashier.

I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. My parents owned convenience stores and still run a small pizza chain, Square Boy Pizza, in the Durham region. When my sister and I were in our early 20s, we were both trying to figure out what to do with our lives. We wanted to work together, and we liked the idea of reclaiming things and working to counteract the rampant waste that comes with consumerism. We had spent time in the US and were inspired by their liquidation bakery outlets, which are common down south. We decided to bring the idea home. 

In 1998, we opened our first store, in Oshawa, in a 1,500-square-foot space in a plaza that my dad owned. We filled it with surplus baked goods from manufacturers like Sarah Lee and Little Debbies. A major grocery chain had just leased the space across the lot, so we knew that would bring a lot of foot traffic. We didn’t have any employees at the time; it was just my sister, my parents and me, painting the walls and installing tiles.

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We called our business Almost Perfect because that described our model at the time: buying “imperfect” baked goods from manufacturers—products that would be rejected by the grocery stores because they were slightly over or under the expected weight or had small problems that didn’t affect the taste or quality, like a crack in a pie crust. Initially, we’d imagined sticking with a confectionery focus; when we opened, we scooped ice cream and planned to decorate cakes. But then the manufacturers we were buying from started offering us items that weren’t desserts, like frozen lasagnas, cabbage rolls and pizzas. We knew the customers coming to us for baked goods would be interested in other deals, so expanding to a broader grocery concept—and eventually changing our name to the Grocery Outlet—was a no-brainer. 

Today, we have 12 locations throughout Ontario. Our stores look similar to a typical supermarket, only smaller. We don’t have a produce section or a deli counter, and we don’t have the same level of selection in terms of selling five different brands of yellow mustard or 50 kinds of crackers. What we offer is constantly in flux. We may have a certain product one week and then not again for several months, if ever. We encourage our customers to shop with us first—and benefit from the savings—and then buy what we couldn’t offer at their regular grocery store.  

This TikTok-famous GTA grocery outlet fights food inflation and waste by offering up to 70 per cent off staples

The discount we offer on grocery staples is generally between 30 and 70 per cent. People always ask me, How do you do it? They may assume we’re selling low-quality, off-brand products, which is not the case. In our stores, shoppers will find the same products they see at any other major grocery chain, manufactured by companies such as Maple Leaf/Schneiders, Kraft/Heinz, and Hershey. We work with the same businesses that supply large grocery and restaurant chains.

Every deal we broker is unique, but we’re normally buying surplus inventory that a manufacturer isn’t going to be able to sell to a bigger supermarket. It may be because of imperfections or because they just overestimated the demand. Sometimes, it’s more cost-effective for them to produce extra of a certain product, which often happens with economies of scale. At that point, we make them an offer that’s much lower than what their primary customers would pay. It allows the manufacturer to recoup some of their costs and helps keep good food from being thrown away.

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We also take a different approach to date coding, or best-before dating, which was always supposed to be a manufacturer’s guideline for stock rotation, not a message for the consumer. Best-before dates are a manufacturer’s suggestion for optimum freshness, and they should be seen as just that, but people have come to think “best before” means a product shouldn’t be eaten after that date. In fact, there’s almost always a buffer of weeks, months or, on frozen items, even years. Even so, bigger chains won’t touch products with fast-approaching best-before dates. To counteract the widespread misconception, some countries like the UK have started to ban best-before dates entirely. There’s a push for the Canadian government to do the same.

In the meantime, manufacturers are encouraging customers to inspect, smell and taste their food to determine freshness. We work with them on that by purchasing perfectly good products that bigger grocers won’t touch at a discount. At the moment, we’re selling major brand-name popcorn that regularly retails for $3.77 for $1.49. The product is recently past its best-before date, but it’s still perfectly good to eat and and will still taste fresh for some time. We encourage people to stop looking at best-before dates as the sole determining factor of the quality of a product.  

This TikTok-famous GTA grocery outlet fights food inflation and waste by offering up to 70 per cent off staples

Another sensitive issue that we deal with is buying products that are intended for various grocery chains’ private-label brands. Every major grocery chain has their own in-house branding. When we sell these products, we will repackage or cover the label with our own brand. We can’t advertise as much, but we’re selling the exact same food that is sold under well-known brands. For example, we recently sold two kilos of chicken nuggets or strips that were too big, small or stuck together for the intended retailer to sell. Every day and every deal is different.

Going viral on TikTok earlier this year was definitely a sign of the times, and it brought us a lot of traffic. We recently added a second shift at our warehouse so that we could increase our store shipments to meet the demand. Even before that moment of internet fame, the cost of groceries had brought a lot of new shoppers our way. We’re selling more frozen vegetables than ever, which makes sense. Have you seen the cost of lettuce lately? It’s unbelievable, and of course I’ve been following the investigations into grocery stores profiteering during the pandemic. It’s not my place to comment on that, but we’re proud to be providing an alternative at a time when people need it most. 

Sometimes I still work the cash at our Toronto store and a customer marvels at how much they were able to buy with us compared to what they would have got for the same price elsewhere. We’re extremely proud to be able to offer a viable alternative to people distressed by grocery prices—and to be combatting food insecurity and preventing good food from ending up in landfills.