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Food & Drink

An Ode to Mike’s Discount Foods, the Flea Market of Local Grocery Store Chains

Want grocery shopping that's less of a chore and more like a scavenger hunt? Welcome to Mike's.

Stacy Brooks|

The energy of this cart inside Mike’s…

The Anoka location of Mike’s Discount Foods is arranged like a typical grocery store. There’s a produce section at the front, with displays of apples, potatoes, and peppers. The back wall is devoted to refrigerators stocked with dairy items, eggs, meat, and tofu, and off to the side are some freezer cases with ice cream and convenience foods. The central aisles are filled with spices, condiments, pasta, baking supplies, and snacks.

But the layout—and the familiar brand logos, like Kraft and Pillsbury—are where the similarities to a regular grocery store end. 

The shelves at Mike’s feature a seemingly random assortment of products: gluten-free brioche buns, Dunkaroos-flavored cookie mix, plant-based ranch dressing, organic millet flour, a nine-pound box of pork egg rolls, and pumpkin spice marshmallows… in June. Neon paper signs scream the prices of each item in bold three-inch high letters. The retail experience feels less like grocery shopping and more like browsing a flea market, with something weird and wonderful wherever your eye wanders.

You'll encounter the produce section at the front of Mike's Anoka store | Stacy Brooks

Mike’s Discount Foods was founded in 1989 and has expanded to six locations, including the Twin Cities suburbs of Anoka, Fridley, and Hilltop. The mini grocery chain specializes in short-dated and closeout groceries—a similar business model to T.J. Maxx, which purchases excess retail inventory and sells it at a discount, but with cans of soup instead of shoes.

“Short-dated” simply means that the date on the package—whether it’s labeled with language like sell by, use by, best if used by, or expires on—is fast approaching, or has already passed. Although you should never eat food that looks, smells, or tastes spoiled, here’s a secret: All of those dates are fairly arbitrary. They’re subjective quality guidelines determined by each food manufacturer, not some sort of legally mandated safety standard. (The exception is baby formula, which under federal law does need to be dated to ensure that the quantity of nutrients described on the label can pass through an ordinary bottle nipple.) Consider the date printed on your milk, hot dogs, and the bottle of Worcestershire sauce that’s been sitting in your pantry since the Obama administration to be advice you can freely ignore, provided the food seems fine.

Price check: DiGiorno’s supreme stuffed crust pizzas were $6.99 each or two for $12 at Mike’s, compared to $10.79 a piece at Target | Stacy Brooks

I’ve been shopping at Mike’s for several years and have consumed hundreds of short-dated items, including an entire case of Siggi’s skyr, protein bars, Oreo O’s cereal, bagels, and raspberries. Other than freezer burn on some popsicles, I’ve never noticed a quality difference. Sure, the more delicate produce (especially berries) needs to be consumed within a day or two, but since I know that going in, I only buy what I’m actually going to eat in that time frame.

Eating perfectly edible past-dated food—whether it’s stuff you already have on hand but overlooked at the back of your refrigerator, or items you purchased at Mike’s—has some serious environmental benefits. The USDA estimates that 31 percent of our food supply is wasted at the retail and consumer levels. When that food goes uneaten, all of the water, fertilizer, pesticides, energy, and other resources used to produce, transport, store, and dispose of it are wasted, too. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that food waste is the most common material landfilled in the U.S., representing 24 percent of our trash. Globally, food waste and loss account for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions.  

And there are serious cost benefits to buying short-dated groceries at Mike’s. I compared the prices on several staple items at Mike’s Anoka location to prices at the nearby Champlin Super Target. DiGiorno’s supreme stuffed crust pizzas were $6.99 each or two for $12 at Mike’s, compared to $10.79 a piece at Target. Hamburger Helper was $1 at Mike’s and $1.79 at Target. Green and orange bell peppers were 59 cents or two for $1 at Mike’s; at Target, green bell peppers ring up at 89 cents and orange bell peppers are a whopping $1.59. Cereal might be one of the biggest savings: $2.99 per box at Mike’s for Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Kashi Maple Waffle Bites, or Wonderworks Keto chocolate cereal, with prices ranging from $3.79-$8.49 per box for the same cereals at Target.

The exterior of Mike's in Anoka | Stacy Brooks

Although the selection changes constantly, products fall into three basic categories. You have your run-of-the-mill, past-dated items, like pasta sauce and yogurt. The proportion of organic, plant-based, and gluten-free items is higher than what you’ll find at a conventional grocery store, so shopping at Mike’s can be especially rewarding for those with special dietary needs or preferences. Next up are the out-of-season items: On a recent visit, I encountered Christmas-themed boxes of chocolates, Valentine’s moon pies, and various pumpkin spice products.  

Finally, there’s the WTF stuff, the products that were presumably too offbeat to hack it at a normal store: Funfetti Oreo pancake mix, cherry berry hibiscus-flavored milk, and birthday cake Chex Mix bars. This stuff isn’t necessarily bad, and is sometimes awesome. My partner is still wistful for Fillows, a discontinued cookies 'n' crème cereal that Mike’s must have bought by the semi load.

The esoteric selection means it’s unlikely to be a one-stop shop for your weekly grocery needs, and sometimes you need to prioritize time and convenience.  But for those of us who wish grocery shopping was a little less of a chore and a little more like a scavenger hunt, Mike’s Discount Foods is our kind of place.

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