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The taste of free: Where to find samples and more in Tampa Bay

If you look forward to going to the car wash as much for the free popcorn as to get your car buffed, you'll understand what I'm about to say. There is free food that one encounters that makes life's little errands more palatable. We bargain with our kids and with ourselves: If I finally return the Dirt Devil to Costco, I'll treat myself to a long wander through the aisles where the nice ladies fire up the electric frying pans of sample snacks. • These are not restaurants, per se, but purveyors of food that are conveniently and craftily situated to aid you when you are starving, bored or in need of a little love. But there are rules. It's not cool to skulk around Five Guys eating free peanuts if you're not buying a burger. It's fair game to go to a real estate open house and linger at the snack table, but you may get the stink eye if you're hoovering up the hot hors d'oeuvres. And the plate of cookies at the bank cannot go on your lap. • Apologies to Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, but there is indeed such a thing as a free lunch. You need to be flexible on what exactly constitutes said meal, and you may need to expend a bit of energy in the pursuit, but with cunning, ingenuity and this list, free food is yours for the taking.

Frozen snacks: A charmed childhood may be measured in Baskin-Robbins little pink spoons. Taster spoons they called them, and a quick call to BR confirms: There are no corporate strictures on the maximum number of free tastes. Cold Stone Creamery gives them out, too, but gets a little balky after three. Larry's Olde Fashioned Ice Cream in St. Pete Beach is mighty generous with the samples, Yogurtology has an employee doling out free tastes and — get this — Yogurtland gives out little paper cups so you can fix your own samples, "as many as you want" said a clerk in the Dale Mabry location.

Grocery giveaways: Publix gets major kudos for freebies. There are the free cookies for kids in the bakery and free meat and cheese samples with your order at the deli counter (it takes some steely nerve to ask for a free slice of prosciutto or the pricey Serrano ham), and then late afternoon the Apron's cooking demos yield major paydirt, conveniently coinciding with many young kids' crazy-hungry meltdowns. Still, Greenwise on a Friday evening has the mother lode of free samples and Fresh Market on the weekends may pack in so many wine tastings that you need to shop with a designated driver.

Buzz cuts: Haircuts aren't cheap at salons like Level Salon and Spa in Hyde Park, but a hefty pour of free wine softens the blow. And at stylists like Mikel's Salon in Tampa, add in a bowl of warmed salted nuts as an accompaniment to your gratis pinot grigio.

Morning treat: AutoWay Honda in Clearwater serves up Barney's coffee and Publix donuts to customers daily in the lobby, with a shiny, old-fashioned popcorn machine in the sales department. And they are not alone: Many auto repair shops and dealerships offer refreshments, and during summer sales pushes dealerships are known to roll out the grills and get barbecuing in the parking lots.

Feeling parched? The UPS store at 1936 Bruce B Downs Blvd. in Wesley Chapel gives out free bottled water (the other Wesley Chapel location, and many others, feature water tanks and paper cups). And for the hard stuff, ABC Fine Wine and Spirits in St. Petersburg always has 12 bottles in their tap system to sample in their "Wines of Distinction" section, with a couple of little tables to facilitate more leisurely sipping.

Gourmet nibbles: As soon as Halloween decorations come down and the Pilgrims have their moment in the sun, the smells wafting out of Williams-Sonoma get seriously come-hither. Whether Citrus Park, Hyde Park or Westshore, all locations prepare for the holidays with cider samples, baked goods and miscellaneous nibbles. Ditto for the Gourmet Chef at Ellenton Premium Outlets, which for the past 13 years has offered up salsas, sauces, dips and, as a clerk recently said, "samples, soup to nuts."

Other munchies: Barbecued goodies at the Pinch-A-Penny in Brandon, olives and cheese bites at Mazzaro's Italian Market in St. Petersburg, bread samples at Panera, Tootsie Rolls at Amscot (supposedly the third largest buyer of Tootsie Rolls in Florida), even free coffee after many church services — the list goes on.

• • •

Studies show that sensations of pleasure when tasting a wine are directly correlated with its price (more $$, more pleasure).

But free tastes pretty good, too.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

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The taste of free: Where to find samples and more in Tampa Bay 06/24/12 [Last modified: Sunday, June 24, 2012 11:24pm]

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