Locations

Various locations throughout Tampa Bay; go to aldi.com to see all locations.

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Aldi first came on the Tampa Bay scene about a decade ago, but announced a major expansion in 2017 that has brought a handful of new stores to the area. With those plans to expand, Aldi is on track to be the third-largest food retailer behind Walmart and Kroger Co. The Germany-based grocer is a discount chain, with generally lower prices than Walmarts and Targets in smaller, bare-bones stores that come with some quirks.

What’s it like?

There are a couple of things to know before you step foot in an Aldi. First, bring a quarter. Carts are stored outside, and secured with a lock that you release by entering a quarter in the slot. (You get it back when you return the cart, a smart way to keep parking lots cart-free.) Bring some bags for your groceries, too, because Aldi charges for bags — 6 cents for paper, 10 for plastic — and cashiers won’t do the bagging for you, a nod to Aldi’s German roots and European grocery stores. (And a great way to encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags.) The products generally don’t sit on proper shelves, but are stacked on top of each other in boxes. The focus is on keeping costs low, and eliminating any unnecessary aesthetics.

Perks

I fell in love with Aldi the first time I browsed the cheese section, which offers 4-ounce goat cheese logs for the very low price of $1.99 plus an impressive assortment of varieties: sharp white cheddar, smoked Gouda, wheels of Brie. My love cemented when I saw the 32-ounce tubs of plain Greek yogurt for $3.69, almost half the cost of that size in any other store, and the very decent sparkling wine selection, most of the bottles less than $10. Low prices are definitely the foremost appeal here. And you’ll quickly get hooked on certain items you can only get at Aldi, like the cranberry cinnamon goat cheese available seasonally. It has other charms, like reliably decent produce (you do have to root around to make sure you’re getting a good container), its Simply Nature line of organic foods and affordable paper products. Aldi can also be a bit of a treasure trove: There’s typically an entire aisle of kitchen tools, housewares, seasonal products like beach chairs and Halloween candy, even leggings and socks. I once bought an outdoor fire pit at Aldi for $30.

Nitpicks

Aldi isn’t for everyone. The no-frills approach takes some getting used to. If you go the day before the next shipment comes in, which is usually Sunday, pickings can be slim . Always get a cart on your way in, because there are no carts or baskets inside, and you will invariably end up with an armful of groceries even if you just went in for one thing. If you check out without a cart, the cashier will scan your items into a cart, but then expect you to remove them to the bagging station.

Prepared foods

Aldi doesn’t do prepared foods.

Specialty items

Seriously, you need to check out the cheese. Also, the organic snacks like blue tortilla chips and olive oil popcorn are quite good. Aldi has won awards for the quality (and price) of its wines. And during the holidays, there’s a nice selection of gourmet snacks and gifts.

Customer service

No, they don’t bag your groceries, but the cashiers at Aldi do just about everything else: stock the shelves, clean the floors, run down the aisle to do a price check when your cantaloupe rings up incorrectly. It’s a small staff, but it gets the job done. Cashiers can seem gruff in the spirit of keeping things moving in the checkout line. Their speed is something I personally appreciate, but it can be alarming at first to see the velocity with which they’ll toss your canned tomatoes into the cart.

One of the best things at Aldi is its double-back guarantee: If you’re not satisfied with a product, bring it back and you’ll get your money back and a replacement item of similar value.

Price check

Milk: $3.59 per gallon

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts: $2.49 per pound

Avocado: Often between 49 and 75 cents

Statement from the store

“Everyone needs high-quality food and products at affordable prices. Clearly, location is crucial to our expansion and we look at a variety of factors. ... Bottom line, we want to be conveniently located for our shoppers. We are opening and remodeling Aldi stores in every type of neighborhood across the country. We have a strong presence in cities, suburbs and rural communities.

“As part of our growth and expansion across the U.S., we’re considering many types of retail spaces that meet our specific needs. Our goal is to make shopping smart, fast and easy, regardless of location. ... People want the freshest food, so we are investing $1.9 billion to remodel and expand more than 1,300 U.S. Aldi stores by the end of 2020 to increase refrigerator space. This additional cold storage gives room to grow our already robust selections of fresh produce, dairy and meat.

“We’re thrilled to bring the new look of Aldi to shoppers who know and love us, plus new fans, as we make more room for a larger selection of fresh products, plus customer favorites like organics, gluten-free foods and premium baby items.”

Conclusion

Aldi is kind of like a secret club. You can’t truly understand its charms unless you’ve been, and once you have learned how to get the most from the shopping experience, it’s hard not to become a convert. It’s certainly among the most affordable grocery chains we have in Tampa Bay, and if Aldi continues to expand its organic offerings and other products consumers are currently demanding, it will be able to play with some of the newer entries in our market.