Battle of the Free Samples

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Costco vs. Sam's Club
The economy is rough these days and we could all use a free meal. If you head to your nearest bulk goods store on the weekend, you'll find a glut of free samples that would fill anyone. But which bulk store has the better samples going on, Costco or Sam's Club? We mooched off a friend who had memberships at both stores to give you the inside scoop on food freeloading.

In One Corner: Costco
1445 West Elliot Road, Tempe
(480) 496-6651

The Tempe Costco was crowded on Sunday afternoon, with families jockeying for space as they filled up their carts with flats of soda pop and industrial size vats of pickles.

Our first stop on the free sample gravy train was a cart offering little plastic cups of oatmeal and blueberries. The oatmeal was gelatinous and tasted like Elmer's Glue. We needed a chaser and how.

Lucky for us not ten feet from the oatmeal cart was another cart where a woman served sundried tomatoes and bowtie pasta. The pasta was cooked al dente and the sauce was oily. The tomatoes provided a rich accent. Her cart was positioned before a display of the sundried tomatoes which grabbed our friend's attention.

"How do you cook it?" he asked.

"I cook it in water," she answered flatly. So much for gleaning cooking secrets from the sample servers.

We skipped along to the next cart. In the frozen section was something called a "meatball bake." It was kind of like a Hot Pocket, which we don't usually enjoy, but after only having had oatmeal and a bite of pasta for lunch, we were ready for some protein.

"It's good," our friend said. "It's sort of fake, you know, frozen food, but it's good."

The next few sample carts were a blur. There were shots of green fruit juice ("It looks horrible but tastes good," the sample server said to entice us), bites of gooey Kirkland-brand bagels, and whole grain bread topped with organic strawberry spread. Around the corner an eager server kept yelling "Edamame! No MSG! Edamame!"

That's when we stumbled upon the sausage cart. Little cross-sections of hot sausage sat on large pieces of wax paper. We were about to taste them until we realized the server didn't have toothpicks to offer. People were grabbing the sausage with their bare hands.

"I think it's a bit controversial," said our friend, trying one anyway. He said the sausage was pretty good after all.

Then we were ready for dessert. We had Luna Nutrition bars, Swedish Fish and something called Reese's Snacksters which were a mix of Reese's peanut butter and chocolate chips and tiny little balls of hard pretzel - a nice sweet and savory combination.

We were winding down our tour of Costco when we realized we were being followed by a burly man carrying a walkie-talkie. We wanted to confirm that he really was on our trail so we circled the store once again and sure enough, he was always about twenty feet away casting a sly eye our way. We doubt it was our freeloading that caught his attention, as everyone else was diving for samples too. Maybe it was the fact that we didn't bother to get a shopping cart. Or, more probably, the fact that we were taking photos of the samples. We skedaddled on to the next store.

In the Other Corner: Sam's Club
700 N. 54th St, Chandler
(480) 893-1555‎

When we walked through the door of the Sam's Club in Chandler, we were greeted by a cheerful sample server handing out deliciously sweet bites of fresh pineapple.

This store wasn't nearly as crowded as the Costco but they had just as many free samples. They came fast and furiously. There was a whole buffet table offering a smorgasbord all at once - strawberry kiwi lime juice in little cups, chicken nuggets on toothpicks (yes, they had toothpicks here), and squares of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

They're almost set up to feed you, not to get you to buy anything," was our friend's observation, as we passed an abandoned cart with strawberry flavored Special K bars cut in half next to some multi-grain crackers.

The variety and sheer quantity was fun but the samples at Sam's Club were so.... ordinary. The clincher was the plastic cups filled with Lay's Potato Chips. Who needs to "sample" such a ubiquitous brand name potato chip? You already know what it tastes like.

We tried Yoplait peach yogurt, which was sweet and creamy, just as you'd expect. At one sample cart, they were actually offering samples of water. Aquafina water.

"That's got to be the lamest sample," our friend said. Since we weren't actually paying for our lunch, we probably shouldn't be so critical, but everything tasted kind of plastic and very few samples were appealing. The worst was a cart of country-fried steak so cold we ungraciously spat it out into our napkin.

In all, Sam's Club was a joyless experience. They served up vast quantities of free samples, but very little was very interesting.

"If I just wanted to eat food, I'd go to Sam's Club," our friend said as we walked out the door. "But for sampling different food and piquing my interest on what to purchase, I'd go to Costco."

The Verdict: Costco

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