The East End Food Co-op boasts one of the largest Bulk Foods departments in Pittsburgh. From freshly ground nut butters, fair-trade coffee, candy, flour, and exotic teas and spices, nearly everything can be purchased from our expansive collection. There are other benefits to shopping in bulk beyond all the fresh, tasty offerings: it reduces waste, saves money, and is more sustainable.
Jim McCool has been the Bulk Merchandiser for the East End Food Co-op for more than 3 years. He carefully monitors the bins in the Bulk Department to ensure they are fully stocked with fresh products that meet the needs of Co-op shoppers. We sat down with him to get the inside scoop on all things Bulk.
What are the most important things for people to know about the products carried in Bulk?
First and foremost, all the products are fresh! We have a very quick turnover with our products. Anything that doesn’t sell within 2-3 weeks is eliminated. At least 80% of what we carry is certified organic.
What features do you look for when bringing in products?
I am always open to customer suggestions. I also look for food trends. In the past 3-4 years, sprouted rice and quinoa have become popular, as have paleo and gluten-free items.
What do you like about Bulk?
You can buy as much or as little as needed. This is especially great for products like flour, rice, grains, and nuts. These are items that degrade quickly, so I strongly recommend they be stored in a glass jar and refrigerated to help preserve and maintain freshness.
Can people with food allergies shop in Bulk?
Our staff is very diligent about preventing cross-contamination, and all the items in Bulk are pretty self-contained. However, due to the nature of Bulk and shoppers’ habits that we can’t control, there is a small chance of cross-contamination. If you have a severe allergy or sensitivity, it is probably best to purchase an item that has been made in a certified facility that prevents cross-contamination.
What are the most popular items?
All varieties of nuts (organic and non-organic), fresh ground peanut butter and almond butter, Lundberg organic rice, red and green lentils, and black beans. We sell 150-200 pounds of organic oats every week. And our coffee selection also sells well. We have carried organic, fair trade coffee from Equal Exchange for decades, and we also have a local selection including Steel Cup Roasters, Building New Hope, La Prima Espresso, and we hope to bring in a blend from 19 Coffee Roasters soon. Having a local option for coffee is really important to us.
What are your personal favorites?
I like brown basmati rice, Back Roads granolas, walnuts, and Tierra Farms dark-chocolate -covered almonds. I also go through a lot of garbanzo beans, because I make lots of hummus, so I purchase those in 25-pound bags to make it cost-effective.
What are the best deals in Bulk?
All across the board, prices in Bulk are far lower. There are always additional sales, including Co+op Deals (designated with green signs) and everyday low priced Co+op Basics (designated by purple signs). I also have 15-20 additional items I put on sale every month. Those are marked with red sale signs, and there is also a poster advertising them above the Co+op Kids fruit station.
What Bulk shopping tips do you have to share?
There are more than 270 items in the Bulk Department, all arranged by category (flours, beans, nuts/seeds, grains, granola, etc.). It is easy to feel bewildered with such variety of product, so feel free to ask staff for help. That is what we are here for!
Each bin has a PLU and the Co-op provides labels, twist ties, pens, and free containers. Just label your item with the PLU and the cost is calculated at checkout. We also have a scale if you’d like to check the weight of your purchase to get an idea of what quantity you have.
The purpose of bulk shopping is to reuse, reduce, and recycle. We encourage everyone to bring their own containers or reuse the containers we provide. This helps reduce costs and is also good for the environment.
If you’d like to suggest a product, write Jim a Comment Card or talk to him in person. And don’t miss our next Bulk Sale when all Bulk food and herbs will be 25% off all day, while supplies last.
This article was originally published in the 2017 March/April edition of The Co-operator.