SHOP LIKE A PRO
Updated: Apr 13, 2022
(i.e., Buy It Wholesale)
“Don't follow the masters; follow what the masters followed.” (some fortune cookie somewhere)
BJ’S… COSTCO… what’s left of SAM’S CLUB… most of us are familiar with the Big Three “wholesale clubs.” These are great places to buy everything from flat screen TV’s to whole prime beef briskets to gigantic packages of toilet paper at deep discounts. But now that the President of the United States himself has predicted a food shortage, perhaps you are prudently (and maybe anxiously) planning a trip to load up on storable foodstuffs at one of these stores. However, if you want to take your wholesale safari to the next level, then you need to shop where the pros shop.
RESTAURANT DEPOT (RD) is a nationwide chain of restaurant supply stores that sell genuine wholesale food service products at genuinely wholesale prices. The stores technically sell only “to the trade,” i.e., people with actual business licenses, but since the onset of COVID-19 they’ve been offering day passes to the general public, and plan to keep doing so indefinitely.
One step inside RESTAURANT DEPOT will reveal an unapologetically warehouse-like setting with stuff on wooden pallets and forklifts buzzing around. You’ll actually need to sign a liability waiver to bring your children in there. Shopping carts? Ha! You’ll be pushing a four-wheeled monstrosity that looks like a Soviet coal cart… or, alternatively, what warehouse pros call a “U-boat,” a long and narrow rack that rolls on six wheels. Both are difficult to maneuver, so when you go to RD for the first time, do yourself a favor and figure out how to steer your cart before you load it. While you’re at it, keep in mind that gazing in wonderment at the heretofore unimaginable bounty of bargains stacked floor to (high) ceiling will make you stand out like a dumbstruck Nebraskan catching his first glimpse of the Empire State Building. For your sake and the safety of others, try to look like you’ve done this before and keep moving.
Your first stop will be at the Customer Service desk for a day pass. From there you’ll have a clear view of the huge main floor area with giant racks of canned and dry goods, paper and plastic items, appliances, cookware, and more. One whole wall of this giant area– maybe 150 feet long in my local store– is lined with a freezer, half of which is devoted to seafood and the other half to everything from onion rings to chicken fingers. To the side of this main floor, one ventures to the refrigerated area by going through an industrial-grade, see-through plastic curtain designed to keep temperature zones separate yet allow passage of people and forklifts. Be careful not to scratch your face or knock your glasses off when walking through this thing. Seriously. And remember to bring a jacket, even in the summer. Trust me.
The Shopping List
Cans & Jars
RESTAURANT DEPOT distinguishes itself from the above-mentioned trio of wholesale clubs by offering really big cans and jars individually rather than selling whole cases of regular-sized containers. How big is big? #10 can-big, (“ten pound,” not “number ten”) which means up to 10 pounds for wet ingredients such as tomato sauce. Meanwhile, condiments such as salad dressings, barbecue sauces, and mayonnaise come by the gallon.
Spices are a particularly fabulous bargain at RD. If, like me, you make your chili in large batches and use chili powder and cumin by the fistful, you will especially appreciate RD’s restaurant-sized containers at unit pricing that shames their puny retail counterparts in your regular grocery store.
The cooler is also home to restaurant-sized packages of produce, all manner of meat in similarly humongous portions (“primal cuts” in butcher-ese) and dairy products such as gigantic blocks of quality cheeses and gallon tubs of yogurt. This walk-in refrigerated department is, like the main floor, lined on one long side with yet more freezer space and contains mostly frozen cases of vegetables and meats, including pre-portioned burgers by the case.
RESTAURANT DEPOT offers a large variety of fresh produce in large quantities only. Onions? They come in a mesh bag the size of a 3-year-old child, as do the potatoes. (The message throughout the store is clear– go big or go retail.) I might buy onions in RD-sized quantity if I were caramelizing a huge batch of them for later use; likewise, If I were hosting a huge cookout I wouldn’t hesitate to buy one of RD’s massive cuts of beef. But I’m not sure what I alone would do with a ten-pound hunk of sirloin strip or cheddar. One household can only store so much temperature-sensitive food.
HOWEVER– it is times like these that call out more loudly than ever for cooperation. How about getting neighbors together from all the homes on your cul-de-sac or whatever and doing a little group buying? You’ll all save money, of course, but more importantly you’ll be taking a huge step toward collaboration, pursuing a common goal for everyone’s collective benefit… something that, frankly, might actually become necessary for survival in the very near future. A group safari to RD followed by a divvying-up party and a neighborhood cookout might well prove to be what corporate stuffed suits like to call a “team-building exercise.”
I don’t buy much from the RD freezers, mostly because, again, it comes in packages too large for my storage capacity. But having once worked on a seafood counter, I am always intrigued to explore the selections from Neptune’s bounty, and on a recent visit to RD I took sharp-eyed inventory of RD’s shrimp. I’ll save a lecture on what I try to avoid and focus instead on the only type I buy– white shrimp harvested from the Gulf of Mexico, devoid of chemicals and preservatives, and distributed by American firms. And yes, they had some! Sized at 10-15 per lb. in a 5 lb. bag, on sale for $10.60/lb. This means that these high-quality, perfectly natural, giant-sized, utterly delicious shrimp cost about a dollar each… far better and far cheaper than anything you’ll ever get in a restaurant, where you more likely than not get Asian tiger shrimp farmed in raw sewage. Were my freezers not about to burst, I would have grabbed a couple of bags.
Cookware & Equipment
In the retail universe you can pretty much spend as little or as much as you want on your cooking equipment. The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain*, for instance, once commissioned a knife custom-made from a meteorite that recently sold at auction for $231,250 (including the 25% auction premium.) I’m guessing that it doesn’t cut significantly better than my $30 knife does after a fresh sharpening. Always remember that the best knife is a sharp knife, and that a knife’s capacity to be sharpened is more important than what corner of our solar system its blade came from. RESTAURANT DEPOT’S knives– like all their cookware– is 100% utilitarian, designed for no-nonsense use by no-nonsense professionals. You’d be better off buying one of RD’s plastic-handled knives and a great sharpener than you would spending the same money at, say, WILLIAMS-SONOMA on a fancy-looking $200 knife alone.
In addition to knives, look for BIG stuff at RD that you can’t find elsewhere… big cutting boards, big mixing bowls, big stock pots, etc. These are more useful than you could possibly appreciate until you actually use something professional-sized instead of trying to chop veggies on a surface no bigger than an iPad, or trying to toss a fresh garden salad for twelve in a bowl the size of a dog dish.
RESTAURANT DEPOT is a good place to buy, among other things, the perfect omelet pan. I always had trouble making consistently good omelets until I smartened up and asked a WAFFLE HOUSE cook how they do it.
The night shift cook was proud to show me this $15 RD pan that he uses to make them– a Vollrath® 4008 Aluminum Wear Ever 8" Fry Pan with Natural Finish and Silicone Cool Handle. It is a no-frills, oven-friendly, made-in-America gem that I use every morning when I’m home to make Andrea’s favorite breakfast. (*See recipe below.) On a recent visit to RD I couldn’t locate any Vollrath products, but I did find a similarly American-made alternative– Eagleware® –in the same size and style for $16.71. (The version made in TCTMATCC sells for $10.53.)
RD sells all manner of commercial-grade appliances– microwaves, refrigerators, freezers, mixers, and more. HOWEVER– there are several pitfalls you as a private citizen must take care to avoid. There might be local code restrictions that preclude the use of commercial equipment in a private residence, so be sure to investigate before you buy. And some restaurant-grade equipment requires a 240V power source or even a three-phase circuit and cannot be used in a home. But small appliances like toasters and blenders and pretty much anything else with a 110/120V plug should be okay.
On my most recent visit I was drawn to their wide selection of WARING® commercial blenders. Need a super-heavy-duty, 3.5HP beast for mass-producing everything from soups to Piña Coladas? It will set you back $366.00, but might well outlive your children. The commercial-grade toasters look similarly built to last multiple generations, as do the microwaves. All in all, I find RD’s small appliance section so compelling that it almost makes me want to get married again so I can establish our gift registry there.
If you are serving beverages at an outdoor gathering, nothing screams “frat party” like Red SOLO® Cups… unless, of course, you have a keg on tap, which will have already communicated the sentiment. But decent wine deserves a proper wine glass– made out of actual glass and complete with a stem. You can buy these at RD in cases of 12 or 36 at prices so surprisingly low that you won’t gag if (and when) someone drops one in your driveway. (In my experience, their restaurant-grade thickness makes them many times more resistant to breakage than their retail counterparts.) Save the cardboard case they come in for safe and efficient storage. By the way, RD sells Red SOLO® Cups by the sleeve if you really need them. Along with their obvious usefulness for draft beer, they are excellent for serving summer food such as gazpacho and pasta salads.
Unless you tend to host huge sit-down dinner parties AND have a lot of storage space, you probably won’t be buying cases of restaurant-grade serving plates and metal flatware. Fortunately, there are numerous sturdy and attractive plastic options. I’ve found that my guests don’t expect white-glove service at my driveway cookouts as long as they’re eating well and drinking good wine from a real glass, so they are perfectly cool with plastic plates and forks. While you’re in that side of the store, don’t forget to buy some good-quality paper napkins by the case.
Food Storage Containers
When I’m home from the road I like to make big batches of food – stuff like soups, stews, and chili. I like to pack it in 8-, 12-, 16-, or 32-ounce plastic containers and freeze it. We buy these containers (and their lids) from RD by the sleeve or even the case. Aside from food storage, our guests find it a nice and unexpected touch that we provide containers so they can take extra food home. These containers make for efficient use of space in the fridge as well as the freezer, and also provide a convenient way for me to bring food out on the road.
Special Dietary Concerns
While hopping from one restaurant to another you might occasionally stumble upon menu entries for supposedly healthy options such as egg white omelets or “heart-smart selections.” In truth, however, most restaurants couldn’t care less about your physical health. Accordingly, RD is not a health food store. Read the labels at RD as you would elsewhere, particularly on prepared sauces and condiments– some are loaded with chemicals and crap while others are not. Look also for the country of origin, and strenuously avoid (as I do) ALL products– especially those you put in your body– that come from TCTMATCC.
Worth noting– on a recent visit I chatted up both an observant Muslim family shopping for halal food items AND an Orthodox Jewish man buying kosher products. The Muslim father explained that this RD store was a popular source for halal meats among his community. The Jewish man, meanwhile, pointed out that kosher meat and dairy require specific handling and segregation not feasible at RD, but that he regularly availed himself of the pre-packaged pareve kosher food items.
Aside from RD’s fabulous prices on everything, I like the idea of shopping in a place where devout Jews and Muslims can peacefully shop side-by-side… it just goes to show, I guess, that the combination of great price & selection is a more powerful force than a centuries-old grudge. If the road to world peace passes through RESTAURANT DEPOT, I would be happy to follow it.
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My Top 10 RD Shopping List:
With an eye toward the kind of cooking I do at home as informed by my years of restaurant experience, here is an incomplete yet representative list of my favorite RD purchases on recent visits:
Big Aluminum Stockpot
Big Cutting Board
HUGE Mixing Bowl
Vinegars and Frank’s Hot Sauce® by the Gallon
Rolls of Plastic Film & Foil
Plastic Deli Containers of Various Sizes (w/ Lids)
And finally, my find of the year so far– A 5-lb. Tub of PLUGRA® Clarified Butter (6-month shelf life at room temperature after opening!) Look for an upcoming essay on Perfecting the Art of Hash Browns.
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And what if there is no RESTAURANT DEPOT near you? Well, as long as there are real restaurants in your general vicinity, they have to be shopping somewhere. Most of them will be ordering from channels unavailable to the general public, but small, independent restaurant supply stores can be found in most cities. One advantage with such stores is that they often carry used serving ware and restaurant furniture at great prices. One disadvantage is that the food offerings will likely be limited to cans and jars of processed foods. If you can’t find a restaurant supply store nearby but really want to experience the thrill of buying food service equipment wholesale, I recommend checking out Web Restaurant Store, KaTom Restaurant Supply or just plain Restaurant Supply and ordering online.
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*I’m delighted to see in this video that Chef Bourdain holds a knife wrong the same way I do.
*Andrea’s Anti-Inflamatory Omelet:
3 eggs, slightly beaten
Blanched Broccoli Fleurettes, Sauteed
Fresh Rosemary, minced
1 or 2 Drops of Oil of Oregano
Pre-heat broiler on high. Melt butter in omelet pan until you are almost about to burn it. Add oil of Oregano to the eggs, add eggs to pan and swirl. As the eggs begin to firm, repeatedly tuck the sides in with a fork. When mostly cooked, flip the eggs and remove from heat. Top with onions, broccoli, and Gruyère, and then broil until the cheese bubbles. Fold onto your plate.
Serve with organic bacon… or ditch the omelet and just have the bacon.