I visited Costco for the first time. Here's what surprised me most, from the disappointing food court to great produce aisle.
I'm a chef from the UK who recently went to a Costco in Canada for the first time.
I was astounded by the size of the warehouse and by the selection of fruit and vegetables.
I had a good time but I thought the much-hyped food court was drab and underwhelming.
I finally visited Costco for the first time after hearing about it for years.
I've lived close to a slew of Costco stores for years, but have never shopped there.
Recently, I decided it was time to investigate what the wholesale chain sold and to see if shopping there was as amazing an experience as people say.
When I first trundled my cart into the store, I was taken aback by the size of the space.
I knew Costco locations were large but I hadn't realized they're not simply big stores — they really are enormous warehouses.
The location I visited in Thorncliffe Park, Toronto, was like a jumbo jet hangar with soaring, high ceilings and bright lighting. The store seemed to stretch for miles. Each aisle was so wide.
I was really impressed by the variety of produce I saw.
I hadn't expected to meet multiple types of mangoes, but Costco had so many, including Ataulfo (or honey) mangoes from Peru and red mangoes from Brazil. I thought the prices were very reasonable.
There was also a great selection of plums, pineapple, and bananas, including tiny bananitos. The areas around the fruits, vegetables, and baked goods were the busiest in the store.
I hadn't expected to encounter a giant row of refrigerated rooms.
When I first looked around the store, I didn't understand what the rows of large white blocks were. To my surprise, they were refrigerated vaults that reminded me of cold rooms in some of the larger hotel kitchens I've worked in.
The first cold room I explored was for eggs and dairy. It was so chilly inside that I had to quickly grab my milk and run.
The second vault was for berries and leaves. Even as a chef, I found a produce I'd never heard of before — kalettes. The tiny, purple, cabbage-like vegetables turned out to be a hybrid between kale and Brussels sprouts. They can be eaten raw or cooked and have a sweet, nutty flavor.
The fish selection was almost as good as what I've seen in a dedicated fish market.
Costco's selection of fish seemed fresh, well-presented, and very appealing.
I noticed whole fish, including wild ocean perch, wild sockeye salmon, Atlantic salmon, redfish, haddock, and tilapia.
There were also so many types of shellfish.
Alongside tubs of Pacific and Chebooktook oysters, there were live Fortune oysters from Nova Scotia oysters and 5-pound bags of farmed blue mussels.
I was pretty impressed by the options.
I hadn't expected to find almost an entire aisle of alternative milks.
Who knew there were so many types of milk?
A few that caught my eye included Milkadamia macadamia-nut milk, cartons of chai latte, and oat milk from Oat Canada, a pun on the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada."
At the end of the well-stocked cheese fridges nearby I found non-dairy cheese alternatives. I picked up two wheels of cranberry and pistachio Fauxmage, a dairy-free cashew cheese, for 16 Canadian dollars, about $12 USD.
There were far fewer free-sample stations than I had expected.
I'd heard of Costco's legendary tasting stations of free samples and was hoping to try an array of items, but only encountered small stations offering butter chicken, sauce, and hummus.
Instead, I grabbed a large bag of Veggie Straws to snack on once I left the store.
Although I anticipated large quantities and sizes of products, I was still taken aback by some items.
I marveled at pails of feta cheese, vats of potato salad bigger than my head, gargantuan meat logs, and Caesar salads that would feed six.
There were many items that were way too big for my household of two people and three cats.
The amount of fresh food made in-store was extremely impressive.
I'd thought Costco's selection would have more processed, prepackaged items, but a lot of the food on offer is made or prepared on premises and branded with the chain's Kirkland Signature logo.
I saw dozens of workers making trays of food behind a glass wall running the length of the refrigerated cabinets of meats and salads.
Even out in the car park, the wonderful smell of fresh cookies wafted from the building, reminding me of all the baked goods made in-store.
I thought Costco only sold food but I was very wrong.
I was surprised to encounter walls of televisions, coffee makers, and mixers by the entrance. I also saw aisles of office supplies and furniture, from folding tables to office chairs.
I hadn't expected to see mounds of slippers, fleece jackets, underwear, and pajamas, either.
I was honestly disappointed by the food court.
I'd heard so many great things about Costco's food court. Sadly, I was underwhelmed.
The prices were shockingly low, but the selection was limited. The menu primarily had hot dogs, chicken strips, pizza, chicken wings, fries, ice cream, and fountain drinks.
The environment reminded me of a high-school gym and there were a few stragglers sitting around plain tables, nursing plates of fries and $0.89 fountain drinks.
I had expected something more similar to an Ikea restaurant with much more variety on the menu.
Overall, I'm already looking forward to my next Costco trip.
I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed shopping at Costco and was delighted with my haul of items – massive blocks of Irish Dubliner cheddar, large sacks of pistachios and craisins, and stacks of fresh fruit and vegetables.
I'm sure I missed loads of things. After all, Costco is so large that if you forget or miss something, it's a daunting trek to go back to find it again. It's nice that if there's something you need in bulk, Costco is an excellent place to stock up.
The membership, which can cost as litte as $60 a year, really seems worth the price and I'll definitely shop here again.
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