Battle of the Free Samples

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

In the back of the store, near the baked goods, they offered shoppers whole grain bread topped with organic strawberry spread

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."

At the end of the frozen foods section, a woman was offering Barq's root beer floats which were oddly chewy.

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.

We didn't try the sausage, but we heard it was okay.

"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.

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