'People here like a bargain.' Why this outlet grocery has seen sales double as inflation rises
Mr. Mac’s Discount Grocery store is the only outlet grocery store in Southwest Ohio. It sits at the corner of a small strip on North Main Street in New Carlisle. The spot was once a Family Dollar.
Justin Eichnlaub and his wife are regulars, they come here often for a bargain. Justin said he enjoys cooking all types of food, and it’s easy finding international foods at the store since the closest international market is over a 30 minute drive away.
When he first came to Mr. Mac’s, he had never seen anything like it.
“I was just like, wait, what? Hold on. Cause I think at the time, they had the epic beef jerky bags and stuff like that. And I'm like, this is like $7 a bag elsewhere and it’s $1.80 here. Like…what?!” he said.
Jessica Coulter drove in from Troy. During summer break, she buys more snacks or frozen foods for her kids. She likes what the store has.
“They tell you very much upfront that it could be almost expired or past the expiration date, but they freeze a lot of it, '' Coulter said. “That kind of stuff doesn't bother me.”
This isn't like a regular grocery store. Walking in to Mr. Mac’s there’s a cart rack of reclaimed Toys ”R” Us shopping carts. A shelf full of varied candies where customers can fill a Ziploc bag for just $3.
And then, there’s aisles of staple and specialty foods. A close look at the price tags will reveal most foods cost less than in conventional stores.
$3.50 for a pound of organic bacon, $2.25 for a box of organic Mac’N Cheese and just a buck 75 for Oscar Meyer deli meat.
“People here like a bargain,” said Laura McDonald. She co-owns Mr. Mac’s with her husband, John. Although a lot of people call him Mr. Mac, the name stuck from when he was an elementary school teacher.
The couple opened the store in 2019. The McDonalds work with distributors to order food that didn’t sell because it’s out of season, it’s almost out of date or other conventional grocery stores just didn’t want to buy it.
They can purchase that food in bulk which then allows the couple to resell it at ultra-low prices. This type of model accomplishes two things: It prevents food from going to waste and it makes brand name foods available to shoppers who might otherwise not be able to afford it.
About a dozen similar types of these stores are spread throughout the state; some of them are clustered in northeast Ohio.
A quick look at the back storage room reveals several dozen pallets of food that came in earlier in the week. There’s cereal with a “best-by” date from May, sugar from October 2021 and chips from July 2022.
That food could’ve ended up being part of the nearly 40% of food that is wasted in our national food supply chain.
There’s many reasons why food goes to waste before it reaches consumers. Some of the reasons include spoilage during transit, logistics problems or lack of labor at farms or other supply chains, according to a report from the U.S Department of Agriculture.
Some of it languishes in a warehouse and never gets sold to a grocery store. Sometimes it’s donated to food banks. A lot of it is still thrown away. But some of it makes it to an outlet grocery store like Mr. Mac’s.
“So we're trying to do our small part to reduce that and find the food in there that is really good quality. There's nothing wrong with it,” Laura said. “And the bonus is that we can also give to the customers at a far lower price, which lets them have more flexibility in their budget and eat more the way they want to eat.”
Recently, Mr. Mac’s has seen a jump in business due to inflation, in fact, sales at Mr.Mac’s has doubled since last year, according to Laura.
Grocery prices have gone up 12% over the past year, according to a report from July from the Consumer Price Index.
Right now, many are people spending more out of their paycheck on food, although these stores aren’t as popular in Ohio. Some people might not even be aware they exist.
Haley Oliver, a food science professor at Purdue University, said part of it is understanding the difference between food safety and food quality.
Best-buy, sell-by or use-by date labels on food aren’t regulated by the federal government — with the exception of infant formula — and don’t affect food safety.
“And yet, there's really, really compelling evidence that consumers make a lot of decisions based around those dates.” Oliver said.
The USDA highlights most foods are generally safe to eat and still wholesome if it’s handled properly until the time spoilage is evident. The date labels might just mean the quality of the food might begin to change after the date on the labels.
Signs like an off smell, texture or color might indicate that food has started going bad and is no longer safe to eat, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
There’s also the costs that come with opening and operating a grocery store such as high electric bills and labor costs. Smaller grocery stores also don’t have the same advertising power big chain grocery stores do either, according to the Ohio Grocers Association.
Outlet discount stores aren’t a new model though. One chain, United Grocery Outlet based in Tennessee, has been around since the 1970’s.
Oliver said this type of grocery helps improve access to more affordable foods for low-income households.
“It takes energy to find the products ,to coordinate groceries that still are known to be safe,” Oliver said. “And yet it is fundamentally key to resolving food security challenges in this country.”
Low income families spend a quarter of their annual income on food. With rising food costs, it’s getting more difficult to meet their basic needs.
Oliver said inflation might push more people to recognize the service these stores provide.
“As we see percentages of incomes shift to having a higher percentage go towards food I think it will elevate this issue.” she said.
Laura McDonald said it took a lot of work to help people understand Mr.Mac’s food is as good as any other store’s.
“Now we like to think we have enough of a presence in the community that we rarely have to give that talk to anybody.” Laura said.
And she’s learned there’s no expiration date on her customer’s gratitude for every penny they save.
Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Support for WYSO's reporting on food and food insecurity in the Miami Valley comes from the CareSource Foundation.