Free Samples Offer a Tasteful Way to Survive the Grocery Store Wars

Bates is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Attention, shoppers: An innocent trip to Bristol Farms for some arugula or balsamic vinegar just might turn into a freebie feeding frenzy.

First, a sip of chicory coffee. Or perhaps a Hain rice cake thickly spread with Cascadian Farm organic apple butter?

Next thing you know, you've snacked on fresh Tahitian pineapple, turkey chili, Camembert cheese, homemade salsa and chips, oat bran cookies, escargots, and carrot juice. A few of the more delicious items have found their way into your basket, along with the arugula, of course, for a grand total of $38.26 at the register. And they take Visa.

Welcome to the tasty world of free food samples, gourmet style.

While the big chain supermarkets might offer a few samples on a Saturday afternoon, local gourmet grocery stores turn into veritable snack palaces.

Free samples are a staple during a gourmet shopping trip any day of the week, but Saturdays are a bonanza for tasters at such markets as Bristol Farms in South Pasadena and Rolling Hills Estates, Jurgensen's in Pasadena, and Trader Joe's stores around the San Gabriel Valley.

By 11 a.m., the eats are out and the bumper cart wars have begun.

There's jostling for lingonberry juice, grabbing for foie gras, crumb-snatching for the crackers spread with radicchio pate. Moms quiet toddlers with strategically timed bites of veal paupiettes. Weekend jocks gird themselves to nibble goat cheese. Sweet grandmothers take extra chunks of herb cheese for fictitious shopping companions.

And then there are the dreaded "sample rats."

So dubbed (secretly) by the behind-the-counter crowd at Bristol Farms, sample rats are simply those moochers who come to try but not to buy. When they suggest lunch at Bristol Farms, they don't mean in the cafe.

"There's a certain percentage of people who go nuts over free food. They think they've got to eat as much as they possibly can," said Seth Feldman, grocery director for Bristol Farms.

Store Manager David Gronsky conceded: "You let it slide a lot. When I see somebody like that--there are a few obvious regulars--I will sometimes give an eye signal to employees to pull the samples for a few minutes. A lot of times they're good customers, though, and you just let them do it."

The purpose of food samples, after all, is not just economic, Gronsky said.

"The philosophy, yes, is sales, and I've never had a sample that didn't help sales," Gronsky said. "But much more important, they're a way to get employees familiar with the products, a way to get to know buyers and a way to break the ice with customers.

"Samples create an atmosphere in the store. It's festive, like a food show, where people are invited to come in and try something new."

Jurgensen's has even appointed a "sample coordinator." Carolyn Hallett, also in charge of buying cookbooks for the market, said samples also alert shoppers to new or offbeat products.

"If we get something new in, it can sit on a shelf forever unless you pull it out and bring it to people's attention," Hallett said.

Marilyn and Richard Brown of San Gabriel said they never would have bought Fleur du Lait cheese had it not been for the samples they noshed on at Bristol Farms. Now it's a staple of their shopping list--and they're always scouting for new candidates. Marilyn Brown found another possibility in the Shelton's turkey chili they spooned out of little paper cups on a recent Saturday.

Feldman noted that shoppers who spot a new product in a chain grocery store have probably seen it in a TV commercial or read about it in a magazine, and now hold a coupon for it in their hand. Not so for limestone lettuce or cherimoya, an exotic fruit.

"The best way to market these products is to put the taste in the customer's mouth," Feldman said.

Hallett offered as an example the Swedish lingonberry juice served to Jurgensen's shoppers several weeks ago. "We sold a lot of it the first day we sampled it, and we're still selling it to customers who come back with it on their shopping lists.

"Once people find a product they like and they buy it, they're hooked."

Shoppers took more slowly to the wild mushrooms in cream sauce Hallett dished out about a month ago. Sales on sample day, she said, were lackluster.

"I thought, well, this is a bomb. But they came back the next week to buy. It wasn't something people wanted to serve for dinner that night, but they remembered the flavor," Hallett said.

Not that there are never flops. It's tough to get people to taste, much less purchase, goat cheese, sample coordinators agreed. And Bristol Farms recently yanked a "major dud spaghetti sauce. You had to sample a full case to sell one bottle," admitted Gronsky, who declined to name the brand.

At the other end of the spectrum is the success story of Granmere's salad dressing, Feldman said. When Ernie Parmentier coaxed Feldman to taste his New Orleans grandmother's powerful recipe, his first reaction was, "No way."

But Parmentier donned an apron himself and lured shoppers by asking: "You like garlic? Try this." Ten cases disappeared the first day. Ten the next. Granmere's became all the rage.

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