Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why bulk is better

I have never had a membership to a wholesale club like BJ's or Sam's. Besides the obvious chain pitfalls of these locations (Sam's Club is owned and operated by the same environmentally and socially conscious folks who own Wal-Mart), I have never had the space to store gargantuan packages of paper towels or mammoth cans of beefarino.

But buying in bulk does have its economic and environmental advantages, including fewer preservatives, less packaging waste, and lower price per unit. With these advantages in mind, I sought out a store that offered the advantages of bulk purchasing without lining the pockets of corporate fatcats in Arkansas. I was thrilled to discover Oak Hill Bulk Foods in Penn Yan, NY.

Penn Yan sits on the shore of Keuka Lake and isn't really close to anything, but it may be worth the trip if you're interested in bulk foods. Well-known for its Mennonite population, Penn Yan's Oak Hill Bulk Foods is owned by a family who was Mennonite, although the generation who currently owns the store is not. The influence of the Mennonite community is clearly depicted in the book/cookbook section near the entrance of the store. Many of the books have to do with God and spiritual topics, including some of the cookbooks. Since I always struggle to find new uses with vegetables, I purchased a thick Mennonite vegetable cookbook for under $15. Probably the best part of this cookbook is the fact that it is spiralbound—why does anyone make cookbooks that aren't spiralbound? God bless those clever Mennonites!

Oak Hill Bulk Foods

Oak Hill has all of the traditional bulk food items, including dry goods like flour, salt, lentils, beans, pasta, and other goods that lend themselves to being purchased in bulk. They keep for a long time, can be packaged in a simple plastic bag, and are easy to display and transport without special accommodations. In addition to these obvious items, Oak Hill also carries snacks, such as crackers, chips, and pretzels; aisles of candy and sweets; trail mix, granola, popcorn, and other treats.

Oak Hill Bulk Foods

Perhaps the most impressive area of the store was the spices and baking section. Spices seem to be inordinately expensive at your typical supermarket and I'm marrying a man with what I consider to be an unnatural love for curry powder. At Wegmans, we usually buy McCormick at $4.49 for 1 oz. Yes, 1. Ounce. At Oak Hill, I purchased a full tub of curry powder for just over $3. Imagine the look of bliss on Scott's face when I brought that home! Imagine the stench in our kitchen for the next few nights as he sauteed every class of meat in excessive amounts of curry!

Oak Hill Bulk Foods spice section

Beyond the typical dry goods, Oak Hill also carries bulk meat, dairy, and cheese. Owner Phil Riehl told me that while they don't exclusively purchase local foods, he does attempt to stock the shelves with local products whenever possible. This was evident in the presence of several products, including Byrne Dairy milk and New York cheeses, maple syrup, honey, and other items.

Oak Hill Bulk Foods

If you're really in the mood for baking, you can even step it up a notch beyond the "bulk" items to the "really really bulk" items by purchasing yeast, flour or oats by the 50 lb bag; olive oil by the 1 liter bottle; and vanilla or NY maple syrup by the gallon.

Realy really bulk at Oak Hill Bulk Foods

You may be asking, Erin, where the heck am I going to store all of these things if I buy in bulk? One solution is to use canisters to store your food. Not only are they much more decorative than traditional grocery store packaging, they are also more effective at keeping things airtight. Look for canisters with rubber seals for the most airtight container. Canisters have many other advantages, including being pest-proof. We've started to make the move toward canisters in our pantry and it's already beginning to look more organized and aesthetically pleasing than it did with cardboard boxes and bags. Here are a few examples (none are from my house):

Hopefully, this post has inspired you to begin thinking about the benefits of buying in bulk. If we stop purchasing products that are marked up in price and use excessive, unnecessary packaging, maybe it will send a message to corporations that these things matter. Why not get started with your bulk shopping at an awesome, independent store like Oak Hill Bulk Foods? Keuka Lake is nice this time of year!

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