It's lunchtime. You have one dollar, seventy-eight cents to your name. You're starving. Where do you go?
What Exactly is a Costco?
Costco Warehouse is a membership-only retail warehouse selling mostly bulk product primarily to small businesses, large families, and anyone else with an abundance of storage space. Costco is a direct competitor to Sam's Club, and similar to Makro or some consumers' cooperative supermarkets. In the US, membership is available to individuals, but in some other countries memberships may be restricted to business members or members of certain professions only (like care workers or government employees).
So, what kind of merchandise can you find at Costco? Probably it would be shorter to list the things you can't find there1. To give an idea though, a partial inventory would include big screen televisions, computers and peripherals, cameras, luggage, appliances, mattresses, hardware, household goods like lightbulbs and batteries, office supplies, bicycles, outdoor furniture, toys, clothing, linens and towels, books, computer software, game consoles and accessories, baked goods, fresh foods, meat, produce, frozen and dry goods, paper products, cleaning products, health and beauty products, and in most locations alcohol and tobacco.
Who Said There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch?
While it's true that you need to purchase a membership to buy merchandise from a Costco Warehouse2, it's also true that with a little bit of canny maneuvering you can indeed score yourself a free lunch without the benefit of a membership card.
There will be a greeter at the door who checks for membership cards as shoppers enter. If it's possible to look like you're with someone else, you can slip in with no hassle. On the other hand, if the greeter does ask you for a membership card you can say that you are headed for the pharmacy (because US federal law prohibits restricted access to pharmacies). Head off in the general direction of the pharmacy, then go find the food! Or, for a totally legitimate experience, you could stop by the courtesy counter and ask for a day pass. These are usually available to encourage prospective members to experience the store before committing to a year-long membership.
Every day during peak shopping hours, you can find dozens of samples throughout the warehouse. Not like the unattended tray of chip crumbs you find at the supermarket, no - these are first quality, top notch samples served up fresh and hot (when appropriate) by a demonstrator. The selection varies from day to day, but usually include some variety of meats, breads, pasta, dips, cheeses, crackers, fresh fruit, frozen items and entrees, combinations of different products, and beverages. For example, you might one afternoon have a quarter of a veggie burger, possibly on a bread, a few bites of pulled chicken in barbecue sauce, a slice of cheddar on a multi-grain cracker, a few sips of soup, a couple of crisps with hummous, a wedge of apple, a slice of pepperoni pizza, a bit of berry smoothie, half a popsicle, a chicken nugget, a lobster-stuffed ravioli, some yoghurt, a swig of coffee and a swallow of cranberry cherry juice. The next day you will have something completely different.
And you still haven't spent any money... yet. If you still have that dollar and change you can stop by the snack bar - which also does not require a membership card - and get yourself a snack. For a dollar fifty or less you can have a hot dog or Polish sausage with a soda, a 16-ounce fat-free frozen yoghurt, a berry smoothie, a frozen mocha latte, a chocolate-dipped ice-cream pop or a cinnamon & sugar churro3. Refills on the soda are free during your visit, so if you get the soda first you'll have plenty to drink as you snack your way through the rest of the store.
A Word About the International Experience
While it's true that Coscto is an international company with locations across the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Mexico and elsewhere, it is possible that the free lunch described in this entry may not be available everywhere. The free samples should be on offer in most locations as it is part of their business model, but means of gaining access to the store may be harder to circumvent in countries or markets with more membership restrictions. In general this entry holds mainly true in most US locations. Good luck, and bon appetit!