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Finding free food is easier than you think


Finding free food is easier than you think

By Scott Craven

The Arizona Republic

March 26, 2009

Before reading this story on cadging free food, a warning: Closed course. Semi-professional eater. Do not attempt.

Now officially absolved of responsibility, let it be known that there is such a thing as a free lunch. Or breakfast. Or dinner. And although you won't have to pay anything out of pocket, you will pay a heavy karmic debt in the form of disapproving looks as you load up on a disproportionate number of crab-shrimp ravioli samples at Costco.

The task was to find places where you could eat free. There were two rules. First, stay away from social agencies providing food to those who really need it. We are not going to take from the less privileged.

Second, stay out of places where free food is meant for those who have paid some sort of stipend. That ended plans to crash a free breakfast at a hotel, which was somewhat relieving. However, there are many places where one can eat free, and all you must do is be a bit of a boor.

And when it comes to grabbing free food, it is best to start at the lowest-hanging branch.

Let's all say it together: Costco. When it comes to free samples, Costco is the garden of free-eatin'. At the end of nearly every food aisle, men and women with knives and hairnets are cooking, boiling or pouring various samples. It is surprising how fast you can fill up 3 ounces at a time, particularly when you take several at a time.

On this particular Saturday, I started with appetizers (chips and salsa), followed by a lovely surf and turf: chicken strips in ranch dressing and crab-shrimp ravioli. After cleaning the palate with fresh apple slices, I partook of the Asian course - teriyaki chicken and Chinese chicken salad, wrapped around a side of couscous. And for dessert, a freshly baked chunk of apple pie placed indelicately within a small plastic cup.

I was stuffed, eating the apple pie only because it was there. And free.

In those 30 minutes of gorging, I earned one stern look (the woman dishing out the chicken strips said, "These samples are for everyone" when I grabbed three) and this insider's tip from the helpful woman at the ravioli table: Servers can judge you but cannot stop you from overindulging.

"We're told just to smile and be friendly even if someone is taking way more than his share," she said. "I'll have people stopping by seven, eight times. They'll spend the afternoon here eating. I don't even know if they're shopping."

If there is a poster child for free food, it's chips and salsa. Once seated at almost any Mexican restaurant, the chips and salsa may arrive before your server.

But technically, are they free if you must order something to go with them?

I devised a strategy. Sitting down at the bar of a nearby Mexican restaurant, I told the bartender I was waiting for someone, so I'd start with water. And could I please have some chips and salsa? Certainly, he said, returning a minute later with my order. Cha-ching, baby. Free chips and salsa.

As I munched, I went over my exit strategy. As the minutes went on I would frequently check my cellphone, looking concerned, then frustrated, then angry. Then, once chips and salsa were gone, I would shut the phone, shake my head and say, "Great, stood up, unbelievable." And be on my way.

Only a friend did show up, and she bought a beer. The chips were free, but the price of karmic balance was $4.

As important as Rick was to shoppers at the Gilbert Fresh & Easy market, he was hard to find, stationed in the small kitchen at the end of the sausage aisle. Rick does more than just dole out free samples of such foodstuffs as deli meats, fruits and candy. He's also happy to prepare anything off the shelves, provided it can be cooked in a microwave or toaster oven.

These turkey sausages I wondered if I'd enjoy? Rick pulled a package of 10 off the shelf and placed six turkey links in the oven.

That garlic cheese bread looked tasty, but was it worth the price? Rick promised I would love it, confidently placing it below the sausage. And I sure was curious about the chicken wings. "The oven is a little busy with your first two things," Rick said. "Can you wait a few minutes?"

While waiting I enjoyed other free samples, including smoked turkey breast, apple slices, tangerine sections, malt balls and pineapple juice. Rick was not the least bit annoyed with my thinly disguised cooking demands. He said he enjoyed mingling with customers and, besides, the food manufacturers paid for packages taken off shelves to be sampled.

So I am not the least bit guilty in planning a return trip to enjoy pizza, jambalaya and lasagna.

For snacking, just about anything beats a luxury-car dealership. Unless, of course, you are looking for free snacks. And I was.

With my 13-year-old son, Bryson, in tow, I hit the Tempe Acura dealership that, in dire economic times, still provided chips, fruit, cookies and coffee to people in the market for $50,000 vehicles.

Deftly bypassing three salesman with quick "Just looking for now" mentions, we headed right to the snack area to grab chips and bananas. The first salesman we encountered was waiting for us when we returned to the showroom, and the game was on. Could I engage him in conversation long enough to go back for seconds?

Of course. He was a car salesman.

"So, on the safety features - Bryson, go grab a few cookies and another banana - are side curtain air bags standard?" I asked. Soon my son returned, we finished eating, and the salesman was still on air bags, telling us how they protected passengers in a rollover.

Although there were other dealerships nearby with similar snacks, Bryson and I decided that listening to spiels was too big a price to pay for free food.

There is some free food so delicious that any out-of-pocket costs are worth it. Such is the case at Paradise Valley's El Chorro Lodge, home of delicious sticky buns.

The buns arrive in a complimentary basket of bread delivered shortly after diners are seated. You can employ one of two cost-saving strategies: fill up on the warm, gooey, cinnamon-tinged buns so you can order a light (cheaper) meal, or buddy up with the server and kindly ask for a bag of (free) buns to go.

I've used both strategies. In the same meal.

The quality of the free food should be proportionate to the lengths you are willing to go to get it. And so I found myself more than 50 miles from home at the Pioneer Living History Village in far north Phoenix with the promise of a free steak lunch. It was part of a pitch from Western Destinations, which offers cowboy-related team-building exercises. Think of it as the corporate equivalent of a timeshare come-on.

And in a shock-twist ending, the event was better than the (rather dry) steak. In 90 minutes, our group shot arrows, fired guns (with blanks), herded cattle, threw hatchets, lassoed a pair of plastic horns, lobbed horseshoes and chipped foam golf balls into an outhouse.

The actual pitch ran just 10 minutes. My only regret: having to pass up the free beer, what with that whole "no drinking on the job" rule.

People go to church to feed the soul. I went to church to feed on free food.

I arrived at St. Doughnut (actually, St. Peter Lutheran Church in Mesa, recommended by a friend of a friend) between morning services, when church is out and baked goods are in. Friendly volunteers poured free coffee as I grabbed a napkin and a (free) chocolate-covered doughnut. After socializing for about 10 minutes (and hoping the morning sermon did not address greed), I went back for seconds.

And then I left. I didn't want anyone to preach to me how wrong it is to eat and run.

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