Monday, April 9, 2007

Big Lots: Shopping with Mr. Pic ‘N’ Save

There are a lot of people who would never deign to enter a 99-cent store. Not my dad. Despite an illustrious career leading some of the most prestigious art museums in the country, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in our family he’s always been Mr. Pic ‘N’ Save. A popular childhood outing with him was a trip to the neighborhood Pic ‘N’ Save, where he would give my younger sister and me $5 each and tell us to go crazy.

Years later, when he was director of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, we would drive out to Yucca Valley, have dinner at what was really a pretty marginal Chinese restaurant, then head on over to the local Pic ‘N’ Save. I still have the set of eight French bistro glasses I picked up for, of course, five bucks. Decades later, the tradition continued with my younger nieces, who were routinely astounded at their good fortune, since they got a “sure” every time they asked their generous grandparents if they could have the next 50-cent tchotchke they picked up, resulting in bags bulging with treasures. Pic ‘N’ Save, the name, is now a memory, having become Big Lots, but not much has changed beyond the name. And, not much about my dad has changed either. He adores Big Lots.

So, I wasn’t surprised last week when the phone rang and he asked, “You still like skinless and boneless sardines, don’t you?” (This is actually not a strange conversation opener in my family.) “Sure,” I said. "Well, then," he continued, "you should go over to Big Lots. They have them for 99 cents. "In fact," he added, "you should write about Big Lots in that blog of yours. They sell lots of food."

If that was a dare, I was game to meet it. Mr. Pic 'N' Save, my mom (more of a Mrs. Gelson's, a much beloved high-end market in L.A.) and I decided to hunt down the big bargains at the Point Loma store.

Normally, I don’t talk about prices here, since they can change so quickly. But, really, the whole point of Big Lots is the prices, so just know that both the prices and availability of the products mentioned are subject to change. After all, they are a closeout store.

Big Lots has been in the midst of renovations—not that you can really tell. It basically looks like they’ve just been rearranging things a bit. So, now when you walk into the Point Loma store, the food section is the first thing to hit you, with the aisles set at an angle compared to the rest of the store. Mr. Pic ‘N’ Save led me straight to the sardines. Sure enough, tins of Ocean Prince skinless and boneless (made by big name Crown Prince) were 99 cents, a great deal. (I like to mash them with white vinegar and chopped onions, then spread them on a toasted “everything” bagel or a bialy.) Above the sardines were 14.75-ounce cans of Bumblebee pink salmon for $1.95. Lightly smoked fish steaks, also the Ocean Prince brand, were a whole 60 cents.

That’s just the appetizer. What you’ll find food-wise at Big Lots is a wide variety of items you would probably stock in your pantry—spices, beans (canned and dried), cereal, chips, noodles, soup and the like—and some things that might leave you questioning what marketers were thinking. Like Slosh, a bubble gum flavoring you add to water. If it sounds tempting, hurry on over. It’s a dollar a box. A related product is a canister of Dubble Bubble gum that touts it can be used as a bank once the gum is gone.

The pantry fillers are a mix of incredible deals. Jars of Encore spices and herbs, made in Montreal, include cinnamon, crushed red peppers, oregano, cumin and garlic powder. They’re 55 cents each. (How fresh they are, I have no idea.) For two bucks, you can pick up cans of cooking sprays. There's an aisle filled with Doritos, Fritos, Tostitos and Lays. I found re-sealable, supersize (32 ounces) bags of Malto-Meal brand corn flakes for $3 and a 10-ounce box of Kellogg’s organic Rice Krispies for $2.50.

Big Lots has a nominal “International” section. It’s primarily Hispanic products, like large cans of hominy, menudo ($2.50 for a one-pound, 13 ½-ounce can), black beans (one pound for 70 cents) and Maseca Masa (a 4.4-pound bag is $1.99). They also carry Jumex nectars in peach, guava and strawberry/banana flavors.

My parents pointed out the T. Marzettis brand of salad dressings, which they see at Bristol Farms under a different label but from the same manufacturer. At Big Lots, the garlic, raspberry and sun-dried tomato vinaigrettes are $1.70 a bottle. Mr. Pic ‘N’ Save is a big fan of Picklefair Fresh Pack Dill Kosher Spears for $1.30, while my mom enjoys Anna’s cookies, thin biscuits that come in orange, blueberry and cappuccino flavors at a dollar a box. I picked up the orange and cappuccino. I liked both, but especially the orange with its full citrus flavor. They’re a nice addition to a cup of green tea. For $1.29, bakers can get great deals on bags of Nestle morsels in butterscotch and a milk chocolate and caramel combo.

Big Lots is big on liquid refreshments. They have a good-sized wine section for a jobber, with some familiar names, like Forest Ville and Forest Glen. If you’re willing to shell out a few bucks for cheap bottles at Trader Joe’s, you’ll feel right at home here. Sorry, but I wasn’t adventurous enough to try the 2002 Chardonnay Aussie Wine in a Can at $4 a liter.

And, if you’ve plunked down $11 at Costco for a case of San Faustino calcium water, you’ll have to drop by Big Lots to get it at 60 cents for a one-liter bottle.

Finally, Big Lots has some pretty good deals on kitchen equipment. For six bucks, you can pick up a mandolin with three interchangeable blades. They have pizza slicers and cookies sheets and all sorts of other gadgets and necessities that are inexpensive enough to richly outfit a college grad’s first apartment.

With all these savings, you can afford to indulge in a new cookbook by Nancy Silverton, the LA chef now partnering in restaurant ventures with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Among other accomplishments, she opened the La Brea Bakery back in 1989. The bakery, since sold, now sells their baked goods at markets like Bristol Farms and 99 Ranch Market. Her new book, “A Twist of the Wrist: Quick Flavorful Meals with Ingredients from Jars, Cans, Bags and Boxes,” has just been published by Knopf for $29.95 (Amazon has it for $17.97.). The New York Times wrote it up yesterday and it sounds great. Now, you’ll probably have to spring for more exotic or higher caliber products than what you’ll find at Big Lots, but still, think of the possibilities. Of course, if you have a fondness for all those recipes printed on the packages of products you buy, you’ve just got to get a copy of “Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans & Jars” by Cecil Dyer. I’ve had mine since 1981, but it’s still in print. The Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe is in there as is Kellogg’s Crunchy Baked Chicken made with corn flakes and the Frito Chili Pie Casserole. A step back in time for many of us.

And, speaking of time, Happy Birthday, Dad!

Big Lots in Point Loma is located at 3705 Rosecrans St. There are over a dozen other locations in San Diego County. You can find one near you using the store locator at

Have some thoughts about Big Lots? Add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:


  1. Hi Caron, I enjoyed this for two reasons--My husband and I are HUGE fans of 99-Cent Only Stores (which you mention) and have many friends who also love shopping there (our favorite is the one on Baltimore, off Fletcher Parkway). Fabulous items! I'm amused how it has been the topic of conversation at several "hoity-toity" cocktail parties we've been to, with everyone comparing the latest goodie they've found there.

    And, like your dad, I used to be a huge fan of Pic 'N' Save (first shopped at one here on University Ave. during college when a sorority sister turned me on to it--then was in the Indio store every week buying supplies for my classroom when I taught in nearby Coachella). Once when I bought a bottle of wine for $2 (before the days of Two Buck Chuck!) and it tasted like vinegar, I never ventured to buy any more food items there.

    Over the years I would pop into the one on Lake Murray Blvd. but since it has become Big Lots (unlike your dad), I have not enjoyed it nearly as much or found many bargains to my liking (maybe I'll have to try it again).

    I have been to several 99-Cent stores (here and in Palm Desert) and have noticed many seniors and others doing their weekly grocery shopping there (you might want to check that out too!). I like to buy the bananas and Carl always stocks up on raisins. But normally we go for the gift bags (2 for 99 cents!) and like to stroll up and down every aisle looking for "bargains." Have found some unbelievable ones (including dishes, baby items for the granddaughter, unique crystal cat candle holders, coasters, a great hardback on Jewish Americans, which you might like--I bought many!!). . .and that's why my home office (which you, one of the few, has been privileged to see ;-) now looks like a 99-Cent Store franchise!! In fact, we took our British friends there and they loved it to death--and I showed them how to buy the 99-Cent phone card (99 minutes!) to use on their U.S. travels to give us a call. I even send them to relatives (although if you're not in Calif., Ariz., or Nevada, you get to use it for only half that amount of time--still a good deal!).

    Anyway, I digress, since your topic is covering food. You can see I'm a fan of it (and have even considered buying stock in the company); The U-T wrote a cute story about it last year--the 99 Cent Store runs some funny ads now and then in the L.A. Times: Such as when Oprah was locked out of Hermes in Paris: "Oprah! We'll stay open for you!" And when Camilla was marrying Charles: "Camilla! Get your bridal registry here!"

    Sharon L.

  2. Caron, our fathers are kindred spirits.

    I cannot tell you how many bizarre Christmas gifts I have received from my father over the years ... things like a bottle of ketchup or salad dressing or a refrigerator magnet ... all from the 99 cent store. It became a standing joke in our house. We'd wait to see who would get the WORST Christmas gift.

    But alas, my darling father (now 91) converted me! I now go to the 99 cent store on Clairemont Mesa for kid stuff (beach buckets, glow sticks, etc.) Such a deal!

    Thanks for jogging my memory.

  3. betcha didn't know that before Pic "N" Save changed their name to Big Lots in Northern California, they changed it to McFrugal's. Just a bit o' PNS trivia for you.