Costco brings back food demos—but modified for a pandemic [Updated]

Illustration for article titled Costco brings back food demos—but modified for a pandemic [Updated]
Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP (Getty Images)

Update, August 28, 2020: Costco demos are finally back! But if you were hoping for the equivalent of a free meal to sustain you through your shopping, I have some bad news for you: these demos will feature no actual prepared food.

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Instead, as @costcoguy4u shows in an Instagram post, the demos are more like displays. A fully prepared and plated dish sits on a small platform behind plexiglass, and the ingredients for preparing this dish sit in front for users to take and purchase. In some cases, there may also be prepackaged samples, but that, of course, depends on the food. It’s definitely not a return to the great old days of a Saturday at Costco, but for shoppers who were genuinely interested in finding new products, and for food companies who were interested in finding new customers, it’s a solution, of sorts.

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Original post, June 1, 2020: Beyond all the obvious ways that the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives, there are a million small changes to daily life that have cropped up almost without our realizing it. When is the last time that a friendly wholesale warehouse associate offered you some bite-sized corn dog nibblers or a tiny, sloppy slice of brie en croute off a paper plate at their post beside the kitchen appliances aisle? It’s been months. But now, as businesses everywhere grapple with when and how to resume business as usual (or as close to “usual” as they care to get), Costco has made an important announcement: free samples will be returning to stores this month.

USA Today reports that on Costco’s quarterly earnings call last week, CFO Richard Galanti teased mid-June as the target for when customers can expect seeing free samples once more. “We’re going to start doing some things in mid-June on a slow rollout basis in sampling,” Galanti said. “I can’t tell you any more, but needless to say it’s not going to be where you go and just pick up an open sample with your fingers.”

That certainly makes sense; communal food situations of all stripes are going to need some serious reevaluation in the post-COVID era. (We’re looking at you, cruise ship spreads and hotel breakfast buffets.) But it’s interesting to think about how a free samples situation could possibly look any different from the cramped, crowded iteration we know so well. People flock to free food no matter what—how will those crowds be mitigated?

Maybe the samples will be offered in individual containers at checkout, as a freebie added on to your purchase. Or maybe they’ll be offered by greeters as soon as you walk in the store, so you can whisk it away to power you through your shopping list and keep on moving past the sample station immediately. And how will Costco make sure our fingers aren’t near our mouths as we eat these samples? Will everything be accompanied by an inconvenient miniature fork? It’s just one more small consideration within post-COVID life that will require a bit of clever problem-solving to crack.

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Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

Dr Emilio Lizardo

Why wait so long?  Half the stores in Chicago were giving out free samples Saturday night, and they weren’t even open.