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Salvaged Food: Bent and Dent Food Cans Won’t Dent Your Grocery Budget
August 7, 2015
by Peter Hamilton
Sometimes there’s shampoo. Frequently salad dressings. If you’re lucky, those cookies you like. On occasion, gingerbread marshmallows. At times organic free-trade Columbian coffee. But always—whether shampoo or coffee—a thrifty buy.
“Bent and Dent”, as the salvage/surplus industry nicknames its business, is growing. As accounted by Banana Box, Salvage Grocery, and other vendors who supply the entrepreneurial adventurous are offering savings with their post-market inventory.   
The products for salvage/surplus stores are selected from franchise subscriptions or on-line auctions. They arrive in cardboard boxes, randomly filled, with a mix of contents: noodle soups, disposable shavers, organic tea, blueberry jam—as if a Grocer-of-the-Month club.          
Rachel Bender is the proprietor of In-The-Woods grocery. It’s an isolated building along an isolated road in an isolated corner of Chautauqua County New York. But not so isolated that on the Saturday morning of my visit there, eight vehicles were parked and as many customers were lined at the counter; two of them with shopping carts. A hand-lettered sign said: “45% Off.” 
“That’s because we’ve got a new shipment coming,” Rachel explains, “and we have to move this stock.” Prior to stocking shelves, Rachel Bender and her daughters carefully sort through each box for what might have leaked, or products too compromised by damage. “I want to be certain,” she insists. She says she won’t order perishable products. Naming first: dairy items. She declares, “We just don’t put them out,” as both the white Amish bonnet over her head and she nod resolutely. “And refrigerated cases wouldn’t be economical,” she says while overseeing her daughters from behind the checkout counter. “We’d have to run the diesel generator.”  A pair of nodding white bonnets…agreed.       

A few miles east of Wattsburg, and then a little north of Clymer, New York, is Creekside Grocery. It too, like In-The-Woods, is operated by Amish proprietors. Here the conveniences are more ascetic. Kerosene heaters are placed courteously near the checkout counter. Propane fueled ceiling lights blaze like so many Coleman lantern globes shimmering on a summer night. An older-model calculator clicks, sending out a rolled printer receipt, energized from a battery below the counter. No electronic card device scans. Real cash or a hand-written check to the store are the sole recognized tender; recognized only in the context of what the conservatively unconventional equipment will accept.   
There are similar businesses within a short drive from Erie, PA. The stores are not showy. There’s none of the ostentatious architecture that those enormous “big-box” warehouses have. The square-footage is proportional to shopping costs: minimal. A typical salvage/surplus store, like In-The-Woods, is pole-barn frame, metal siding, and without grand storefront windows. And if windows, small ones. It is about service, not announcement. The spirit of the Amish, implied. Typically, you’ll not find Amish products for sale. The stores display a grocer’s license; not a food-vendor’s. Although a store near Panama had the ubiquitous Amish “Fried Pie,” but were displayed separately. Albeit with temptation.
The Amish know savvy marketing. Another store, Sunrise Salvage, has an enclosed entrance, imitating a covered bridge. An exquisite quilt hangs stunningly on the wall of another. 
Not all salvage/surplus stores are owned by the Amish. “Sherman Surplus and Salvage” is operated by Mosheh Roller, a “between colleges” young man with a smile as if at a toothpaste commercial audition. “Who shops here?”  He’s repeats my question studiously. “Many Amish.”  He motions behind him, “but a lot of moms and their kids go for that.”  He points at the sugary-lettered cereal boxes. Cheery tigers and bears smiling just as Mosheh did.
Harold Reynolds, a fifty-year-old bachelor who lives three roads from In-The-Woods is both a competitive trail runner and a food naturalist—often stopping along a path to identify an edible plant. He proclaims salvage food as “fantastic!”  He raises his lithe arm, holds a jar of sundried tomato artichokes upward as if an exclaiming punctuation.
As Rita Carlson loads numerous fully laden grocery packs into the side door of her late-model Dodge Caravan she tells me she loves shopping at surplus/salvage stores. She shows a bag of sweet chili red pepper chips, a box of sesame-roasted crackers. “I’ve got teenagers with ravenous cravings." As if to illustrate that shopping here has chopped her shopping costs in half, she straightens the bags saying, “So I buy twice as much.”
While an elegantly matured woman waits for the cashier, she turns to her companion, a contemporary senior also, “these cost twice as much at the drugstore.” The cashier discreetly places the eight rectangular boxes into a bag: tubes of hemorrhoid ointments.  
Other shoppers aren’t as purposeful. With a hand basket under her arm, a shopper tells me that “it’s more like a treasure hunt” as she lifts a basket of assorted items, even the gingerbread marshmallows.
At average, a salvage store doesn’t stock “regular” items—those typical of a shopping list: milk, eggs, etc.—but instead accept a delivery of unexpected supplies.  “It’s sort of like a surprise grab bag,” as Mosheh Roller of Sherman Surplus describes it when opening a new shipment.              
The word “surplus” or “salvage” is vague. Despite the old dates, dusty box tops and split dressings—the box of ziti pasta I bought that day had been re-sealed with cellophane—the food “isn't all that bad,” Rachel Bender affirms.
Mosheh Roller waxes politically, supporting the post-market salvage/surplus grocery industry bias against the common misnomer, “Sell-By”.  Foods remain safe to consume for some time “beyond sell-by and even use-by dates provided they’re handled and stored properly.”  As a demonstrative example he shakes a salad dressing bottle. “Emulsified dressings may split,” (the dissipated ingredients unjoined) “but they’re not a safety hazard unless contaminated."  He twists the well-fastened top.
Herb Smith, a neighbor proprietor to the “Salvage Surplus” store, arrives at the counter. Smith is a retired college professor with a long scholarly beard. He relates an account of the expedition of Sir William Parry exploring the Northwest Passage in 1855. There were many canned goods on the voyage. Years later, two of these cans that had survived journey were kept in a museum until 1938. Researchers removed the canned meat for inspection. After nearly 100 years, the scientists found the meat was nutritionally sound and considered it safe for consumption.  He put two cans of refried beans on the counter.
“That’ll be fifty cents,” Mosheh Roller says as he tallies them.
Note:  Peter Hamilton studied at Gannon University and is the author of The Devil Hates a Coward.  He lives in Sherman, NY and loves to sleep under the stars on a warm summer night. For more visit:
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