Chances are that you have never set foot inside the best grocery store in America: Aldi. And even if you are lucky enough to be in one of the 32 states where Aldi is, perhaps you were put-off by the cardboard boxes in lieu of shelves, or the row upon row of suspicious-looking off-brands. What is this place? Why do I have to put down a deposit to check out a cart? What is the weird giant shelf by the exit? And what do you mean, I have to pay for a bag?
Calm your hormones, meine Schatzis: Aldi, which is short for Albrecht Discount, is the American incarnation of a German grocery chain that is so ubiquitous in the Vaterland that almost 90 percent of Germans shop there. (Not all German imports are luxury cars, beer, and super-cool glasses.)
Aldi is part of a charming subset of Teutonic trade: the brother-run company that cleaves in twain. Shoe aficionados already know the story of the Dassler brothers, Adolf and Rudolf, whose bitter feud resulted in the creation of Adidas and Puma. (Germans pronounce Adidas differentlyâ€”some might say correctlyâ€”AH-dee-das, from Adi Dassler.) But outside Germany, few know about grocery-store kingpins Karl and Theo Albrecht (who was kidnapped in 1971!)â€”even though Karl, with a reported net worth of more than 17 billion euros, is the richest man in Germany (Theoâ€™s descendants are a close second).
The BrÃ¼der founded their discount-store empire together. A disagreement in 1960 over selling cigarettes hastened a partition, and an epic game of grocery-store Risk: Theo would rename his business Aldi Nord, and would control territories north of the Rhine, plus a healthy chunk of Europe. Karl would head up Aldi SÃ¼d, and get southern Germany, more of Europe, plus the U.K. and Ireland. But both companies operate stores in the United Statesâ€”Aldi SÃ¼d operates as Aldi, and Aldi Nord as the now ubiquitous Trader Joeâ€™s.
But whereas Trader Joeâ€™s employs just one major cost-saving deviceâ€”private labelingâ€”everything else about it is Americanized. The place is swarming with upbeat employees; cashiers stand at the till and bag your products for you; you just grab a cart willy-nilly and they trust you to put it back. Aldi also private-labels (those $1.99 â€œMillvilleâ€ Rice Squares are Chex, you guys!), but what makes it a more exciting ventureâ€”and even cheaper than Trader Joeâ€™sâ€”is that it has imported the entire German grocery experience (aside, alas, from employees yelling at you if you do something wrong).