ARVADA, Colo., Aug. 28, 2009 -- From the outside, it doesn't look like grocery stores you're used to.
Tucked in the back of an industrial complex, Palumbo's Friday Store has a plain brick front and black security bars covering the windows.
And on the inside, you will not find prices you're used to.
"We have people of all walks of life come in here for the sole purpose of saving money," said owner Martin Palumbo, noting that in the last year business at his store is up anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.
Palumbo and his wife, Jo, run a "salvage" grocery store in Arvada, Colo., near Denver. They take in damaged, dented or discontinued products that grocery stores won't sell -- everything from baby food to bug spray, cereal to salad dressing -- and offer them at huge discounts.
As the economy has tanked, frugal customers have been flocking to so-called "scratch-and-dent" or salvage grocery stores.
"I notice that a lot of people are coming in and saying, 'I just got laid off, and I'm so glad I found you,'" said Jo Palumbo, herself laid off in December from her job as a paralegal.
There are hundreds of these types of stores spread across the country, and a growing number of Web sites are dedicated to finding them. Anderson's Country Market, a discount store located in Madison Heights, Va., maintains a state-by-state list.
Palumbo gets his products from supermarket reclamation centers. The packaging is often crushed or torn; cans are often dented. Some items are near or even just past their "sell by" dates.
But the deals are great.
Walking up and down the aisles, Martin Palumbo reached for a bottle of 100 percent fruit juice.
"Juices are very costly in the store," he said. "It takes a lot of berries to fill that jug. They normally sell for $3, $4 apiece. Our price is $1.99."
Also on the shelves that day was a box of Trix cereal for $1.99. The same box at a nearby Safeway supermarket was priced at $3.99. A bottle of Newman's Own All Natural Salad Mist at Safeway was $3.29, compared to $1.99 at Palumbo's Friday Store.
Shopper Angela Wheaton said the overall savings are substantial, around 50 percent over mainstream grocery stores.
"I automatically know I'm going to save money on my whole wheat pasta," she said. "And the cheese is about 75 percent less."
Palumbo says that the product on his store shelves varies from week to week. He never knows what items will show up packed in boxes that used to hold bananas.
"It's kind of like a treasure hunt," he said, opening a banana box in the back storeroom.
"These sell for almost $4 apiece," he said, holding up a box of strawberry Pop-Tarts. "But I'll sell them for $2.50."
Health experts say expired products that are "shelf safe," such as crackers or canned goods, can be eaten past their sell by dates.
"The quality of it might be a little bit less, and the flavor might not be quite as robust," said Susan Parachini, the Retail Food Program Manager at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment. "If you use it past that date, it in all likelihood is not going to cause illness. Obviously, if you're looking at meats that have sell by or use by dates, you'll want to adhere to those."
Parachini also says you should never buy infant formula past the sell by date.
Owner Says Food at Salvage Store Is Safe
As for dented cans, Susan Parachini says to avoid severe dents, especially along the seams. And watch out for two major red flags: leaking or bulging.
"If you have a can, any time it's leaking or if it's bulging, it wouldn't any longer be considered safe," she said.
Leaks or bulges could be a sign that botulism bacteria is growing in the can.
Symptoms of botulism include blurred vision, muscle weakness and even paralysis that could potentially cause death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Just make sure you're informed and you're taking the time to look to make sure you're getting a product that at least visually appears to be of good quality and integrity," said Parachini.
Martin Palumbo insists the food in crushed boxes and dented cans is safe.
"If it's not something I would eat myself, I wouldn't put it on my shelf. I would not be in business this long if I was putting anything bad out there," he said.
Palumbo's Friday Store shopper Angela Wheaton says as long as you know what to look for and avoid, the price is right.
"It proves that you don't have to go to a major grocery store," she said. "Or, you can get better prices than the sale prices and a coupon at the grocery store."