Move over, Target. Here's why you should be shopping at restaurant supply stores.

How a trip to a restaurant supply store saved me $199.
Counter space and cooking utensils in modern kitchen
Pans are one of the best things to buy at restaurant supply stores.Spaces Images / Getty Images
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By Stephanie Thurrott

When the nonstick surface on my frying pans started to flake off, I knew it was time to replace them. They hadn’t lasted long, so I wanted something different. There wasn’t much of a selection at Target, and my closest IKEA is almost an hour away (sigh).

Then I remembered — there’s a restaurant supply store, The Restaurant Store, not far from me. I decided to check it out. I was impressed — and a little intimidated — by the Costco-sized warehouse, filled with everything from cappuccino cups to Chinese takeout containers to oyster knives.

I bought three new frying pans for a total of $88 — an eight-inch pan for $21, a 10-inch pan for $29, and a 12-inch pan for $38. Online, these same three pans were selling for $274 total.

I got deals on some other things, too — a corkscrew for $1.57. The cheapest one I could find at Target was $7.99. Tongs for $2.05 instead of $7.99. A whisk for $3.45 instead of $5.

Plus, I scored some fun stuff that wasn’t on my shopping list — ginger syrup ($4.30) and maraschino cherries ($4.46) for cocktails.

THE SWEET SPOT OF SELECTION, PRICE AND QUALITY

It turns out I was onto something. Pans are one of the best things to buy at restaurant supply stores. Knives, too, according to Addison Williams, store manager at Cresco Restaurant Equipment and Supply Co. That’s because you can buy only what you need. Pans (and knives) in retail stores often come in sets of 10 or more items, and you might only use three, he says.

Plus, in restaurant supply stores you’re buying the same gear the pros use. You’ll find professional-grade tools and equipment at reasonable prices. “We’re a wholesaler,” Williams says. “We have restaurants buying large quantities — we can’t have retail pricing.”

Allen Adamson, an adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says that the perceived high quality of items sold to professionals can be a draw for consumers.

“Industrial- or professional-grade equipment is seen as higher value — if it’s sold to restaurants, it’s got to be more professional and more durable,” Adamson says. “The professional market still has some panache with consumers.”

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For everyday items, restaurant supply stores can be a good option. “Consumers can purchase durable pots and pans, knives, baking sheets, cutting boards, and high-heat spatulas. Since these items are commercial grade, they are built to last, and will keep even longer in a home kitchen,” says Meaghan Brophy, senior retail analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com.

MORE REASONS TO GIVE IT A TRY

Restaurant supply stores have other features that make them attractive:

  • You can buy exactly what you need. Say you’re shopping for silverware. Maybe you want 20 dinner forks but only 10 salad forks. You can mix and match your own set, and choose from hundreds of different options.
  • You’ll have lots of choices. I picked out a 12-inch whisk from a wall of whisks in various sizes, shapes, and types. Same goes for tongs, ladles, spatulas, and other kitchen tools.
  • Sizing is universal. The industry is standardized, so things like lids and pans from different manufacturers will fit each other.

FOR SOME THINGS, YOU’LL WANT TO STICK WITH RETAIL

You won’t find everything you need in restaurant supply stores, though. I went in looking for a salad spinner, but the smallest one I could find was 2.5 gallons — way too big to store in my kitchen, or for the amount of lettuce I’ll ever need to wash.

And some of the restaurant-grade appliances might catch your eye, but Williams cautions against them. “A lot of people want to put a commercial range in their home, but their safety features are not designed for that,” he says.

Restaurant-grade refrigerators might be a bad choice, too — they’re loud. “People who put them in can’t sleep at night,” Williams says.

And if you’re looking for stylish, on-trend kitchenware, you might need to shop elsewhere. “These items [in restaurant supply stores] are designed for industrial use, so they may not be as aesthetically pleasing as something you would find in a traditional kitchen store,” Brophy says.

HIDDEN ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN

Why aren’t these stores more popular? Williams thinks it’s simply because people don’t know about them. You generally won’t spot them alongside your local Target or Costco — mine is close to a small airport.

“They’re mostly in industrial areas, not in retail settings,” Williams says. They’re often in locations that sell wholesale food as well, so restaurant owners and employees can get everything they need in one area. “Unless you go to that commercial area, you would never know they were there,” he says.

READY TO SHOP?

To get started, search online for restaurant supply stores in your area. When you find one that looks good, check their web site or call to make sure they’re open to the general public — while these stores are geared toward the restaurant industry, many welcome consumers.

Walking into a super-sized store filled with restaurant supplies might feel intimidating — it did for me. Don’t be shy about asking the staff for help. “We know the products and we’re using the stuff in our homes,” Williams says.

MORE SHOPPING TIPS FROM YOUR FAVORITE STORES

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