Free Eats: Can you do a full day on free samples?

Photo by Zach Adams

Our life philosophy, in sign form. Photo by Zach Adams

New York devours money, we know this. All bills aside, it’s the eating (and drinking) out that really kills your budget. When the weekend rolls around, and you’re low on cash, deciding between drinking money, dinner money and blowing out next week’s budget can put a serious damper on your plans. But, after savoring literally 6 types of nut butter at the McGolrick Park Farmer’s Market one morning, I remembered all the weekends I’d unintentionally stumbled upon a literal buffet of free samples–one after the other after the other–on my way to meet friends for an expensive meal. Brooklyn has an unusually high concentration of sample-hawking food establishments.

Then it hit me: “I bet you could sustain yourself purely on free samples for a whole day.” So here’s my attempt to do just that while shuffling around the borough one Saturday, with two friends from out of town.

We started it all off under the BQE

Photo by Zach Adams

Pizza at the Brooklyn Kitchen: The freshest & freest cut in Brooklyn. Photo by Zach Adams

The Brooklyn Kitchen/The Meat Hook
100 Frost Street, Greenpoint/Williamsburg

I got a tip that this deli/kitchenware store had their sample game on lock. And BOOM, it was a jackpot right off the bat. Out front they were demoing some alien-looking grill, which yielded us some fresh-and-hot flatbread pizza. Inside, the partitioned floor plan hid samples in unsuspecting corners perfect for shoveling mounds of tiny portions into our faces. The whole maze aspect made over-indulging too easy to be true, quickly pushing my caloric intake over the “full meal” level.

Pineapple, Mushroom, tomato flatbread pizza (2 slices)
Grilled asparagus
Cheese Curds
Sesame graham crackers (handful after handful)
McClure’s Sweet and Spicy pickles (toothpick after toothpick)

McCarren Park Greenmarket *dud*
Driggs and Union Ave, Greenpoint

After such a great start, we felt pretty invincible heading to the Greenmarket. Little did we know our high spirits would be crushed by our late start to the day. Getting there around 2:30pm turned what I assumed was a safe bet into a dud.

(Pro-tip: When it’s open on Sundays, McGolrick Park’s Farmer’s Market kills it on the nut butter and tempeh sample-front)

Van Leeuwen’s Ice Cream
632 Manhattan Ave, Greenpoint

Here the line between “free sample” and “taste test” started to get pretty blurry. We all know the word “artisan” is synonymous with”upsell,” which roughly translates into “hardsell.” If you’re game enough, you can turn the sales pandering into totally free perks by simply saying “not for me.” Or you could make up a bullshit excuse and run out the door, like I did. That’s how capitalism works, right?

Gianduja (aka dark chocolate custard with hazelnut heaven)

(Pro-tip: NEVER double-dupe. If you want to return to an establishment, you NEED to come back and actually buy something…preferably a lot of things.)  

Photo by Zach Adams

Fun fact: Cell phone providers have replaced banks as the #1 free lollipop distributors. Photo by Zach Adams

T-Mobile Greenpoint
771 Manhattan Avenue

As the sample brigade moved north, we stumbled across a table with candy and some kind of sales brochures. Easy enough to score sweets, as long as you don’t make eye contact.

Lollipops (No pamphlets, please!!)

Photo by Zach Adams

Add organic, fresh pressed vital sustenance peanut butter, and munch away. Photo by Zach Adams

The Garden
921 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint

Here we planned to push the limits of cold cut tasting at the deli. Luckily, a basket of  lightly sweetened wafer-type cookies caught my eye first. Serendipitously (or strategically) placed next to the peanut butter grinder, we dove in and ground up a very filling snack on our last stop in Greenpoint.

Wafer cookies (kind of like flat pizzelles)
Organic, fresh ground peanut butter

With pretty full (but not fully satisfied) bellies, we hopped on the East River Ferry to make our way to the upmarket mecca known as DUMBO.

Photo by Zach Adams

The new millennium hunter-gatherer diet: nuts & gummy berries. Photo by Zach Adams

56 Adams Street, DUMBO

I avoided this notoriously expensive grocer when I worked on the block but remembered the free bits of bread they placed next to their bougie olive oils. Welp, they did away with the bread but brought in bulk nuts, trail mix and self-service candy, all of which I helped myself to in small portions. Plus, their salad bar’s artisanal rolls paired nicely with the olive bar samples.

Thai curry cashews
Chocolate-cranberry-granola-coconut trail mix
Gummy berries
Multigrain golden raisin bread
Assorted olives

Jaques Torres Chocolates *dud*
66 Water Street, DUMBO

A former roommate that still lives & works in DUMBO told me about a past brownie sample experience here but when we rolled in there was no sample tray or taste testing in sight.  At this point, my sweet tooth was hurting, so we had to get out of there before my compulsive cookie-buying habit took total control.

By now, our heat stamina started to falter, so we headed for the F train to wrap up the day with the last fail-safe sample stores in Cobble Hill.

Photo by Zach Adams

Free fingerfuls of fermented dairy. Photo by Zach Adams

Stinky Brooklyn
215 Smith Street, Cobble Hill

One tip from a friend that didn’t disappoint. The sign said “EVERYBODY GETS A PIECE” but they’re underplaying their generosity. The guys behind the counter practically had my sample sliced up before I finished asking for one.

Tomme de Savoie
Pont l’Eveque

Photo by Zach Adams

Sodium clearance, aisle 3. Photo by Zach Adams

Union Market
288 Court Street, Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens

By the time we got to Union Market, it was about 7:30pm and the promo sampling I’d been promised had packed up shop. Their generous not-just-olive bar made a worthy consolation prize though. I definitely dipped into the bin to replenish the sample dish a few times. Hey, when you have unlimited toothpicks in a virtually empty store, eat like no one’s watching.

Kalamata olives
Green olives
Black olives
Garlic stuffed olives
Stuffed martini olives
Olives, olives, olives…
Marinated mushrooms (over and over)
Mini pickles
“Zesty” giardiniera

By around 8 o’clock, both my friends had bailed on the sample mission and bought a sandwich. And, at this point, even though my stomach was more than full of sodium, cheese fat and swiped wheat rolls, god damn it, I wanted a sandwich too.

Photo by Zach Adams

The freshest coffee from Brooklyn’s finest free dining establishment. Photo by Zach Adams

Trader Joe’s
130 Court Street, Cobble Hill

If TJ’s sample station weren’t guaranteed, I don’t think we would have made it up Court Street. Spirits were low, blood sugar was erratic, but determination paid off in kind at our last stop of the night. Not only did I get pretty close to a sandwich (bagel + salmon), there was after dinner coffee with my option of soy or regular milk! I vultured the shit out of those little bagel fractions, throwing back baby coffees like it was last call. Plus, after buddying up with the sample guy, I got an ‘off-menu’ taste of dessert.

7-grain bagel(s)
Salmon spread (seasoned lox & cream cheese blend)
Peaberry coffee
Chocolate chip dunker cookies

(Pro-tip: I found out, after the fact, that Trader Joe’s will let you sample pretty much ANYTHING in the store if you ask)

By the end of the day, I was tired and hot but not hungry. Well, I didn’t physically want to eat more. Psychologically, though, I was still pretty fixated on those cookies back at Jacques Torres and the pizza from way back at our first stop. My whetted appetite was not the point of my journey. It is, however, the point of food samples.


On the weekend, if you’re stuck between drink money vs. dinner money, out on an artisanal Brooklyn walking tour with foodie friends or in town on a shoestring, you don’t need to break the bank or go home hungry. You just have to ask to try everything they’ve got.

Follow Katie at @katie_capri for free tweets

6 Comment

  • sampling with no intention to buy is kind of ethically bankrupt. I’d like to see a non-white, non-young person try to do this.

  • I find this totally disgusting. Victimizing small businesses to save money for beer is morally bankrupt. You vote with your dollar. You are effectively voting that their businesses fail.
    Why not pretend you donated blood and get a free OJ and snack cake? Steal from the Red Cross.
    Pretend you are infirm and sign up for Meals on Wheels.
    Get pregnant and apply for WIC to get free food vouchers every month.
    Join a variety of churches and go to their pot lucks.
    Go to places where elementary schools do field trips and steal the basket full of lunch boxes while they are occupied.
    Move back home and mooch off of your parents.
    Don’t forget the Serial Internet Dating option! Deceit makes the heart grow fonder.

  • guys, i don’t think it’s comparable at all to “stealing from the Red Cross” or “pretending that you are infirm and signing up for Meals on Wheels”– these are profit-based establishments, well aware of the nature and spirit of Capitalism and Consumerism, and offering free samples to drive sales, so i don’t really see any ethical problem in partaking in a system that they themselves promote.

    in any case, i’m all for free samples and i usually never intend to buy what i’m offered because i didn’t come to the store planning to buy it, but once in a while i do, and this is a solid list of places where you can sample new things and maybe you’ll like it– or hey, maybe you won’t– but whatever.

  • Woah, woah, woah. We’re NOT supposed to steal from the Red Cross?

  • Just to be crystal clear: this is an experiment/exaggerated illustration of a way you might fend off hunger pangs in a pinch (i.e. day before pay day, as friends pay for expensive food you can’t afford, in lieu of sitting in Union Sq with a sign, etc.). In flush, or just funded times, SHOP/BUY/SUPPORT LOCAL SMALL BUSINESSES. ‘Vote’ with your dollars or whatever you want to call it. This is not trying to undermine that. Samples are given to be eaten—that should not be a moral issue. This post does admittedly cross into dubious moral territory for the sake of the experiment. But this hyperbolic scenario should not be a lifestyle choice or a frequent occurrence. I’ve gone back and BOUGHT—‘voted for’—food at many of these businesses. I chose to ‘vote’ for them because they are awesome. Others I have not, because they aren’t awesome, and that’s my choice.

    So to reiterate, I’m not saying you should live your life like this. I AM saying, come pay day, remember the help and repay the hands that fed.