Secrets of the Costco food court

Raise your hand if you've ever gone to Costco specifically to visit the food court. Plenty of us have, and why wouldn't you? A $1.50 hot dog and soda combo or a slice of cheap but amazing pizza beats just about any value meal from a drive-thru, and depending on your local menu's offerings, you might even be able to satisfy that fast food craving with a hamburger and fries. Whether you're in the mood for greasy grub or a "meaty" vegetarian salad, they're got it all.  

As often as you've noshed at the warehouse store though, you probably don't know all the fun facts and sketchy secrets of the Costco food court. How do those pizzas get made so quickly and so perfectly each time? And just how much cheese and oil is used? (Spoiler alert: A whole lot.) Which piece of kitchen equipment rarely gets washed? And how many hot dogs get sold each year? Let's find out.

The pizza making process is insanely fast

At peak times, the Costco food court can be packed, and it's not uncommon to be waiting in a line of 10 or more people. But even the longest lines move fast, and that's due, in part, to how fast the pizzas are made and baked.

Would you believe that in under 30 seconds a big blob of dough gets turned into a pizza waiting to be dressed with all those delicious toppings? Well, it does, thanks to a dough squisher and a pizza sauce turntable (yes, of course those are the technical names). After the pizza takes a spin on the saucer, it's ready to get cheesed and topped, which is still done by humans because robots don't run Costco — yet. The finished pie then heads to the ultra-efficient conveyor belt oven, and after baking for just six minutes, the pizza is ready and waiting to be sliced and served.

There's a reason the chicken bakes are so much better

Given that Costco sells premade Kirkland chicken bakes by the box in the freezer section, this tidbit might come as a bit of a surprise — the chicken bakes you get at the food court are actually made fresh from scratch every day.

A former Costco food court employee explained on Reddit that this is definitely the reason they're so much better than the ones we reheat at home, saying, "…I will tell you that the frozen chicken bakes they sell [in the store] are not anywhere near the same as the ones that we made at the food court. Food court ones are superior in every way." 

If you're really ambitious, you can follow this recipe the Redditor provided, and skip the box altogether: Pizza dough is brushed with Caesar dressing, filled with precooked chicken breast, bacon bits, and pizza cheese, then rolled into a tube and pinched at the ends. The exterior is then brushed with more dressing and sprinkled with more cheese, and baked at 600 degrees for six minutes. 

Popping a frozen chicken bake in the oven might be easier, but not tastier. 

It's one of America's largest pizza chains

Costco seems to be great at everything it does, and selling pizza is no exception. So it shouldn't be too surprising to learn that the company known for selling bulk toilet paper is also a heavy hitter in the pizza world.  

In fact, Business Insider reported in 2015 that the warehouse store ranked as the 14th largest pizza chain in the U.S. thanks to almost 500 of its stores selling slices and whole pies. But how does that compare to the pizza slinging giants like Pizza Hut and Domino's? Well, considering that Pizza Hut — which ranked number one in a list of actual pizza chains — operates an astounding 15,605 locations and does over $13 billion in annual sales, it's a pretty impressive statistic for a warehouse store.

And it's not just a fluke — Costco has been outselling their competitors for years. In the August 2011 issue of The Costco Connection, food court buyer Todd Thommen said, "Costco Food Court sells more pizza per location than any other major pizza chain in the U.S. — and we're not even open late at night." Imagine if they were.

You can eat without a membership

One of the knocks on Costco is that pesky membership fee. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but if you spend enough money in the store, you'll likely recoup your membership fee in your annual reward check (depending on what kind of member you are). If you don't go very often though, spending even $60 a year just to get $1.50 hot dogs seems like a bit of a splurge. The good news is there's a few life hacks for this very conundrum. 

All you've got to do is find a store with the food court located outside, and as long as you can pay in cash, you can chow down any time you want without shelling out for that annual fee. And if the food court is located inside? You're not out of luck. CookingLight confirmed with a Costco customer service representative that all you need to do to get in is tell them you're just there to eat. It's apparently that easy. 

And if that doesn't work, you've still got two other options, according to Life Hacker. One, use a gift card to gain entrance — even if it's old and has a zero balance, you can still use it to get in. Two, use the "I'm thinking about joining" routine to get through the door, the waltz right on up to the food court window.

You might be able to score extra toppings on your pizza

Costco pizzas are known to be chock full of plenty of cheese, meat, and veggies as it is, but more is always better when it comes to pizza toppings, right? According to one Costco food court employee on Reddit, if you're ordering a whole pizza and ask for extra toppings, you just might get 'em: "It really depends on how busy the store is and how easygoing the manager/supervisor combo is. My current one bends over backward for members but the meat is super expensive. They would probably put a little extra in but [not] double…" 

A customer chimed in to share his tips on getting some extra toppings on their pie, saying, "I like to call mine in. You can ask for all sorts of stuff but they are limited on what they can or will do. One nearby food court insists all the veggies are premixed so they can't put just onions or just peppers. Another local food court will do that no issue but they won't do extra cheese."

It never hurts to ask, right?

There are ways to hack the menu

There aren't many secret menu hacks to be had at the Costco food court, but there are a few ways you can use their standard offerings to come up with an even more delicious dish.

We all know the three basic options for Costco pizza: cheese, pepperoni, and combo. But one Instagram user shared her pizza ordering hack, and honestly, it sounds better than any of the usual pies — if you're a meat eater, that is. "When we hit Costco, we always order a whole pizza for dinner. For the longest time, we would just order pepperoni pizzas off the menu. Then we found out that although it's not on the menu board, you can actually order a pepperoni and sausage pizza (it has to be a whole pizza, not by the slice)," geekymomadventures said.

Other easy hacks? Now that chili has landed a spot on the menu — and happens to come with a side of cheese — chili cheese dogs are a possibility. And for dessert, you can DIY an ice cream float by simply ordering a vanilla frozen yogurt and a soda, and then mixing up the float flavor of your choice. Genius.

A lot of oil is used to make the pizza

Based on how greasy the bottom of the box can be, it's not too surprising that a lot of oil is used to make a Costco pizza. One food court worker lamented that particular step of the process on Reddit, saying, "The only thing that concerns me is how much oil gets used in the process of making a pizza skin (the stretched out and sauced pizza dough). Too much. And when you don't use the corporate requested amount because you think it's too much and corporate notices? You use more oil to avoid being in trouble. Some managers overcompensate and use a quarter cup of oil+ when making them."

And then there's all that cheese — one-and-a-half pounds of mozzarella, provolone, and Parmesan, to be exact — which surely contributes a little extra grease to the situation. But hey, let's be honest — we didn't line up at the Costco food court for a fat-free pizza, now did we?

They sell a mind-boggling number of hot dogs

When you think of how many people are jammed into the food court at any given time, you would assume that Costco is selling a whole lot of hot dogs. But would you guess that they sell over 100 million in a year? Well, they do, and according to The Motley Fool, the warehouse store actually sold 128 million in 2015, which happens to be about four times as many hot dogs as all the major league ballparks combined sold in the same year. 

If you do the math, you'll be gobsmacked to see that 128 million hot dogs equals a cool $192 million, but considering that the combo meal is a known loss leader, Costco probably isn't seeing too much profit there. What they are seeing, however, is all those hot dog eaters happily roaming around the store after a cheap lunch and buying plenty of other things that the company will make money on.

This piece of equipment might not get washed very often

Even after combing through countless Reddit AMAs, where Costco food court employees spill all the tea, you won't find many knocks on the quality of food or any revelations of horribly disgusting kitchens. And for those of us that adore the food court and all its offerings, that's extremely comforting.

In fact, there's so little tea to spill on the topic that one food court employee on Reddit could only come up with one thing: "Some people have hangups about the fact that we don't wash our pizza discs every time we use them," they said. But because the pizza discs (the metal plates the dough cooks on) only get more of the same dough placed on them, most of us will likely shrug our shoulders at this "scandalous" piece of information. What about cross contamination though? Sure, vegetarians might prefer not to have meat pizza juice on a cheese pizza disc, but otherwise, since there's no gluten-free pizza option, the risk of cross contamination is pretty low.

There's an easy way to avoid long lines

The noontime lines at the Costco food court can be bit of a nightmare, but if you know what you're doing, there are ways to avoid them.

The easiest way to skip the line is to add your food court order at the register when you check out. Of course, you have to be purchasing items from the store for this hack to work, but you always need something from Costco, don't you? With receipt in hand, you'll bypass all those poor suckers waiting in line, and since your meal is already paid for with your other groceries, you also won't have to worry about having cash handy at the food court window. 

Another way to avoid the line and/or no cash problem is to use the digital kiosks to complete your order. If you're lucky enough to have these machines in your local food court, you just tap in what you want, pay with a card, and head to the pick-up window. 

Some food prices have never changed

If you've been eating fast food for a few decades, you know that the price you now pay when you hit the drive-thru is substantially more than it used to be. Take McDonald's, for instance. In 1985, a Big Mac, supersize fries, and large soda could be had for $2.59. Compare that to 2019, when you're shelling out $9.28 for a similarly sized meal (according to the McDonald's app). That's about a 258 percent increase in 34 years.

Costco, on the other hand, has been selling their hot dog and soda combo since 1985, and their pizza since 1989, and those prices have never increased since their menu debuts. You still pay the same today as you did 30 years ago — $1.50 for the hot dog, and $9.95 for a fully loaded 18-inch pie (or $1.99 for a slice). And not only has that combo meal remained the same bargain basement price it always was, but the dog is 10 percent bigger now, and the soda increased in size, too, from 12-ounce to 20-ounce with free refills. Bet you can't say that about your favorite fast food joint.

The polish dog is a thing of the past

In July 2018 Costco announced that their beloved polish dog would be pulled from menus to make room for healthier options, like açaí bowls and meatless al pastor salads, additions The Seattle Times reported that even the company's CEO didn't sound too thrilled about. "This new plant-based protein salad, I know that excites you," Craig Jelinek told shareholders. "But it is healthy. And, uh, actually, it tastes pretty good, if you like those kind of things. I tried it once." 

To say people were displeased would be an understatement, and #SaveThePolishDog blew up on Twitter, with many echoing the sentiments of the CEO. "Hey @Costco, any way we could skip the açaí bowls or whatever super food garbage you're adding and keep the polish dog? If you have to replace something get rid of those nasty chicken bake things," one angry Twitter user suggested.

The polish dog isn't the first time a popular product was axed — once upon a time, Costco sold the dreamiest, creamiest chocolate-dipped vanilla ice cream bar covered in chopped almonds. It was enormous, and it was only $1.50. And then, because the world is a cruel, cruel place, the company discontinued it, too. Predictably, there was outrage, but thus far petitions and Facebook groups demanding its return have been unsuccessful. 

Will the polish dog and ice cream bar ever return? We can only hope.

Employees don't get a discount

According to a 2018 study, Costco is the best large company to work for in the U.S. And why wouldn't it be? They offer a pay rate that is well above the federal minimum wage, and on top of that, employees not only get health and dental insurance, but are also eligible for other perks like life insurance, 401Ks, and stocks. "When you look at Costco, they overwhelm employees with benefits and employees feel like they're part of a family," said Jason Nazar, CEO and Co-Founder of Comparably, the company who conducted the study.

Apparently discounts at the food court are not one of those benefits that the employees are overwhelmed with, however. That's according to one food court worker on Reddit, who explained that they don't get a discount on food, but they do get a free executive membership to the store, which at $120 equals 80 hot dog combos or 60 slices of pizza. At the end of the day, they're covered for a few free meals at least. 

The U.S. is missing out on some delicious menu items

If you happen to visit a Costco food court in another country, you'll likely find some menu items that you don't see here in the U.S. While you'll always be able to get the standards like hot dogs and pizza, you'll also find specialty regional cuisine. Here's some of what you're missing out on…

In Canada, you can get your hands on a drool-worthy plate of poutine (a combination of french fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curds). In Korea and Taiwan, instead of the classic chicken bake, you can try a bulgogi beef bake made with marinated grilled beef. Seafood lovers are in luck in Mexico and Japan, where the food courts offer seafood-topped pizza and clam chowder, respectively. And if comfort food is your thing, the homey cottage pie (meat casserole topped with mashed potatoes) at UK locations will make your mouth water.

Maybe it's time to add Costco to the must-eat list when traveling abroad?