Don't eat at the Costco food court until you read this

We've all got reasons for our Costco addictions. For some of us, the promise of purchasing enough paper towels in bulk to forever strike them from our shopping lists is a powerful thought. Buy a box of 50,000 drinking straws, the rationale goes, and you'll know that no matter what else happens in this topsy-turvy world, you've got that whole "drinking straw" thing handled. And who hasn't managed to cobble together an entire meal, just by wandering from free sample station to free sample station, grazing on bite-sized portions of aged sharp cheddar cheese and chipotle barbecue sauce and slices of prepared chicken bake and room temperature pistachio phyllo dough puffs?

But the unsung hero of any successful Costco run, the reward for all of that bulk comparison shopping you've spent hours (and probably hundreds of dollars) on, has got to be the food court. For the uninitiated, the food court at Costco offers more than just a quiet place to sit and examine your mile-long cash register receipt, second-guessing whether or not you really needed to buy that five gallon jug of ultra-premium olive oil. There's a full menu of cheap, filling, and dare we say, really good food just waiting for you at the finish line. But if you've never dined at a Costco, there are a few things you should know ahead of time, to help maximize the experience. Here's the rundown.

You don't have to be a Costco member to eat there

The right to eat at a Costco food court used to be considered one of the perks of Costco membership, and not an option for the general public. But if you're not the kind of person who wants to shop in bulk and you're just in for the food court, it's going to take a lot of hot dogs to make the $60 annual membership fee worth it. 

It may seem like you would need that shiny membership card to gain entrance to the Costco food court, but a representative from the warehouse chain confirmed to Cooking Light in 2018 what we all secretly hoped was the truth. The Costco food court is, indeed, open to members of the public — including those who don't shop at the store. 

If your local Costco has an outside food court, just walk right up to the window and place your order, no questions asked. If you're visiting a Costco with an inside food court, it's likely you'll need to enter through the exit to find that glorious display of cheap eats. If there's any doubt though, just ask a Costco employee at the door. They'll be glad to point you in the right direction — card or no card. 

You can pay for your Costco food court order at the main registers

If you find yourself standing in a long checkout line at Costco, waiting patiently to pay for your 55 gallon drum of Hellmann's mayonnaise, daydreaming about the hot snap of a hot dog casing, you may feel discouraged by the prospect of having to wait in yet another line just to place an order at the food court. After all, after you've waited in line once to put $400 worth of jarred spaghetti sauce onto your battered and broken debit card, the notion of repeating the whole process just to add another $1.50 to your tally can seem discouraging. 

Fortunately, there's a solution. If you know what you plan to order at the food court, you can (politely!) ask your cashier in the warehouse store to add your food items to your main order, and then march over with your receipt and show it to whoever's working the counter at the food court. Presto! Just like that, you've got a full stable of bulk pantry items, AND a delicious, ready-to-eat hot dog, all in one transaction, and without risking further injury to your card-swiping hand.

These are the most unhealthy items at the Costco food court

If you're considering a stop at a Costco food court as part of a sensible meal plan and a commitment to a healthy lifestyle, you're probably barking up the wrong tree. Both the pizza and Costco's signature chicken bake (a sort of unique, crispy Hot Pocket-esque mashup of chicken breast and bacon, all bound together by rivers of melted cheese and Caesar salad dressing) are almost comically bad for you. 

While Costco doesn't publish their nutritional information for food court items online (though they do offer printouts in person, free for the asking), Spoon University has identified the pepperoni pizza, hot turkey and provolone sandwich, and chicken bake, as the worst offenders, in terms of total calories per serving. A single slice of pepperoni pizza clocks in at 710 orange grease-soaked calories, which elevates a "snack" into mealtime territory pretty quickly. The hot turkey and provolone sandwich comes in at 730 calories, which is a lot for a quick, post-shopping lunch. Finally, the chicken bake is even worse; this molten amalgam of fat and protein represents a calorie load of 770, which is a pretty sizable portion of what many people should be eating in an entire day.

Costco food court's pizza prep takes less than a minute

If you've got one foot out the door, with a list of errands a mile long, you may not think you have time to sit down to a freshly baked, hot pizza. After all, at most pizza places, you've got to place your order, then wait around while whoever is behind the counter takes the time to stretch out the dough, apply the toppings, get the pizza in the oven, cook it for 20 minutes, and then get it into a box or onto a metal pizza tray. Most of the time, having a pizza is a process that takes at least a half an hour, and that's without even factoring in the time it takes to eat. 

Not so, at Costco, where they've got pizza prep time down to a record-breaking science. At Costco, balls of thawed dough are loaded onto sheeters, which automatically press the dough into perfectly round, thin pizza shapes. The dough is transferred to perforated pans, and then placed under a pizza sauce-squirting robot that rotates the dough and ensures even coverage. The entire pizza prep process can take less than 30 seconds, which means that if you want a pizza, you can probably get one at Costco a lot quicker than you'd think.

Even if the trays of ready-to-serve slices are empty, all hope isn't lost. Ask the cashier when more slices will be ready — it'll probably be a lot quicker than you think.

Costco food court's hot dog combo is the best value

Costco hot dogs are custom manufactured by Costco, into quarter-pound, high-quality behemoths that can satisfy even the hungriest of customers. Adding a fountain soda brings the total cost of the combo up to a scant $1.50 — mere change when you compare it to other fast food meals. 

But they're not only a great value; they're also delicious. Unlike the kind of limp, boiled-to-death weiners you might expect from a gas station impulse-buy hot dog, the Costco hot dog is an impressive, meaty sausage with lots of smoky notes reminiscent of a backyard barbecue. This is a hot dog that bears more than a passing resemblance to a kielbasa, but without all of the gnarly nuggets of fat and gristle you'd find in a more coarsely-ground smoked sausage. 

But it's not just the all-beef hot dog that we have to thank for the deliciousness of this snack; the bun represents the gold standard in hot dog vessel technology, as well. It's almost impossibly soft, but its most impressive feature is its ability to withstand the onslaught of as many toppings as good judgement allows you to ladle on. Pump as many squirts of mustard, ketchup, or relish as you'd like onto the surface of your dog, and the bun never breaks down, gets soggy, or falls apart. It's something pretty close to magic — and all that for $1.50.

You can pre-order your Costco pizza while you shop

While the wait time for a slice of pizza from the Costco food court may be incredibly short, that's not always the case for an entire pizza pie. They do have to have slices ready for that long line of pizza fans, meaning they don't always have a whole extra pizza pie to spare. But if you don't want to wait around for your pizza to cook, you can game the system somewhat by ordering ahead of time and planning your day around your pizza, which is pretty much how most of us are living our lives, anyway. 

According to Taste of Home, "Friday and Saturday nights are prime pizza time" at Costco. On these busier nights, customers can expect at least a 20 to 30-minute wait for pizza. But if you swing by the food court before you do the rest of your Costco shopping, you can place your order, and have it bubbling away in the oven while you get the other items on your list, timing it just right for pickup when you get done. At most Costcos, you can even call ahead and place your order over the phone, ensuring a pizza that's hot, fresh, and ready when you are.

Don't forget to ask for additional hot dog toppings at the Costco food court

When it comes to maxing out your ratio between "highest possible number of calories" and "lowest possible price," additional toppings can make all of the difference between a meal that will stick with you for the rest of the afternoon, and one that will leave you scrounging for Funyun shards in the cracks between your car seats a few minutes after eating. And at Costco, there are more opportunities for free additional toppings than you may think. 

In addition to the ketchup, mustard, and sweet pickle relish that you can apply as you see fit after landing your fresh hot dog, many Costco locations also have some extra options tucked away behind the counter, including diced raw onions, or a vat of sauerkraut that's all free, just for the asking. Just like that, your standard-issue hot dog has been transformed into a smorgasbord of additional texture, briney flavor, and those all-important extra calories, without adding extra cost.

Some Costcos will let you customize your pizza order…at least a little

Costco famously sells just a few different kinds of pizza: Plain cheese, pepperoni, or the "combo" pie which combines pepperoni, bell peppers, onions, olives, sausage, and mushrooms. But what if you wanted extra cheese, or a half-and-half pie with pepperoni on only one side, or a combo with no onions, or extra mushrooms? 

For the most part, the Costco food court will try to work with you to accommodate your requests. When it comes to extra toppings, this seems to be left to the whims and attitude of whoever is preparing your pizza, according to an employee on Reddit. "It really depends on how busy the store is and how easygoing the manager/supervisor combo is," she explained. "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…"

Don't try to ask for that combo pizza with no onions, however. Many Costco food courts insist that their vegetable blends are "premixed," which would make leaving just one ingredient out practically impossible. Another Reddit user chimed in, 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."

The Costco food court menu is hackable

Experienced bargain-eaters know that you should never limit yourself to what's actually on the menu, when it comes to eating at fast food restaurants or yes, the Costco food court. Apply a little mix-and-match creativity, and you can find yourself with all new menu creations that will both inspire your appetite, as well as stretch your dining dollar a little bit further. 

Our friends at The Kitchn have explored the concept of Costco food court menu hacks thoroughly, and offered a few suggestions. For example, did you know you can get two root beer floats at Costco for around $2 — even at Costcos where this item isn't on the menu. Simply order a vanilla frozen yogurt, and a fountain soda, which is typically self-serve and will net you a paper cup. Spoon half of the yogurt into the empty cup, then top both cups with root beer (but pour slowly…they tend to foam up like crazy).

Or what about a chili cheese dog? Sure, they probably won't make one for you (because figuring out how to charge for it would be next to impossible), but there's no reason you can't order a hot dog and a bowl of chili, and then spoon some of that spicy liquid gold onto your piping hot sausage, all by yourself. Or skip the spoon altogether, and just dunk that bad boy into the chili, one bite at a time. The possibilities are endless!

Keep your eyes open for Costco food court's regional specialties

While they're available everywhere and universally awesome, you may find you start to get a little burned out on the pizza and hot dogs at the Costco food court. But did you know that Costco food court menus may be a little different, depending on where you live? While Costco food courts always carry their staple, standard offerings, many also add an extra item or two, to try and incorporate a little local flavor into their menus. 

For example, Costcos in Canada often feature crispy chicken wings on their menu, bargain priced at just $6.99 for ten wings, as well as a take on French Canadian poutine, those french fries soaked in cheese curds and brown gravy. Some California locations feature the Al Pastor Salad, a $4.99 salad loaded with chopped romaine, fresh vegetables, and a soy-based protein, spiked with Mexican seasonings. And if you love chicken teriyaki, you can even find that at some Costco food courts… but you'll probably have to visit a location in Japan to do it.

Longer lines at the Costco food court mean fresher food

When hunger hits, nobody wants to be confronted by the sight of a mile-long line outside of a Costco food court. After all, when you're hungry, waiting even a few extra minutes to get fresh food working its way down your gullet can seem like an eternity. But instead of rage-tweeting about it, consider this: Long lines at the Costco food court can often translate into fresher, better, hotter food. 

It makes sense, if you think about it. When lines are long, it means more food is getting turned over more quickly, which makes it less likely that you'll end up with a slice of pizza that was prepared hours before or a chicken bake that's past its prime — you don't even have to ask them to make sure it's fresh. Or, as one employee who's worked at a Costco for almost a decade phrased it in a Reddit AMA, "Lunch time is always a safe bet for fresh food. When the lines are long, the churros are good." Words to live by.

Your Costco food court order is guaranteed to be fresh

Look, cold churros are a major bummer. Nobody wants an old hot dog, a turkey and provolone sandwich that's been sitting around for a while quickly loses its appeal, and a chicken bake whose insides have congealed into a rubbery mass can ruin your whole day. But at the Costco food court, unlike many notable fast food establishments, you don't have to chalk up the experience to bad luck, choking down your tepid meal and hoping for a better experience next time.  

At Costco, food court employees want you to have a good experience, and they will happily offer a replacement for your less-than-fresh, sub-par item at no additional cost. Just remember that the people who work in the service industry are human beings, just like the rest of us, and an extra helping of "please" and "thank you" can work wonders for greasing the wheels on scoring piping hot, fresh food.