The chain's cheap pizza and hot dogs are only for actual Costco members.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated February 21, 2020
Francis Dean / Getty Images

To shop at Costco, you need to be a member. Along with its “wholesale” ethos, the membership fee is probably the chain’s most defining characteristic. But in one department, some customers were skirting the membership requirement: the food court. Costco’s in-house eatery has its own cult following thanks to cheap grub like its signature $1.50 soda and hot dog combo—and apparently, dropping in for a bite was open to non-members, too. But pretty soon, without a membership card, you may be forced to grab your inexpensive hot dogs elsewhere.

Yesterday, Instagram’s Costco Deals—an unofficial account with over a half-million followers—posted an image of a sign displayed at an undisclosed Costco location. “Effective March 16, 2020, an active Costco membership card will be required to purchase items from our food court,” the sign read. KGTV News in San Diego found similar signs at a store near them and reported that “numerous” members had spotted the signs across the nation.

With plenty of visual evidence, this pending policy change was more than just rumors, and eventually, Costco reportedly copped to the plan. San Diego’s CBS News 8 stated a company spokesperson clarified that, technically, the rule has always been that the food court was for members only; however, the policy previously hadn’t been enforced, something that will change in March. Meanwhile, Costco Deals updated its post to write, “THIS HAS BEEN CONFIRMED! May still vary per store and roll out date may vary as well...”

To be fair to Costco, making the food court only for members makes sense. The company has said in the past that some of its popular, super cheap items like hot dogs and rotisserie chickens are essentially loss leaders intended to bring people into the store who will then hopefully buy other items that are more profitable. However, attempting to bring people into the store with a cheap hot dog combo doesn’t work if they literally aren’t allowed to buy anything else.

That said, as some people commented on Instagram, the Costco food court had practically turned into community outreach. “Im in university and the Costco food court is a hotspot for cheap yummy meals for broke college students!!” wrote one reply. “Seems like a way to keep poor people off the property. Not cool!” wrote another.

Along those lines, in theory, allowing non-members to use the food court may have eventually led to more memberships: If you harbor years of goodwill with cheap eats, those loyal diners might be more likely to pay for a membership when they do have the extra cash. As a result, it will be interesting to see if this kind of blowback encourages Costco to have a change of heart over the next few weeks. On the other hand, however, it’s also possible that this sudden policy switch could lead to a surge in new members from people who don’t want to lose their food court privileges. I guess we’re about to find out the power of cheap hot dogs.

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