Recession Special: Turning Free Samples Into a Midtown Lunch Tasting Menu

I love having guest writers on the site, so when this guy wrote in and asked if he could submit a post about making an entire lunch out of free samples in Midtown, I was like- uh… of course!  Nobody loves free stuff more than me… except maybe this guy.  Meet Jeremy, an employee of a PR agency on 45th & 5th, who has developed the “perfect” free lunch experience. (He may also be related to Profiled: Midtown Lunch’er “Jim”)

Free Bread!  Cosi, Midtown NYC 

Like most of you, I’ve been looking to Midtown Lunch for good cheap food since I started working in Midtown late last year. When I’m feeling flush I head to Ambrosia (on 45th btw. 5+6th) for (runny egg on request) bibimbap, ‘wichcraft for the slow-roasted pork sandwich, or Chiyoda (on 41st btw. Mad+5th) for a taste of the sea. But the New Year brought crippling student loans and totally unreasonable spending habits (this summer I ate at James Beard and WD-50 on two consecutive nights), so naturally, I have started looking for low-cost alternatives.

It’s not that I can’t scrape together five dollars for lunch, or that I can’t cook for myself. As all Midtown Lunch disciples know, one of the few joys of working a serious midtown job is taking your one hour lunch break to walk around the neighborhood, get annoyed by tourists, play chess in Bryant Park, and think about getting on the downtown F train and never coming back.

First I started reducing the size of my meals, beginning with the “Master Cleanse” diet. “It’s about learning restraint, dude.” That ended on day four when I passed out in the shower. Then I limited myself to tiny lunches, like a small plate of kimchi from Cafe Manhattan (on 45th btw. 5+6th.) Incidentally, what’s on display in the cold buffet by the lb. trough is not the Korean staple, but some unfermented imposter. (Ask and you shall receive the real shit.) When it became apparent that my coworkers were starting to feel sorry for me (my supervisor still gives me her hard-boiled eggs, an edible symbol of life itself) I realized I had to create the impression that I was living luxe, but do it on the cheap.

So I devised a cheap Midtown Lunch walking tour: a multi course, totaly free, tasting menu that anybody can do (provided you are not easily embarassed.)  

Amuse Bouche — Your Office

Take five minutes to walk around your office looking for snacks. On bad days a packet of splenda will be tempting (skip it), but I’ve found saltwater taffy from the Candy Baron in San Francisco, fresh fruit from a client breakfast, and even chicken liver pate… hey, I made that!

Free Food NYC Opening Today

Soup — Free Foods, 18 W 45th Street (bet 5th & 6th)

Start off at raw chef Matthew Kenney’s side project, FreeFoods NYC.  We’re not here for the $11 salads or the $6 coconut water (which they actually get by blasting apart coconuts with a machete, by request). Stroll up to the soup counter for a taste of the day’s special- like the chilled pea soup with mint. More adventurous eaters can try their luck at getting a second sample of something warm, like the Bahian lobster stew. Bonus: Sometimes there’s a portioned panino on the counter.

*Note: I should point out that for some people it may be uncomfortable to taste and walk. You’ll get over this. You’re poor and underfed.

Bread — Cosi, (Multiple Locations)

With the pangs of hunger temporarily abated, we’re off toward Cosi for our next course. Fresh bread is always coming out of their faux wood-burning oven, so come with an appetite. White is better than wheat, and make sure it’s salted, but take what you can get and never argue with the bakers. I like to grab a slice of bread on my way in (#1), stare at the menu, nod and ask a few questions about today’s soups. “Oh, chowder today? Wonderful.” (Grab piece #2). Then hit the road with a final piece (#3). At that point, you’re gone- so what can they do?


Fromage — Rock Center Farmer’s Market

It’s only on Weds-Fridays through August, but the Rock Center Farmer’s Market can be a good place for free cheese samples. You can usually get a small taste of one or two of their offerings if you ask nicely, and (this is important) look like you are truly interested in purchasing something. If you were smart enough to save a piece of bread from Cosi, then you’ve really got something.

Plat principal — Nuts4Nuts, 5th Ave @ 48th Street

Turns out finding a main course is trickier than I suspected. Most of the cafeterias in midtown warn against sampling, like the unnamed place next to Johnny Utah’s on 51st Street btw. 6+7th where “No tasting, no nibbling” is the mantra. I even tried to get a sliver of pizza at Sbarro, but these guys are fastidious. Since I use my lunch break to conduct “research,” you can imagine that I get pretty hungry when it doesn’t work out. Each day I dream of finding something new, a succulent morsel hiding among the suits in Rockefeller Center. But on this day I settled for a single, sweet nut from one of those Nuts4Nuts carts. I’m hungry, sweaty, and thinking maybe this isn’t worth it.

Dessert — Fruit Cart, 6th Ave @ 45th Street

Determined to right my foundering lunch vessel, I will usually approach the fruit cart and asked for damaged fruit, the kind even the seller will say “uh, that you don’t want.” With a nod of understanding, I left with three peaches and a mango. To call the fruit over-ripe would be a misnomer, like calling a corpse “over-lived.” Back at the office I received quizzical looks and the inevitable question from my supervisor: “What’s wrong with you?”

Cafe — Starbucks Coffee, 1166 6th Ave (@45th Street)

Pipe down and pick up a free cup of the eponymous Pike’s Place, the new Starbucks blend named after the Seattle market where the virus started. Ask for a sample and the very friendly staff (at all Midtown locations, I found) will give you a cup of coffee large enough for anyone who wasn’t raised on lethal doses of amphetamine. If coffee isn’t your thing, they’ll probably give you a taste of those terrible new smoothies as well.

Digestif — J. Crew, 347 Madison Ave (@ 44th Street)

Thirsty? Don’t be shy. Jump in line at J.Crew during the warmer months and you’ll be rewarded with a gratis bottle of Poland Spring water. (Who knew?)

Congrats. If you are paid a flat salary at your job then you’ve made out like a dandy, about $6-10 richer than you were an hour ago. Interestingly, if you make an hourly wage, then you’ve probably lost money.  And so it turns out that taking a “free lunch” is actually akin to a regressive tax for low-income lunchers. Whoa.

Wow. Nicely done Jeremy. I’m guessing this only scartches the surface of what is possible in Midtown… so if any lunch’ers would like to add to this list, feel free to do so in the comments.


  • Wow, and bravo Jeremy. I thought *I* liked free food/stuff a lot… you’ve taken it to a new level.

    I bet there’s a niche market in NYC waiting for a website to fill that void, hint hint.

  • Funny. Brilliant. Detailed. And breathtakingly demented.

    A top contender for “post of the year”

  • this is fantastic…thanks for sharing this small morsel of hilarity with me.

  • very funny. i’m sure you burned more calories in search of food than you actually consumed.

    you should have finished it up with a stop at a fro-yo or ice cream joint for some free sample dessert action.

  • Wow! I drop back in mid-vacation and find this!?!
    Man, hard times have befallen NYC. Meanwhile, we just had an earthquake in LA.

    Go figure.

  • Sorta funny, yet sad. Overripe fruit and *free water*! WHo’da thunk of such creative ways to get a meal?

    Seriously, this is shameful to even ML credo. There’s a difference between being thrifty and shamelessly absconding with food scraps.

    You (and anyone else thinking of following your ‘free “lunch”‘ strategy) would be better off learning how to stop in a grocery store once or twice a week, buy some healthy fresh food that’s on sale, make some sandwiches, cook up a pot of pasta and store it in serving-sized containers, etc. You can make a healthy 2-3-egg omelet for a buck or less. There are lots of other such options for healthy, inexpensive meals. Shopping for and preparing them would take less time than your lunchtime “tours” and be more nutritious. Much better than the scrounging that you are espousing here.

  • Dear StevenP,
    Please read the second paragraph, beginning with “It’s not that I can’t scrape together five dollars for lunch, or that I can’t cook for myself…” and thusly get the point.

    I for one say Jeremy, cheers! and take cues from feedthefish: foyo samples. better than the fruit any day.



  • Yo, stevenp, calm down, my friend. Nothing shameful about it, even if it is a shameless approach. For those of us who have been (or rather, have to be) thrifty, don’t think it hasn’t crossed our minds. I generally don’t go to such lengths but have considered leftovers from the danish tray at work to be a fair enough lunch.

    Jeremy, definitely one of the most amusing posts I’ve read in a while!

  • Jeremy hasn’t scratched the surface yet: you can get free samples at almost all of the touristy and even expensive ice cream/fro-yo/gelato/sorbet stores in the city; candy stores and bakeries will usually let you sample something too.

    The “over-lived” fruit may be pushing it, but blend that shit up and you have a smoothie.

    Nice post fellow junkeater!

  • The link to the profile at the top takes me to the Rock Center Farmer’s Market. Wrong link?

  • Next up: the Midtown Lunch shoplifting menu

    including innocently walking past eagle-eyed cashiers while whistling and the more exciting high-speed dine & dash

  • @casadelun – sorry, fixed it.

  • Free popcorn sample at 46th and 6th – forgot the name of the place.

  • I’m still not convinced. This is a sad, sad, post. (Unless it was written entirely as a spoof, which I suspect it was not.)

  • this was a great post! too bad this was not around when i first started working in midtown. these days i am too lazy to walk to all those places!

  • Gotta love someone who is cheaper than myself! Lovin’ the shameless homeless person tactics! Steve, keep us all informed buddy! Perhaps a short video of your exploits would make it even more real for us readers!

  • I meant Jeremy–not Steve….in post above….

  • stevenp, don’t worry, CockChug will be hear shortly to back you up

  • Without a doubt, very creative. Kind of a food sample adventure/scavanger hunt… and quite well-written (a quality procrastination time read.. thanks!). But i’m sorry, I can’t help to make one snarky comment: asking for damaged fruit?!? (aka, fruit that fell off the cart onto the street!!). No offense to my hardtimes stricken brothern, but why don’t we simply scout for food in the trash cans and call it the Homeless ML Tour?? ;> All kidding aside, this was pretty genius and definitely deserves to be further developed (can’t believe Tasty-D didn’t make the free sampler selection). Jeremy thanks for writing… Zach, thanks for posting.

  • nice, jeremy! i thought i was the only one counting pennies.. times are tough. cheap or free, that’s my new approach. viva la subway!

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