By greg atkinson photographed by tom reese the organic carrots in our refrigerator came from a local farmer's market. The tuna cans in our pantry contain troll-caught albacore...

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THE ORGANIC CARROTS in our refrigerator came from a local farmer’s market. The tuna cans in our pantry contain troll-caught albacore from a fisherman we know and trust. And the beef in our freezer was raised on a local farm where the grass-fed cattle lead good lives and have, so I am told, “only one bad day.”

We like to cook, so we don’t buy a lot of prepared or processed foods. And we like to think of ourselves as socially responsible shoppers, so we think about issues like living wages for the people who handle our food and the environmental impact of what we eat. So it may come as a surprise to some people to learn our little secret.

Look deeper in the pantry or the ‘fridge and you’re likely to find bottles and bags with a tell-tale Kirkland Signature label revealing the fact that, yes, we shop at Costco. That’s right, the big warehouse store where processed food is sold by the ton.

Is there some inherent contradiction here? I don’t think so. We always look for the highest quality product at the best price. And sometimes, that search leads us to Costco.

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Costco, which opened in Seattle in 1983, now has stores around the world. About 44 million people have a Costco card in their pockets.

Compared to Wal-Mart, you could say that Costco is just a Mom and Pop operation. Pop in this case would be president, CEO and director Jim Sinegal, who has been with the company since the beginning. I asked him how Costco managed to stay on top even though it has a reputation for treating its employees better than the rival warehouse stores.

“Our business is all about selling great-quality merchandise at a great price,” he said. “And we can do that because we have great people working for us.” And Costco compensates them with better pay and benefits, which presumably translate into greater productivity. “Because we’re good employers,” Sinegal says, “we don’t have to spend money training people all the time; our employees stick around. If we take care of our employees, they take care of our customers. So the customers keep on shopping.”

In our experience, Costco employees are an enthusiastic, hard-working lot who genuinely want me to find what I need when I shop where they work. And generally speaking, I do.

I certainly don’t shop for everything at Costco, just those items that I think of as “Costco items.” For example, I can find real Reggiano Parmiggiano, the Parmesan cheese from Parma, for about half the price it sells for at the supermarket. And if I want to peel curls of that cheese over some killer sun-dried tomatoes, I can find those in the grocery section. I can snare some good imported olive oil and balsamic vinegar there, too.

To make my annual batch of Christmas Granola, I need real maple syrup, and I buy it at Costco because I can’t afford to buy it anywhere else. I also find the oats, the canola oil and the pure vanilla extract I need at the best price in town. And the best almonds, pecans, pine nuts and walnuts I can find anywhere. Like most items bearing the Kirkland Signature brand, the nuts at Costco are not only less expensive than they are anywhere else, they’re better than nuts I can buy anywhere else. I wanted to know why.

“We started the Kirkland Signature brand, named for the company’s original headquarters in Kirkland, Washington, with some vitamins in 1992,” says Sinegal. “Whenever we can’t find a product that we want to carry at the level of quality we want, or when the brand name is too expensive, we go out and find it, or create a superior product and put the Kirkland brand on it.”

It’s a brand that we’ve come to trust, just like the place that created it.

Greg Atkinson is a contributing editor for Food Arts magazine and a culinary consultant. He can be reached at Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.