A brief cultural analysis of Trader Joe's
March 3, 2016 3:29 PM   Subscribe

 
It always seems to blow people away when I tell them that, for more than 30 years, Trader Joe's has been owned by one of the largest grocery chains in the world. People still seem to think it's owned by a Bay Area family of rich hippies.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:39 PM on March 3, 2016 [17 favorites]


The author seems pretty down on TJ's parent company Aldi -- I actually really enjoy shopping at Aldi and haven't found that there's a quality difference on their non-produce items (the produce, in my experience, has to be used fairly soon after purchase, which is not that different from TJ's produce). Then again, I have some experience with grocery shopping in Germany, so some of the things people find weird (cart deposits, no bags available), I don't.
posted by heurtebise at 3:45 PM on March 3, 2016 [23 favorites]


I think their marketing by way of old styled pamphlet mailings are somewhat effective. But yeah, the millennials might not be on board since they may experience the world through social information streams.

Trader Joe’s generic goods have succeeded in conveying quality, familiarity, and originality all through the brand itself.

All the while they produce some astonishingly mediocre products. They're particular brand of canned organic beans and quick rice are terrible. That said, their good stuff and prices make up for it.
posted by uraniumwilly at 3:45 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


From the start, in 1967, “Trader Joe” Coulombe devised his “low-priced gourmet-cum-health-food store” with an “unemployed PhD student” in mind as the ideal customer.

Clocked!
posted by en forme de poire at 3:48 PM on March 3, 2016 [39 favorites]


I actually don't mind their canned beans, for the price (under a buck for non-organic, 99¢ otherwise). Maybe I just drown them in seasoning? Or have a really underdeveloped palate?
posted by en forme de poire at 3:52 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


"But yeah, the millennials might not be on board since they may experience the world through social information streams."
My opinion is that TJ's has been around long enough that those Millennials were brought to TJ's as toddlers and children by their parents. So there would be the nostalgia factor, and word-of-mouth.
posted by King Sky Prawn at 3:54 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


I mean, they sort of answered their last paragraph "concern about millennials" in the first paragraph:

TODAY’S consumerism is riddled with elaborate and often meaningless choices: Which brand of pasta should you buy? Would that be best with Ragu, Amy’s Organic, or Muir Glen marinara sauce? Should that be accompanied by Kraft or DiGiorno preshredded parmesan? Who cares.

Who cares, indeed? I mean, the Parking Lots of Ultimate Chaos are (anecdotally) true for sure, so the whole blog post seems like a Yogi Berra "nobody goes there anymore -- it's too crowded" level of observation.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:54 PM on March 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


Speaking as a millennial (on the older side of the cohort, but indisputably still in it), I love Trader Joe's and don't give a shit if they have a Twitter. The notion that every person born since 1982 wants to interact with brands as if they were individuals is absurd.
posted by town of cats at 3:55 PM on March 3, 2016 [122 favorites]


I laughed when I got to the part about the jammed parking lots. I always thought TJ's terrible parking lots were due to their locations in dense urban neighborhoods, but then I went to the one in Boca Raton, in a strip mall on a wide boulevard, where there is nothing but space, and the parking lot was still a nightmare. Maybe it is their strategy.

I actually really enjoy shopping at Aldi and haven't found that there's a quality difference on their non-produce items

I suspect that a lot of the products are the same, just in different packaging. Similar to how many of the Trader Joe's products are the same as Whole Food's 365 or other store/commercial brands.

Aldi has an interesting strategy in terms of its brand positioning as well. They make things just inconvenient enough - with the fact that you have to pay a deposit for your cart, and you have to take your stuff to a separate table to bag it - that customers feel like they've "earned" the low prices they get.

Of course, in both Aldi's and Trader Joe's cases, all these things like TJ's tiny parking lots and lack of a marketing staff/agency also save the stores money.
posted by lunasol at 3:58 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


People still seem to think it's owned by a Bay Area family of rich hippies.

Actually the first one was on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena.
posted by technodelic at 3:59 PM on March 3, 2016 [6 favorites]


I mostly find Trader Joe's hard to use as a grocery store. If I want produce, meat, and staples, the selection is weird and sparse. It's got some good frozen stuff, though, so I'll go there when I'm not cooking. I've never used the parking lot.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 3:59 PM on March 3, 2016 [7 favorites]


But yeah, the millennials might not be on board since they may experience the world through social information streams.

I can't even remember which side of the supposed genx | snake people generational divide I supposedly fall on, but trying really hard to put myself for a moment in the shoes of someone like 5 years younger than me just to make sure, I'm pretty sure my response to the line of analysis in the article is still pretty much "aw, FFS".
posted by brennen at 4:01 PM on March 3, 2016 [13 favorites]


Trader Joe's is incredibly useful as someone who lives alone and likes to cook but is not going to do it every night. Lots of products that offer cooking shortcuts, and many things are packaged well for a small household.
posted by lunasol at 4:04 PM on March 3, 2016 [12 favorites]


Yes as a millenial I have never once even looked up from my phone in my entire life.
posted by bleep at 4:04 PM on March 3, 2016 [94 favorites]


I do most of my grocery shopping at TJs just because they don't have those stupid loyalty cards.
posted by get off of my cloud at 4:05 PM on March 3, 2016 [10 favorites]


I like the small stores with limited selection. I makes grocery shopping so much faster.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:06 PM on March 3, 2016 [6 favorites]


TJ's usually has some good dumpster diving.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 4:07 PM on March 3, 2016 [10 favorites]


I go to TJ's for a couple of reasons, but the main one is they are the only place close to me that has a selection of greek yogurts with fat in it. All other brands (like Fage or Oikos) either have 1% or non-fat, which is like eating paste. Who knew it would be that hard to find?
posted by FJT at 4:08 PM on March 3, 2016 [21 favorites]


The article feels like it's extrapolating a lot of cultural significance from the observation that "Trader Joes isn't on Twitter".

As a counter: Costco also doesn't do Twitter (although there is an @Costco account, it has never tweeted and follows only its counterpart @CostcoCanada) but has a very different corporate feel to TJ's.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 4:11 PM on March 3, 2016 [12 favorites]


I would go to Trader Joe's more often if they had more locations. Right now there's just the one and it's always crowded.
posted by Small Dollar at 4:12 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


I now work directly above a trader joes. There's not too much in there that I want or buy, but the few things I get I like fine. Pretty much every day someone buys one of their weird snack items, we all try it, and rarely get it again.
posted by RustyBrooks at 4:13 PM on March 3, 2016


Yeah, TJ's is a godsend for the single shopper. I know it's more cost effective to buy in bulk. However, I am one person with limited fridge/shelf space who lives with a roommate. So TJ's cooking shortcuts, frozen stuff, and prepared meals are extremely helpful and convenient, and reasonably priced to boot.

Also I am a millennial, and I do not need to Engage with the Brand. I want good cheap wine and cheese, frozen meals that taste like Real Food as opposed to mostly sodium, and assorted snacks that are tasty and feel wholesome compared to, like, a twinkie. I will Engage with the Brand when I exchange "oh yeah, this thing is tasty" small talk with the cashier.

If I could talk to Trader Joe's as an entity though, it would be to beg them to reconsider their parking lot strategy. There are any number of times I've wanted to go to TJ's, and then upon contemplating the state of the parking lot, have decided "no...no, I don't need cheese that badly."
posted by yasaman at 4:13 PM on March 3, 2016 [21 favorites]


I miss Aldi. They always had the best weirdest German cookies.

I have found that, after 5 years in California, TJ's is a thing that is much better in my head than it is in the store. I go there roughly quarterly for their cheap good liquor, and usually pick up another $40 of treats and weird shit and a couple of pantry items I do like to have around, but I can't get a full shop done there and the parking lot - yes, even out here in suburban LA where all the other stores have big expansive lots - is their trademark nightmare. I can't keep it in the weekly rotation.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:14 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is a very first-world-problems sort of thread.

"If Trader Joe’s were to join social media and chat with consumers, would that not just create the feeling of a fake, forced relationship?"

Ya think? When I'm looking to buy groceries, my first thought isn't "oh I should check Instagram first." It's usually "ooh, I can get a bag of groceries at Trader Joe's for 1/5 the cost of my neighborhood epicurean grocery." Of note, this is a thought borne out of having met my first TJ's at age 23, and depending on them in that city and the four I've lived in since then. I haven't owned a car since I was 23, so I can't speak to their parking lots. But, welcome to living in cities, I guess? Where popular things are popular?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:15 PM on March 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm compelled to point out that Aldi in the US and Trader Joe's are not owned by the same company. Aldi Nord owns US Aldi and Aldi Süd owns Trader Joe's. I find it rather amusing that one Aldi entered the US market by buying Trader Joe's, which is a decided un-German grocery store, and the other Aldi tried to make German grocery stores in the US.

I'm interested in the way that Trader Joe's tries to sell you authenticity. Why is the frozen pizza imported from Italy? I really don't need frozen pizza to travel thousands of miles to prove its Italian-ness. One time, the cashier's obligatory comment about something you're buying was about some tortillas they'd just started stocking and how they're really good and he previous had to "go to east Austin to find them". Every HEB stocks that brand of tortillas, not just the ones with a large Hispanic customer base. It felt like there was some strange signalling going on since, presumably, the cashier has set foot in the tortilla aisle of an HEB.
posted by hoyland at 4:17 PM on March 3, 2016 [10 favorites]


It's been a long time since I've been in a Sears for anything other than an appliance, tool, or clothes, but in my childhood (60's & 70's) they used to have a section of the store that was very much like a Trader Joe's, selling Sears-branded edibles. They must have phased them out in throughout the 80's.
posted by King Sky Prawn at 4:18 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


At the same time, I think it's not like Trader Joe's or Costco has no presence on social media. There are a lot of dedicated shoppers that create unofficial websites and accounts. There's like over a dozen unofficial "Trader Joe's" accounts on Instagram and I've been to "Addicted to Costco" website to see Costco coupons when I can't find the paper one.
posted by FJT at 4:18 PM on March 3, 2016


Another millennial who doesn't spend their time following the social media profiles of grocery stores.

I don't often shop at TJs because I like to cook using cheap staples which TJs is not particularly great for and because I try to minimize the number of pre packaged snacks/cookie butters/frozen dinners in my life. I just don't really understand how you can walk out of a trader Joe's with an actual cart of groceries that is everything you will need for a week. I am probably doing it wrong, or am simply not the right type of shopper.

Also they are way down in the urban sprawly mall area of the next city over so nope on that front too.
posted by geegollygosh at 4:22 PM on March 3, 2016 [6 favorites]


I am both a millennial and an unemployed PhD student. Where am I supposed to get my groceries? Please advise.
posted by pemberkins at 4:22 PM on March 3, 2016 [16 favorites]


It is pretty amazing how close Trader Joe's has stuck to the same formula for nearly 50 years. I grew up with their first stores as a kid south of Pasadena in the late 60's, and they have slowly followed me across the country ever since, from San Diego to Tucson and now to Charlottesville, Virginia. (Where they actually passed up the chance to occupy downtown space with tight parking in favor of a brand new building in a shopping complex with lots of parking, go figure.) Their "Fearless Fliers", Hawaiian shirt-clad friendly staff, cutesy house brands, and general gestalt are unchanged. If a time machine dumped you in the Arroyo Parkway location in 1970 you'd be some while figuring out what was wrong. (The haircuts and clothes would tip you off long before the shelves would.)
posted by Creosote at 4:23 PM on March 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


I don't use social media, so it makes no difference to me. I must be in their target demographic anyway. I go there when I can, and I can get pretty much everything I need without choice paralysis in a store that is the fraction of the size of 'normal' supermarket. If you know what you want you can focus on the good stuff. Why buy more/spend more? The only downside is that it's gotten so popular that both the parking lot and the store can get rammed, particularly at go-home/rush hour time. I'm assuming it's everybody dropping by to pick up dinner. I often go there on public transport.
posted by carter at 4:23 PM on March 3, 2016


I like Twitter fine and don't care if TJ's is on there. I shop there because it's good for accommodating my levels of spoons - if I want to cook, I can get ingredients, if I'm just sapped of energy, I can stock up on their cheap pastas and frozen vegetarian options.

I like their bagged, pre-washed produce like chopped kale and mushrooms and the like. I like their array of frozen vegetables - the roasted pepper and onion blend is one I stock up on like whoa.
posted by angeline at 4:26 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


In a recent survey, TJ’s customers were the most satisfied of any grocery stores, despite the crowds of harried customers, crowded parking lots, and long checkout lines one often encounters there.

There are a lot of articles about Trader Joe's -- here's another example -- which seem to mistake "what Trader Joe's is like in Brooklyn and LA" with "what Trader Joe's is like."
posted by escabeche at 4:28 PM on March 3, 2016 [6 favorites]


I like to cook using cheap staples which TJs is not particularly great for

Wait really? What do you miss there? I'm curious because TJ's cheap staples are the main reason I go (yogurt, eggs, canned beans, flour, pasta, rice). In my experience they're way cheaper there, not just vs. e.g. Whole Stipend but also vs. Safeway or whatever. I do wish they carried dried beans and canned lentils as well (they only have the reverse, for some reason) but that's about it.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:31 PM on March 3, 2016 [13 favorites]


There's a discount grocer near where I live whose management decided that if they simultaneously got rid of the small handbaskets and at the same time packed the aisles with displays they would make it impossible for me to move around their store, thus relieving me of any need to purchase any of their goods anymore.

These are the kinds of underhanded marketing ploys that TJ's seems to avoid and I'm grateful for that.
posted by telstar at 4:33 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


I am both a millennial and an unemployed PhD student. Where am I supposed to get my groceries? Please advise.

Stay tuned, this is just Phase 1 of The New Inquiry's plans in the grocery space. Soon they'll be rolling out a line of prepackaged single-serving Critique Nuggets, complete with the Jargon Sauce readers know and love in a range of flavors from Mild Skeptic to Agent Provocateur.
posted by RogerB at 4:35 PM on March 3, 2016 [13 favorites]


My septuagenarian parents shop at Trader Joe's for cereal and a handful of other things; I don't think they find it hugely useful otherwise. Meanwhile, Rochester NY recently acquired a TJ's, and the local reaction seemed to be more puzzlement than anything else ("but...we have Wegmans?"). I don't know how the also recently-acquired Costco is doing, as it was empty the last time I went.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:37 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]



Wait really? What do you miss there? I'm curious because TJ's cheap staples are the main reason I go (yogurt, eggs, canned beans, flour, pasta, rice).

I also eat a lot of produce which is the main place I find they fall short, not so much dry goods.
posted by geegollygosh at 4:50 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


"Then again, I have some experience with grocery shopping in Germany, so some of the things people find weird (cart deposits, no bags available), I don't."

The thing about Aldi's that put me off ever shopping there again is, if you are carrying a baby, it is literally impossible to unhook the cart from the cart corral without putting the baby down somewhere, and you can't put the baby down anywhere until you've gotten the cart unhooked. And it's against the fucking law here to leave the baby in the parked car while you go deal with the cart issue, which is super far away across the parking lot and a big traffic lane.

Some nice old lady took pity on me and yanked my cart free so I could put the baby in. Not possible one-armed.

You face the same dilemma on cart return -- you can't get the damn thing back into the corral if you're carrying the baby, but you can't leave the baby in the cart without it getting crushed to death, which is obviously suboptimal. I abandoned my cart deposit and vowed to never return.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:51 PM on March 3, 2016 [15 favorites]


It's been a long time since I've been in a Sears for anything other than an appliance, tool, or clothes, but in my childhood (60's & 70's) they used to have a section of the store that was very much like a Trader Joe's, selling Sears-branded edibles.

i remember they also used to have a display in the middle of the store where there was a bunch of brach's and other candy in square tubs that was being sold by the pound

and they gave away mini comic books with kid's shoes, which kept us occupied while the salesman was measuring other siblings' feet

sears isn't anything like that now

(never visited trader vic's, but we do have an aldi's in town and i prefer save-a-lot)
posted by pyramid termite at 4:56 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


We do 90% of our weekly shopping at TJs. It's close by (though our part if town is just lousy with grocery stores, it's like the opposite of a food desert), small and manageable sized and carries pretty much the exact type of food we tend to eat. It's got more vegetarian offerings than the regular grocery store but doesn't have the gold plated unicorn tears $20/lb vegetarian specialty food that Whole Foods (also close by and with a way more Thunderdome parking situation) emphasizes. Their produce isn't great, that's true, but I'm an avid vegetable gardener so several months out of the year that doesn't matter, and the rest of the year no one's produce is any good because it's January in Pennsylvania. We're a family of three (well, two and a half), so I also like their smaller portions.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:57 PM on March 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


under a buck for non-organic, 99¢ otherwise

How much is a buck these days?
posted by The Hamms Bear at 4:59 PM on March 3, 2016


it's 20 dollars, same as in town ...
posted by pyramid termite at 5:00 PM on March 3, 2016 [16 favorites]


I just don't really understand how you can walk out of a trader Joe's with an actual cart of groceries that is everything you will need for a week.

I happen to have this week's receipt in my wallet: broccoli, mushrooms, potatoes, shallots, garlic, kale, apples, rice, canned beans, frozen salmon, tofu, tortillas, eggs, butter, Babybel cheese, cheddar cheese, milk, mixed nuts, green salsa, potato chips, coffee, the Ritter bar with the biscuit inside. Usually I get a frozen pizza or the frozen fried rice, but I guess I didn't this week. Everything is cheaper than the other store that is close to me, except for the Babybel cheese (that's how they get you).

For me, the only problems are tea and good cheese, but I have enough tea to last until June when I can restock in the land of PG Tips and good cheese is out of my budget anyway.

I have almost no freezer space or cupboard space, so buying in bulk isn't an option at this time. Trader Joe's works well for me.

But I don't get the thing with the Cookie Butter. The first time I saw it, I was like lol Americans too lazy to chew their own cookies, but maybe it is not originally American?
posted by betweenthebars at 5:02 PM on March 3, 2016 [5 favorites]


I'm at TJs several times a week. Nearly all my grocery shopping is done there. I don't think I'd move somewhere that doesn't have a TJs. If only they had King Arthur flour...
posted by persona au gratin at 5:06 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Here in my corner of New England, the Portuguese food brands are legit bargains when it comes to staples - and it's all very high quality stuff, produced in Brazil, Mozambique, Cape Verde or the USA, but meeting EU standards and exacting Portuguese tastes. Two pounds of kosher sea-salt, packed in a plastic bag? 65¢. It's legit delicious stuff, too, just have a salt cellar handy. Two pounds bag of brown lentils, plump and free of detritus and more amazing than you thought lentils could ever taste? 35¢ on sale. A little ziplock bag full of a full half-ounce of mostly-intact bay-leaves? 95¢ That's at the regional mega-mart chain. The Portuguese grocers in the run-down mill-town nearby have them cheaper still. It's like Whole Foods quality at Safeway prices.

Trader Joes' is a house-brand big-box store of middle-brow but dependable quality at very low prices (Two Buck Chuck is now closer to five, but still!) They will occasionally sneak in luxury items at ordinary price points, and if you are an enthusiast of that particular item, you will walk away amazed - which is the point of a doorbuster sale. Which is what that is.

Aldi is... not that. If you are into buying food that Germans may buy regularly when they're feeling frugal, you will be pleased with the quality and selection. Otherwise...

Aldi's frozen seafood is a legit bargain, if you're OK with one bag of frozen shrimp out of ten smelling like low tide. If you're in New England, you can bring it back for an exchange, because they KNOW better than to try to argue with the sway-toothed yankee skinflints. Not... that... I'm... that... guy... yesIam.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:13 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


[Aldi] make[s] things just inconvenient enough - with the fact that you have to pay a deposit for your cart, and you have to take your stuff to a separate table to bag it - that customers feel like they've "earned" the low prices they get.

The psychology of convincing people they're getting a deal is fascinating. Until relatively recently, Kroger's low-end house brand had "generic" white packaging with red and blue striping and plain descriptions of the contents in a blocky, sans-serif font, in both English and Spanish. It was like they got all their stuff off of the set of a bilingual remake of Repo Man. It's not like they couldn't make their packaging more attractive --- but then it wouldn't look budget-conscious! Even the Spanish, I imagined, had an insidious stereotyping purpose ("Latinos are poor, right? But they know how to stretch out their food budget to serve their enormous families!").

Their main line, by way of contrast, was designed to mimic as closely as possible the leading product in that market, and their premium line in blacks or dark blues and purples. I halfway suspect they put the same stuff in all three packages for many of their products. They've since rebranded the lower two lines, though, and introduced scads more, so figuring out their retail psychology has gotten harder.
posted by jackbishop at 5:15 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


We also do 90% of our weekly shopping at TJs. The secret is to arrive precisely when they open at 8:00 on Saturday morning, shop the perimeter of the store first, followed by the freezer aisles, followed by dry goods. Then bag the groceries yourself, one bag for the freezer, one for the fridge, and one for everything else. If you do this you can be in and out in less than 20 minutes. Then quick tactical trips to whole foods and/or safeway for produce, meat, and beer and back home by 9:00. The secret to motivating yourself to be out of the house on Saturday by 8:00 is to have children.
posted by turbowombat at 5:16 PM on March 3, 2016 [22 favorites]


If I could talk to Trader Joe's as an entity though, it would be to beg them to reconsider their parking lot strategy. There are any number of times I've wanted to go to TJ's, and then upon contemplating the state of the parking lot, have decided "no...no, I don't need cheese that badly."

I used to work for a firm that designed strip malls. I know the issue you're talking about, but the real issue with a TJ's parking lot isn't that they intentionally build small parking lots, it's that they choose to occupy smaller buildings than a regular grocery store, which aren't required to have large enough parking lots to adequately service a TJ's.

There might be exceptions, but TJ's doesn't really build anything, they just lease building that's already built, or at least planned to be built. The size of space they typically rent is generally more suited to a mattress store or something than a grocery store, and the parking is designed accordingly, generally waaaaay before any particular store tenant gets involved in the planning for the building or parking lot. In the end, the developer decides how much parking is getting built (generally the minimum allowed by code), and they're always going to go for larger buildings over parking spaces.

So, why don't they choose places that suit their space needs and have adequate parking? Those spaces don't exist. Nobody's building a ton of parking for nothing when they could be building leasable square footage instead. Huge places with enough parking might have higher rent and TJ's knows that they're enough of a draw that they don't have to be located someplace with another anchor to draw traffic from.
posted by LionIndex at 5:20 PM on March 3, 2016 [36 favorites]


I guess living in a big city I'm spoiled with options, but I love Trader Joe's for several specific things they do well, and for other things I have other stores I can easily go to.

Some specific products I get there that I try to always keep around:
- They carry packages of this finely diced Pancetta, which is perfect for lots of things. I make Carbonara with it, I fry it up and sprinkle the crispy bits on salads, or use it in omelets or other egg dishes.
- Their "uncured smoked bacon" I find tastes better than brand name stuff like Oscar Myer.
(Similarly TJ's sells packs of "bacon ends" - random chunks leftover from the usual slicing and packing process. This is great if you need bacon to add in like a soup or stew, and don't need or want nice neat slices.)
- They make a "Basmati and Wild Rice Pilaf" that I think is a perfect pantry staple. It's got some dried veggies and herbs mixed in, but it's not too salty or strongly flavored - if you melt a bit of butter in the pot first and use chicken stock for the liquid it's even better. A common simple dinner for me is this rice, a piece of chicken browned in a skillet with a quick white wine deglazing sauce, and a salad.
-"3-buck Chuck" wine. I like wine. I have a budget. I do not need to be drinking $15/bottle wine every night. 3-buck Chuck is just fine most of the time.
-Frozen croissants. I usually get the chocolate ones. SO much better than even the ones I could get if I went across the street to the local cafe because a) nothing like a fresh croissant right from the oven, and b) I'd have to put on pants to go out to the cafe.
posted by dnash at 5:26 PM on March 3, 2016 [15 favorites]


I'm often attracted to their "Trader Jose's Soylent Verde", but I can't find out what it's actually composed of ...
posted by Chitownfats at 5:28 PM on March 3, 2016 [6 favorites]


Until relatively recently, Kroger's low-end house brand had "generic" white packaging with red and blue striping and plain descriptions of the contents in a blocky, sans-serif font, in both English and Spanish. It was like they got all their stuff off of the set of a bilingual remake of Repo Man. It's not like they couldn't make their packaging more attractive

In my (Midwestern) experience, this is roughly how ALL house brands used to look, back when they were called "no-brand." White packaging, two black (or red) stripes across it, plain font, no pictures or anything. The idea was that you were not spending any of your hard-earned pennies on graphic design. Frankly, it's not so bad an idea.

With respect to TJ's, I run a triangular strategy: Whole Foods for produce and meats, the local NormalMart for staples most of the time, and then about once a month or so off to TJ's for frozen meals and other staples. (Quadrangular, actually, I guess, since I also pop into the HMart fairly often.) As a general rule, I find TJ's produce too unappealing, but so what? Their frozen Indian entrees are killer when you haven't had time to make lunch in advance, they sell stuff like barley and farro at very reasonable prices, and, yeah, I like a snack food or two that they offer. I find it hard to imagine the voluntary all-TJs shopper, but it's a large nation.
posted by praemunire at 5:29 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, and on-topic this time, the article fails to garner any new insight on the cultural significance of TJs. Yes, we know it's a scripted hokiness. Yes, we know the products are no better or worse than other major chains. Honestly what does it for me is the loyal and (on the whole) happy staff that greets me every Saturday morning. This is a culture that cannot be faked or mandated (see other chain supermarkets across the economic spectrum) and is definitely part of why I shop there.
posted by turbowombat at 5:31 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


Frozen croissants. I usually get the chocolate ones.

OMG yes. Although the almond ones are no slouches either.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:42 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


Another happy millennial who loves Trader Joe's here, and who couldn't care less about their, or really any company's, social media presence. I've never had too much trouble with parking, but we always go on Sunday mornings when it isn't very busy. My wife loves the cheap flowers and easy dinner options. My son loves the yogurt, applesauce pouches and pushing his own mini cart. I Love the small size of the store that makes shopping trips quick and the lack of choice among products. If I'm making a special dinner, sometimes I have to hit up the big grocery store near us, but we are generally able to do a full weeks shopping at TJ's alone.
posted by noneuclidean at 5:42 PM on March 3, 2016


The notion that every person born since 1982 wants to interact with brands as if they were individuals is absurd.
thank you for restoring my faith in humanity.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 5:43 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


(Similarly TJ's sells packs of "bacon ends" - random chunks leftover from the usual slicing and packing process. This is great if you need bacon to add in like a soup or stew, and don't need or want nice neat slices.)

This product was really floating my boat but the quality dropped rapidly over the past few months, sad to say. One of those secrets I probably shouldn't be giving out: bacon from the Mexican markets is top-notch.
posted by telstar at 5:47 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


TJs is just OK in my book. Hit or miss. I don't police my food choices much and consider myself a saltoholic but a lot of their frozen meals are packed with sodium and carbs. omg, the carbs are often outrageous.
posted by futz at 6:02 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Somewhat ironically, my twitter account receives the occasional complaint intended for the Austrian/Slovenian Aldi affiliate. I joined twitter early on and thus was able to use my last name (fairly rare in the U.S. but *very* common in Austria/eastern Switzerland) as a handle. Now, every few weeks I get mentioned in a heavily-favorited tweet in Slovene that seems to be complaining bitterly about something, but I don't know Slovene so I usually just ignore it. I feel a little bad for the people but it's kind of on them to double check the account before tweeting at it.
posted by A dead Quaker at 6:03 PM on March 3, 2016 [5 favorites]


Oh, I forgot - CHEESE. TJ's is great for cheese, I think. Real Parmesan Reggiano, at the best price I've seen in town. Now, sure part of that good price may be that they tend to have chunks of it from the rind of the wheel, but that's ok because you toss the rind in with your simmering tomato sauce to add flavor, so it's not a waste.

They also have Gruyere for cheaper than I can get elsewhere. And lots of other interesting options.
posted by dnash at 6:12 PM on March 3, 2016 [6 favorites]



Yes as a millenial I have never once even looked up from my phone in my entire life.

I'm 21 and constantly tapped into the information-super-highway. Zero zero one one zero one one.
posted by bracems at 6:21 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


TJ's is across the street from my office so I end up there three or four times a week. I love how small it is and how fast you can get your shopping done. Supermarkets have gotten so huge in the last twenty years that it takes you an hour and a half to wander around the store to find the random places that they've hidden things. I can get in and out of Trader Joe's in twenty minutes and they don't give me a grumpy side-eye because I brought my own bags with me.

I do wish that they sold beer and wine in ours though.
posted by octothorpe at 6:33 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


i'm a crazy budget shopper and so much of the basic non-organic stuff there is on par with Costco and some of it is cheaper than Safeway etc (milk, cheese, yogurt, nuts, nut butter, chips, juice, hummos, bread are generally cheaper). Unless you're avoiding packaged produce, I'm confused at how people are having trouble finding useful food in there.
posted by girl Mark at 6:40 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


On the crowding thing: it's worst in dense cities that only have a few. At both of the Trader Joe's in DC, sometimes the line could snake throughout the entire store. You'd literally grab a cart, get in line, and shop as you waited in line. And this was with 12-15 cashiers. Could happen pretty much any time weekends or evenings.

This is probably made worse by the fact that DC still doesn't have enough supermarkets.

It was so refreshing to move back to Seattle, where I'm able to go to Trader Joe's at 7:30 on a Tuesday night and just waltz up to the cash register, maybe having to wait for one person ahead of me.
posted by lunasol at 6:40 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


I halfway suspect they put the same stuff in all three packages for many of their products.

Not too far from the truth: at least when I worked in the grocery supply chain world, majority of house brand products, at least for canned and frozen goods, were made in the same plants that package the big brands. Sourcing may and age may differ, but yeah. Not too far off.
posted by verb at 6:44 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, common knowledge among the grocery cognoscenti for many years now is that the "generic" or house brands are exactly the same product as the big corporate label. Another tip when shopping at the typical deception factory that passes for an American grocery store: always look on the bottom shelf. That's where the deals tend to be.
posted by telstar at 6:49 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, my mom's friend's family was once entertained to find an article in a local paper "comparing" different brands of meat pies, all of which said family manufactured in the same plant on the same equipment with the same ingredients. They were literally identical, differing only in packaging.
posted by town of cats at 6:56 PM on March 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


I will not forget going into a midwest TJ's about a year ago and the place was packed and at least three of the cashiers were going on and on with whomever they were checking out with: "Hi how are you? How is your day going? What are you going to make with that? Gosh wonderful weather we are having? " I was thinking this is just to much schmaltz; as the lines at the registers were getting longer and longer. And than low and behold a 30's something well dressed woman blurts out "would you cashiers please stop chattering and just do your job!" I loudly chimed in with BRAVO!
That's my TJ's rant Thank You
posted by robbyrobs at 7:03 PM on March 3, 2016


It's nice shopping with fewer choices to make. Prices are great. Just gotta watch the sodium intake!
posted by fraxil at 7:03 PM on March 3, 2016


I laughed when I got to the part about the jammed parking lots. I always thought TJ's terrible parking lots were due to their locations in dense urban neighborhoods, but then I went to the one in Boca Raton, in a strip mall on a wide boulevard, where there is nothing but space, and the parking lot was still a nightmare. Maybe it is their strategy.

The only good parking I've had at a Trader Joe's is at the same parking lot from which Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, which probably isn't related, but it is in MY mind.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:04 PM on March 3, 2016


At both of the Trader Joe's in DC, sometimes the line could snake throughout the entire store. You'd literally grab a cart, get in line, and shop as you waited in line. And this was with 12-15 cashiers.

This is my nearest supermarket - owned entirely by Giant-Carlisle. It's filthy, poorly stocked, and the only competition it had, Shaws/Star-Market, bailed at the first whiff that Walmart was opening a grocery department in its new mega store. This invited the last megamart standing to be worse to its customers. As bad as the Stop & Shop is, Walmart is more terrible still, plus we need to navigate the winding side-streets of a derelict mill-town to get there, where the Stawpenshawp is right off of a highway and two main arterial roads.

I went to pick up our weekly groceries the other weekend. The "12 Items or Less" line began at the butcher's counter. At the back of the store. Of a megamart.

Martins, in northwestern Virginia, where my wife is from, is owned by Giant-Carlisle. They even have the same logo for store-brand generics, and accept our Stuppenshup loyalty cards. It's so neat and clean and well-lit and every checkout has an attendant and a bagger...

I've been shopping a lot at our small grocer. The lux items are very painful and dear, but the ordinary stuff is only somewhat more expensive, what little of it there is. Don't care, Giant-Carlisle must die.

Market Basket will come. There are no less than three abandoned big box stores it can inhabit. When it does, I will dance upon Stop&Shop and Walmart's graves. There may be pissing upon the heaped earth over the recently interred involved, too.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:05 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Trader Joe's still has the capacity to surprise me in a way that other grocery stores don't. Whomever came up with the idea of chocolate tamales (great with vanilla ice cream!) is an utter genius.
posted by Eikonaut at 7:09 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Since I overhauled my diet to be fresh produce heavy I do very little at TJ's anymore. But yeah, nth-ing the single person appeal. Pasta, sauce, beans, frozen vegetables were priced better than other chain (non-box) supermarkets, with enough prepared foods, cheese, wine, meat and just-adequate fresh veggies to get some variety. It and it's determinedly adequate level of quality was my standard place for a while.

Honestly, I never quite noticed the huge lack of brand variety as a reason I liked it, but in retrospect that was indeed part of the appeal.
posted by mark k at 7:24 PM on March 3, 2016


I want to know more about the software that TJs uses to generate the labels on the shelves. It's very carefully done to give that homey-handmade feel like they probably used to be. Spent 10 minutes staring at pricing card for Kale chips before I saw the pattern...
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:38 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


I do all my daily grocery shopping at Trader Joes. It's perfect for a couple with a small kid: one of their pizzas or frozen lasagnas will feed us all with no leftovers, lots of tasty organic frozen meal things that are cheaper than at Sprouts, really good beer at $1 a bottle, cheap organic milk, great cheese selection, great sliced brown bread that my kid will eat, good wine selection at all price ranges. Their tart cherry juice cured the gout I got from working at Google. Sure I could nitpick (no good crusty white bread like an Acme sweet batard, and their Sriracha sauce is horrible) but I still love that place.
posted by w0mbat at 7:39 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


All this analysis and theory about what Trader Joe's represents to me as An Youth of Today is pretty bewildering to me. Guys. I just shop at Trader Joe's because it's cheap.
posted by capricorn at 7:51 PM on March 3, 2016 [15 favorites]


The year I lived in San Diego was the best year for groceries. Walking distance from my apartment was a Trader Joe's with a small yet excellent produce stand outside on the corner (one tent, four tables) run by some Latino dudes who'd sell me ugly but delicious fruit at a discount. Regular grocery store on the other side of the same shopping center, which I hit up maybe once a month for household staples.

I ate so well and so cheap that year.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:55 PM on March 3, 2016


I'm a little warmer than lukewarm on TJ's but I do go there for the cheap cheese, cheap wine, and some basics. I think in New England there's a bit of a spoiler effect on price, because we have Market Basket, which undercuts TJ's on many many items, and also has a full grocery selection. I dislike that TJ's coyly accepts this halo effect of being something like Whole Foods ("everything here is organic and healthy!") when it has nothing to do with Whole Foods - not even private labelling the 365 products, according to two family members who have had long careers at WF. But I enjoy a lot of the items.

I admit I don't understand the Fearless Flyer. It is so much verbiage, but it has so little content ...not much in the way of recipes, background, etc. I stopped reading it when I realized it didn't have anything in it to learn.
posted by Miko at 7:59 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


I moved away a couple of years ago, but the Trader Joe's where I went sometimes had no more room on the bike racks. And the parking lot? Heh. More like a waiting-for-a-space-to-free-up lot. The best part of a Trader Joe's trip? Standing in line with all the beautiful people.
posted by telstar at 7:59 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


The frozen bags of cauliflower "rice" are pretty damn awesome. Sure I could throw a head of fresh cauliflower in my cuisinart but I live in a tiny Brooklyn apartment so that would mean dragging it out from its storage spot in the livingroom. And then cleaning it after.

Like literary weeknight dinner 2 nights a week in our household.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 8:15 PM on March 3, 2016


Trader Joe's sells a decent Irish Breakfast tea at $3 for 80 bags, everyone else wants twice or three times that much.

I don't care what anyone says, if you mess with my dealer, I'll cut you.
posted by Appropriate Username at 8:19 PM on March 3, 2016 [8 favorites]


the cashier's obligatory comment about something you're buying was about some tortillas they'd just started stocking and how they're really good and he previous had to "go to east Austin to find them". Every HEB stocks that brand of tortillas, not just the ones with a large Hispanic customer base.

Trader Joe's here has started subbing out a lot of their normal items in favor of Texas-made items. This is great for salsa, as I can now get Wright's salsa and that shit is amazeballs. It is not so great for tortillas, as they went from nice, airy flour-dusted wonders to thick, heavy, slabs. Like Mission but worse. I'm assuming that they're getting some kind of tax break through Go Texan but it's damn annoying. Source better tortillas, Trader Joe's!

I do a lot of my shopping at Trader Joe's. Even knowing that their produce isn't as cheap as Fiesta's. It beats the pants off Randall's (high-end Safeway) and Target (low quality at high prices) and sometimes Kroger (expensive for what it offers), though, and since I don't have an HEB especially close by, well, there you go.
posted by librarylis at 8:30 PM on March 3, 2016


Pretty good TJs tips in this thread keep em coming. I finally moved somewhere close to one that has an ample parking lot and no lines.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:31 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


The frozen bags of cauliflower "rice" are pretty damn awesome.

What do you do with those? Use them instead of rice, or something else?

Pretty good TJs tips in this thread keep em coming.

My favorite TJs items:

- The blood orange soda, great with vodka or by itself.
- The chicken verde tamales (usually in the refrigerator section near the pizza dough, not with the other tamales in the freezer aisles)
- The little cubes of minced garlic in the freezer aisle are damn amazing.
- All of the non-food household items are good quality. They have 2-packs of tea-tree oil soap bars that are great to have at the bathroom and kitchen sink.
- People talk shit about the produce, but it's just as good as a regular supermarket and I like that it often comes pre-chopped, though more supermarkets are doing that now.
posted by lunasol at 8:44 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


My favorite part? The sample corner. More often than not, I end up buying whatever I just tasted.
posted by Soliloquy at 8:59 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


I lament the fact that I will never see a Trader Joe's (or Costo) in my locale. However, in my town of 150k, our 12th (13th? Honestly I've lost track) Walmart will open next week just blocks from my house.
posted by sourwookie at 9:05 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


The little Trader Joe's in Salt Lake is like an ongoing hippie reunion, foodie reunion, Democratic Party meeting, Boomer singles place, and homeless hangout. I have only recently started going there, it is in a time warp. Each of the three times I have wandered in, I see people I haven't seen in thirty years, or people who I don't want to see. There is a whole, time locked, small town wedged in there.
posted by Oyéah at 9:25 PM on March 3, 2016 [8 favorites]


Yeah, my mom's friend's family was once entertained to find an article in a local paper "comparing" different brands of meat pies, all of which said family manufactured in the same plant on the same equipment with the same ingredients. They were literally identical, differing only in packaging.

I think my early cynical outlook on life was caused by selling industrial equipment - going into plants and watching product changeovers where all they swapped out was the label.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:33 PM on March 3, 2016


If a robot that was 36% lasers was willing to sell me decent gorgonzola and cheddar studded with caramelized onions for under five dollars I would shop there. Like it could be Trader Kylo Ren's Discount Fun Star but if the price was five credits + kissing Darth Vader's helmet, I would be tempted. Because I'm a millennial in an expensive city with a food pyramid composed of some wilted greens tottering atop of a ziggurat of cheese.

I do get vegetables from Sprouts, I'm not a scurvy-ridden monster
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:35 PM on March 3, 2016 [16 favorites]


I dislike that TJ's coyly accepts this halo effect of being something like Whole Foods ("everything here is organic and healthy!") when it has nothing to do with Whole Foods

I wonder if this is a regional thing. I hate Whole Foods with its overpriced, cynically posturing, worker-hating, approach to peddling groceries, while I consider Trader Joe's an unpretentious mass-market store with a bit of self-awareness about what it's pitching.

I mean, they are definitely going after the same demographic in some ways so I get the instinct to compare them. But in northern California *everything* is some shade of organic and healthy (at least in market terms) so that part's not distinctive.
posted by mark k at 9:50 PM on March 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


this halo effect of being something like Whole Foods […] when it has nothing to do with Whole Foods

Doesn't bust unions like Whole Foods, doesn't systematically mislabel and overcharge like Whole Foods… some nerve, trying to put on that halo
posted by RogerB at 10:16 PM on March 3, 2016 [8 favorites]


TJ's would most certainly bust some unions. The halo is certainly the reason most shoppers don't know that TJ's continues to sell tomatoes that aren't part of the Fair Food Program (which means there's likely slave labor involved) and even McDonalds and Burger King are on board with that program. Same story with the orange juice. And the eggs. The basic eggs at TJ's are exactly the same as the ones at Adli's. I've walked through egg protesters. I could go on - I was in the trenches.
posted by zenon at 11:22 PM on March 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


TJ is our main source of groceries because we are hip urban dwellers with cargo bikes. There's the right combination of staples and partially prepared foods to provide the kids with a thin veneer of home cooked dinners, plus snacks that they'll eat that aren't like Doritos and twinkies. Yeah, their produce sucks but any self respecting urban hippie with a cargo bike goes to farmer's markets anyway, which is conveniently near our preferred TJ, plus we grow our own and of course we get all of our eggs from neighbors with chicken coops. I'd still go there if I was a lame SUV suburbanite just for the 2 pounds for $10 French Roast which is clearly GMO and harvested by prison children, but compares favorably with the flavor of coffee four times as expensive even in Seattle, as well as the employees who seem genuinely happy, if a little cultish. Because I am old, I have literally zero idea why a grocery store would have a Twitter account. Is this a "corporations are people" thing?

But what I really mean to say is that I am a hip urbanite with a cargo bike.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:06 AM on March 4, 2016 [11 favorites]


Slarty Bartfast: TJ is our main source of groceries because we are hip urban dwellers with cargo bikes. ... compares favorably with the flavor of coffee four times as expensive even in Seattle...

But what I really mean to say is that I am a hip urbanite with a cargo bike.


I'd be a hip urban dweller with a cargo bike in Seattle who went to Trader Joe's if it didn't mean climbing that cargo bike all the way up Capitol Hill or taking Metro to the perpetually-overstuffed-and-under-construction one in the University District. Maybe the unloved, neglected Central District will get a TJ's when much-derided property developer Vulcan paves over the crappy Red Apple at 23rd and Jackson.
posted by fireoyster at 1:27 AM on March 4, 2016


It also hearkens back to a time when the only coffee available in grocery stores was over roasted. I love ya, TJ, but damn girl, give Light Roast some love, yo.
posted by gsh at 5:24 AM on March 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


There are many items that I stock up on at TJ's when I'm between a construction site at the end of a long day and my happy happy home where I can take my pants off, gossip to the dog, and recover, but any time my shifting schedule means that that on-the-way stop occurs in the post-rush-hour stretch, I end up carrying my basket around with a desperate, hopeless scowl, subvocalizing oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people oh God I hate white people in a desolate little headmumble I sincerely hope only I can hear.
posted by sonascope at 5:38 AM on March 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


I don't know a single millenial who thinks that shopping at Trader Joe's is bad cultural capital. I think just about everybody buys into the 'not Whole Foods but same kind of shit, also cheaper' idea that TJ's offers

From the start, in 1967, “Trader Joe” Coulombe devised his “low-priced gourmet-cum-health-food store

whoa buddy, I don't think that's how most people spell 'come' outside of the pornography industry but sure

imported cheeses, organic foods, relatively healthy prepared meals, international delicacies, microbrews, California wines — they only lacked means. Selling two-buck chuck to the broke graduate student became emblematic of Trader Joe’s philosophy: good-enough wine at a bargain price for those wise enough to be in the know

this is like basically the marketization of Bourdieu's cultural capital. have a brand, associate the higher end with upper-middle class capital then also sell cheap shit marketed under the same symbol. create a customer base made up of the upper class, the middle-class, and the upwardly mobile who'll buy eccentric things that you can create, in-house, from older stock like dehydrated strawberries

We buy the brand, we eat the brand, we return for more — but we never truly know the brand as a personality. But this absence is the brand’s essence.

there's no absence of a brand, the only absence is a really basic, 101-level analysis of class symbolism
posted by runt at 5:43 AM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


grad school: not even once
posted by thelonius at 5:47 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


more like 'a single theory class in undergrad: not even once'

life has never been the same :(((((
posted by runt at 5:49 AM on March 4, 2016


We go to TJ's for a really small number of things, but they're things we need on a regular basis. Cat food, primarily. The canned cat food is decent-quality and much cheaper than regular brands. Plus the "light" butter; I don't care that it's light, but it spreads easily right out of the fridge, and actually tastes like butter (which is more than I can say for supermarket spreadable butters).

Oh, also the multi-grain baking mix makes great pancakes.

Everything else I can pretty much take or leave, although we do usually pick up a six-pack while we're there, and I like some of the frozen meals for a ran-out-of-leftovers lunch.

But we only go first thing in the morning, and we drive a little extra to go to the less-terrible one (sorry, super-old crabby ladies, I'm swiping left on you), so it's usually a pretty positive experience.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:58 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Cum is a word that means "combined with." The spelling is normal.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:02 AM on March 4, 2016 [19 favorites]


So, why don't they choose places that suit their space needs and have adequate parking? Those spaces don't exist. Nobody's building a ton of parking for nothing when they could be building leasable square footage instead. Huge places with enough parking might have higher rent and TJ's knows that they're enough of a draw that they don't have to be located someplace with another anchor to draw traffic from.

The Aldis where I hit (while doing other things I never go only there) is in an old Winn Dixie anchor. They took up about 1/3 of the space and the rest was leased to a discount department store with four aisles of dry and frozen groceries along with furniture, household goods, and personal hygiene items.
posted by tilde at 6:09 AM on March 4, 2016


Aldi and TJ may officially be separate but they share trucks and warehouse space. Everyone was excited when Aldis moved in because it meant TJs was next.
posted by tilde at 6:11 AM on March 4, 2016


There is only one in my state (Maine), and the parking lot is packed every time I've driven by (which admittedly is not too often, since it's an hour away from home), and I just can't bring myself to even try to get in. For me to deal with crowds like that the food would have to cure cancer or something.

I do go to one in Massachusetts when I'm there (I can walk there and not have to park). I'm not a big fan, for some of the reasons outlined above about too much prepared foods and how it doesn't seem designed for people who like to cook, but there is this black bean burrito, not in the frozen section but in that section next to the produce where the pre-made salads are, that I gotta admit is pretty good.
posted by JanetLand at 6:11 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is a culture that cannot be faked or mandated (see other chain supermarkets across the economic spectrum) and is definitely part of why I shop there.

Disclaimer: I am very closely related to somebody who works there, but what you see below is my opinion.

It's pretty obvious that one of the personality traits they hire for is how they interact with customers. TJ employees who aren't good with their customers exist, but are few and far between.

They also treat their employees well when it comes to pay and bennies. There was a bit of a controversy a few years back when they made adjustments to health insurance for part-timers, but it wasn't as it seemed.

I usually shop there first thing in the morning. Doesn't matter the day of the week, the parking lot and store are comfortably quiet when I'm there. Pro tip: Ask somebody in the store when the best time is to shop. They'll know the trends for that particular store.

When the registers are busy, most cashiers have the self-awareness to move things along, and the really good ones can still make it look like they're having fun when they do so. It's interesting to watch when they're busy and in the zone.

As for the products, I don't drink the 3 buck chuck, but you can get surprisingly good wine for between five and ten bucks. My favorites are TJ branded wines that say Reserve or Grand Reserve on the label. And they sometimes get really good wines in small batches. Once again, ask somebody who works there, they're usually really well informed about the product, or can point you to somebody who is.

I've found one thing admirable about the food products in general, and that is most of them are clearly labeled. Many of the TJ products I've seen leave out a lot of the processing and preservatives that you'd find on the shelves of the more traditional stores.

As for the article, there are tons of TJ fans who have twitter feeds and blogs about what's good there. But then I'm not a millenial, so what do I know?
posted by SteveInMaine at 6:57 AM on March 4, 2016 [5 favorites]


Trader Joe's sells a decent Irish Breakfast tea at $3 for 80 bags, everyone else wants twice or three times that much.

This, and the amazing 85% cacao dark chocolate bar for an insanely cheap price, and the SLS-free shampoo, are worth detouring to the newish TJs in Syracuse (an hour drive away) once in a while when up that way for other reasons (we're just far enough away that the frozen goods are not really an option, sadly). Plus, the Syracuse location is not a madhouse like the ones in big cities I have been to (aieee, that Union Square TJs and its 45 minute lines).

As far as Aldi goes, we do about a third of our weekly shopping there, and while they are sometimes out of certain things we want at the moment we want them, the prices are so great for comparable quality to brand names that it's still worth checking there for a lot of foods we get regularly. We have quarters in the change purse in the car and use our own shopping bags anyhow for shopping, so there's no hardship.
posted by aught at 7:19 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


The reason I go at least twice a year: the 21 Seasoning Salute

onion, black pepper, celery seed, cayenne pepper, parsley, basil, marjoram, bay leaf, oregano, thyme, savory, rosemary, cumin, mustard, coriander, garlic, carrot, orange peel, tomato, lemon juice and lemon oil

It's so good on boiled or deviled eggs, you can make a vinaigrette with it, I mix it in extremely-strained yogurt for a cream cheese-style spread for crackers. I've never found anything like it in my other grocery stores.

Also the s'mores ice cream sandwiches, when they have them. The "sandwich" part is really sticky and you end up with it all over your hands, but damn they're good.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:07 AM on March 4, 2016 [5 favorites]


I just don't really understand how you can walk out of a trader Joe's with an actual cart of groceries that is everything you will need for a week.

2 packs TJ max and cheese, 1 box tomato/red pepper soup = our "I have no spoons" meal.

Crimini mushrooms, ground turkey, hot Italian sausages, onion, spaghetti sauce, canned mushrooms, pasta = two or three dinners for two.

Frozen chicken, frozen veg, rice = fast meal.

Salad pack, shredded carrots, beans, tuna, dressing- low cal meal.

Frozen pizza- Friday.

Tuna-fish, mayo, relish- sandwich fixings.

And then of course there's the coffee, the cheese, and the cheap alcohol. A trip tip Sprouts for fruit and veggies, and we're set.
posted by happyroach at 8:21 AM on March 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


What's Good at Trader Joe's? (previously) is a good resource for finding info on some of their more esoteric products, and the fact that they include nutrition info is helpful for anyone watching their diet.

Good on Aldi for letting TJ's be its own thing. I don't know how much the marketing stuff actually feeds into what the end result becomes, but what they're doing works very well for us, and I hope they stick with the formula.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:30 AM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


The TJ's frozen Shrimp Toast has made my winter bearable. I've been straight-up evangelical about the shrimp toast for the last two months. SHRIMP TOAST. And white wine.
posted by witchen at 8:34 AM on March 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Cum is a word that means "combined with." The spelling is normal.

It's also a curiously anachronistic choice in 2016, like naming your kid Dick.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:53 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's also a curiously anachronistic choice in 2016

I don't really think so; I see it a lot. Maybe not so much in the likes of Slate and Salon, but it's common enough.
posted by Miko at 8:59 AM on March 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


I don't really think so; I see it a lot

But since you just correctly used a semi-colon in an internet comment, I'm guessing you are probably an outlier when it comes to usage.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 9:04 AM on March 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


One of the hardest things for us moving out of the Twin Cities and back to the steppes of northwest North Dakota was being a ten hour drive from Trader Joe's. TJ had become our default, supplying a good share of our groceries (excepting produce and a couple other things). We've been known to drop a few hundred at TJs on trips back. My wife gets a little verklempt at the thought of the frozen Indian meals, I'm jonesing for the cereal and Joe-Joe's. We're out of everything now and believe me, we're pining.
posted by Ber at 9:13 AM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


outlier ≠ archaic. ...I just like to think we can avoid a literacy race to the bottom. I SAID BOTTOM
posted by Miko at 9:33 AM on March 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


I am a millennial,

1. I refuse to accept that porn usage of “cum” has supplanted the actual useful usage of cum, which is extremely common and not hard to understand.

2. The only two grocery stores I visit regularly are TJ’s and Aldi’s

3. I just finished a can of TJ dolmas, HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY recommended, I always keep them stocked for when I can’t bear to think of cooking or assembling food

4. Aldi’s has the cheapest produce of almost any store I have access to, and without their “3 hearts of romaine for 1.79 and 4 sticks of butter for 2.50” my life would be less beautiful

5. I cannot imagine a universe where I would want to follow a grocery store on Twitter
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:34 AM on March 4, 2016 [18 favorites]


The thing about them largely shielding you from brand competition is great and not something I realized before reading this. When I buy a bag of frozen "orange" chicken, I want something pretty good, but it doesn't have to be the greatest in the world. So, I don't want to do an n-way comparison of n different brands of it. Same with salsa, and really most of our groceries.

Another thing I like about it is that their employees always seem to be well-treated. They seem to like each other, and they don't seem strained. Once in a while, we have to go to the Whole Foods across the street from it, and it's a huge contrast.
posted by ignignokt at 9:44 AM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I come in at the earlier end of the millennial generation; while I don't use Twitter myself, I'm deeply offended to learn that TJ's doesn't either.

I seldom stop at one anyhow, but every few months the need for their uncrystallized candied ginger strikes me and there's nothing that I can do but get some.

And having googled to see whether candied or uncrystallized comes first I saw that the top result is "High Lead Contents Found in Candied Ginger at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods". AskMeFi to follow.
posted by mr. digits at 10:00 AM on March 4, 2016


The only reason I want to "interact with a brand" on Twitter is to yell at them, loudly. Looking at you Comcast. Looking right into your dead, swollen eyes.
posted by Tevin at 11:51 AM on March 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


The gorgonzola gnocchi, which is found in the frozen section. We'll grill up a couple steaks with it as the side, best dinner ever.
posted by Windigo at 12:40 PM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Frozen croissants. I usually get the chocolate ones.
I hear that there is strong evidence to suggest that they're the same ones that williams-sonoma sells.

The gorgonzola gnocchi, which is found in the frozen section.
Oooh, and the butter and sage sweet potato gnocchi - seasonal, unfortunately - which is insanely rich but makes an unbelievable side dish in moderation.

Trader Joe's is a fine place for cooking-types (though it's probably not the cheapest option outside of high-cost-of-living areas like lower Manhattan). Sure, they don't really highlight the basics, but most groceries stores have a lot of packaged food; people just like really like the stuff at Trader Joe's. They still carry flour and almonds and honey and lentils and cheese (!!) and herbs and olive oil and what have you - and a whole lot more of that is organic for the same price of conventionally grown food elsewhere. They even carry some specialty-ish cooking stuff too like almond flour and fleur de sel, which is impressive for a store with their footprint.

I'll grant you that they have room for improvement in the produce and meat departments, but in NYC, the level of turnover at Trader Joe's means it's still a lot better than Key Foods and a lot cheaper than Whole Foods. And they even had Harry and David pears at Christmas!

The best, of course, are the random esoteric goods. Half popped popcorn and cuban style black beans could sustain me for longer than I'm proud of. Also, the bath and body products are amazing - find me a better-quality face wash or shampoo under $15, I dare you.

I just really really love them? I buy about 95% of my groceries at Trader Joe's - the only things I buy elsewhere are specific things like bottled lemon juice and vegetarian bouillon. I only wish the vegetables were slightly less packaged and that they hadn't been so insane about the fair food tomato sourcing - it's disappointing to hear that a place that makes such a point of treating its employees well wouldn't be the first to work toward the same standard for their supply chain. Oh, and that they dropped the racist variations on "Joe"...dude, nobody has found that funny in the last decade.
posted by R a c h e l at 12:52 PM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Short Story does not tolerate cow's milk. We found that he does tolerate goat's milk just fine though. Guess what? Turns out that goats are substantially smaller than cows. I mean, by like, a lot. And guess what else? Smaller udders = less yield. So, it's damn near impossible to buy a gallon of goat's milk for a hungry, growing boy. Which is just as well for the average person because here's something you likely aren't aware of: goat's milk costs about $16/gallon. I don't even know how much cow's milk costs - $3, maybe $4 a gallon?

We get to go to Trader Joe's and buy anywhere from 5 - 8 quarts of goat's milk every week. And the kid is 4 y'all. Not even a teenager yet. And The Sequal is still nursing, not even on to animal milk yet, god help us.

But seriously, we're so thankful that TJ's even has goat's milk. Regular grocery stores don't. Sprouts does but it's a couple bucks more. I won't even attempt to buy it at Whole Foods.
posted by vignettist at 1:21 PM on March 4, 2016


I don't even know how much cow's milk costs - $3, maybe $4 a gallon?

That's mainly because cow's milk prices are both subsidized and price-controlled, though.
posted by Miko at 1:30 PM on March 4, 2016


I don't really think so; I see it a lot. Maybe not so much in the likes of Slate and Salon, but it's common enough.

I expect that its usage among unemployed Ph.D. students is quite high.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:07 PM on March 4, 2016


PhD students-cum-thinkpiece writers, you mean
posted by RogerB at 2:11 PM on March 4, 2016


I shop mostly at Trader Joe's (but trek to Sprouts once or twice a month and prefer their produce) because it is six blocks from my place and I don't own a car. They are particularly useful for nibbles ... baguette, cheese, charcuterie, olives, a tub of raspberries maybe a piece of chocolate. Wine on the way out and we are completely set for Netflix and Chill. (YNF&CMV)

My neighbor worked there and cried when he had to move back east and leave that job.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 2:27 PM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Short Story does not tolerate cow's milk. We found that he does tolerate goat's milk just fine though.

Have you tried goat's-milk butter? I love that stuff and prefer it on toast. Also there are expensive French caramels made with goat's-milk and buckwheat. Perhaps not to a little kid's taste, but delicious.
posted by praemunire at 3:08 PM on March 4, 2016


Aldi and TJ may officially be separate but they share trucks and warehouse space. Everyone was excited when Aldis moved in because it meant TJs was next.
Would that this were true. My area has had an Aldi since the 1970s (I believe my town may be the site of one of the first Aldis in the US), and there's still no sign of a Trader Joe's.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:18 PM on March 4, 2016


Ditto; here in central New York we have Aldi's because it is cheap as fuck, but I have to drive 75+ miles to Albany if I want Trader Joe's. A store that is targeted at the "unemployed PhD student" is not going to fly in this area unless you take out the "PhD student".
posted by shiny blue object at 4:45 PM on March 4, 2016


The fixation on millennials in this piece is a bit bizarre. It's not generation that defines the group that does the most sharing and interacting on social media. That group is moms of young children - many of whom are millennials, but not all. And it makes sense that a lot of those moms would like and follow grocery store social media accounts. It's not to build some sort of emotional connection with the store - it's to find out about deals. Jeez.

Which does open up a whole new angle on Trader Joe's. One thing that I really like about shopping there is that I pretty much always know I'm getting a great deal, without having to worry about what's on sale, or what there are coupons for, or having a loyalty card. Which also helps with what others talked about upthread, the ability to buy products that are markers of a certain (wealthy) class, at a lower price point, without having to do all those things associated with scrimping and saving.
posted by lunasol at 4:58 PM on March 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Not sure where you are in CNY, shiny blue object, but there is a Trader Joe's just east of Syracuse.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:12 PM on March 4, 2016


Lunasol, that is completely true - the simplicity of "the price is the price" is just as restful to the mind as the limited choice.
posted by Miko at 6:20 PM on March 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


Trader Joe's is cheap. It's also about five minutes from where I work. And my cats lurve the canned food. Plus, I work weird hours, so grocery shopping at 11 AM on a Wednesday is a great way to beat the crowds. There's never really been a parking problem; the one store here is in a sprawling suburban mall with acres of parking. We still buy staples at the Publix, but having a TJ's conveniently located nearby saves us $30-$40 a week.

And hey, cookie butter on a banana makes a damn tasty snack.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:17 PM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


my cats lurve the canned food

Mine too. Better than the name brands I bought at the grocery store. I also discovered their cat litter, which is amazing. It's basically pine pellets. It lasts FOR E VER and has no odor whatsoever until the final day it all breaks down. I've researched it online and apparently they're exactly the same as the pine pellets people put in their woodstoves, and can be had cheaper at feed and seed stores, but that sounds like a lot of work.
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on March 4, 2016


Doesn't TJs do stuff like put four apples on a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic? I don't go there very often, but I know their produce packaging has been a bit of a turn-off.
posted by bendy at 9:31 PM on March 4, 2016


Okay, this stood out to me:

sorry, super-old crabby ladies, I'm swiping left on you

If this is a tinder reference meant to say you don't want to have sex with them, or you don't consider them attractive / fuckable, then it's gross. I doubt they would consider you a prospect either (if they are even interested in sex, which is nobody's business).

And if it's just an "I don't like them" thing, then... I guess the swiping thing is just a general cultural reference at this point that I don't get. I'm an Old, so what do I know.

Also I believe "cum" is Latin and it is pronounced "coom", as in magna cum laude.
posted by megafauna at 11:14 PM on March 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


Their parking lots are bad but I don't get the complaint about the lines.

One of my favorite things about my TJs in Portland is how diligently they keep checkout lines short at my TJs in Portland. Any time there are 3 or more people in any of the lines, they ring that bell and people come running to open new lanes or assist someone bagging.

Luckily I live a block and a half away so I can walk there, and to a more traditional store (Fred Meyers) for produce, fresher coffee beans, fish and other stuff TJs doesn't do as well. I wish their beer was chilled but it's cheaper.

My only major complaint is that they keep discontinuing my favorite food items. Anyone have a line on chocolate ice cream Bon Bons?
posted by msalt at 11:31 PM on March 4, 2016


And if it's just an "I don't like them" thing, then... I guess the swiping thing is just a general cultural reference at this point that I don't get. I'm an Old, so what do I know.

I'm Old enough to have to have looked up which direction was which, but yes, I have heard it used that way, and yes, that was my intention. Because the article is about Millennials. Who swipe. I am told.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:56 AM on March 5, 2016


I wish their beer was chilled

One of our local TJ's has just added a beer fridge; so it might happen.

Not a fan of most of TJ's own-label beer, which is usually OK-but-not-great; but the stores around here also have a good range of core + rotating craft beer. They're also the only place locally that will sell a mixed 6-pack, or indeed a single or two.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:37 AM on March 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


New discoveries: the fake Fig Newtons, which are amazing, and these tofu edamame nuggets. Their potstickers are very good, too.

For a while they were selling packages of bulk salami ends. I think it was 1.5 lbs, but it was 1/3 less than an 8oz whole salami from there same brand. It was one of their one-off purchases, which means yet another product that disappeared forever without warning.

I'm lucky that I can take an easy bus ride to the closest TJ's but I'm sure I'd visit less if I had to deal with parking.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:50 AM on March 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


I realize I must have lucked out with my local Trader Joe's (within walking distance even! ENVY ME!). It took over a former Albertson's in a shopping center, so it is roomy and there is plenty of parking. There are upsides to suburbia. It is a very popular location and gets crowded on Saturday afternoons and other peak times, so you might find yourself parking quite far away, and lines can get long, but only because the store is jam-packed.

Reading about the cramped spaces, long lines and lack of parking in other TJ's makes me appreciate mine even more. Bonus: there's a Pet Food Express right next door, and what must be one of the last local independent pharmacies in my area is in the same shopping center.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2016


Doesn't TJs do stuff like put four apples on a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic? I don't go there very often, but I know their produce packaging has been a bit of a turn-off.

They've gotten better about this. No styrofoam for the produce AFAICR.Typically the packaged veggies are just in a plastic bag, which is not great, but there's no extra packaging. I'm trying to remember the last time I bought something from there that came in anything else, and I believe it was in cardboard and plastic film. I have also noticed that they sell more and more produce by the item than they used to.
posted by lunasol at 3:12 PM on March 5, 2016


(kinnakeet, I'm near Cooperstown, so the Syracuse store isn't any closer. ["Well, ain't this place a geographical oddity. Two weeks from everywhere!"])
posted by shiny blue object at 6:35 PM on March 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


More info from the inside:
Why are the veggie/fruits in a bag or packaged? It makes them easier to distribute - most loose fruit comes from fruit distribution centers and that's not how TJ's does it. Trader Joes also does not have scales at the register and some states (we were told) do not allow you to price fruits individually for sale. Indiana, for example, gets all of their bananas in bags, like at Costco (same supplier fyi). Spent part of a night unbagging bananas that ended up on the wrong side of the border. Some items are regionally distributed so everybody in the region gets the same packaging. When I was at TJ's there was three regions - West Coast, Boston and Chicago (which at that time was dependent on Boston for certain perishables). New York was all the talk.

Do TJ and Aldi's have the same warehousing? Not really. Logistics is some complicated stuff- for shelf stable goods mostly warehoused, handled and transported by NFI, as was a subset perishable goods. Aldi was also using NFI but it gets most everything palletized - like Costco or Sams club. That also allows direct factory store shipments (I don't know if Aldi does this, Sams and Costco do). Different and much cheaper method of transport as it removes most the handling step. It's one of the reasons their stores have few items than even TJ's - most things are coming a pallet at a time. At TJ's the alcohol came from a couple of different distributors, some of the bread from a local bakery, and a couple or three trucks a week from Boston. The goal was once the regional market was large enough to distribute the booze themselves, and reduce reliance on Boston but there was much legal wrangling over the booze and issues finding local suppliers. Contrast with a regular store where many of the items aren't handled by the stores distribution at all - like chips and soda - which are basically renting the space from the store (which is why there is sooo much -it's paying to get on that shelf) and the endcaps in most grocery stores are also rented out.

Why is the parking lot so small? In your mind you're likely putting TJ's in the grocery store category - its not. You should really think of it like a 7-11 convenience store. TJ's and 7-11 were originally direct competitors. The store sizes are actually very similar and you'll note the parking lots are usually the same size. The small footprint is in the DNA of the store- they seek out or here in the midwest have these smaller spaces built for them. TJ's generally utilizes stores that are small, which means smaller lots and much lower rent - sometimes they'll get into a larger space or shopping complex. Limiting the number of SKU's was also a big part of the TJ's way. Most months there would be around 5-6 thousand SKU's (unique items - most stores would only have a subset of that) and upwards of 11-12 for the winter holidays. A Whole Foods an order of magnitude more items, and many grocery stores have a quarter of a million SKU's.

Why isn't the beer chilled? & Why is everything in a different place in every store? Rank amateurs at the local store made those decisions.

Why did they switch the perishable box and the meat section with the fresh produce? In most stores that would be because someone new is in charge of those sections and they are going to demonstrate leadership and KAIZEN and mix it all up. Often it's a part timer. I did it! I moved my section. Maximum cruelness: I helped move the booze - which really really irritated folks because we went all in and even moved the shelves around.

Where does TJ's get all that great staff? There is a massive surplus of talented folks around and TJ's draws from that pool by offering only slightly better pay and modest benifits, just like starbucks. I saw many people leave TJ's for Costco and Whole Foods, which were considered much more reasonable places to work and thrive. Trader Joes in the midwest has seriously struggled to replicate it's staffing successes on the west coast. It's made very clear that your performance might earn you a spot on the full time roster - which might sound attractive for the pay but is a misnomer because most full timers worked much more than full time. Once full time the carrot is always put out in front to keep moving up the ladder. The actually happy staff I worked with were either lifers who'd found an equilibrium (and often voluntarily demoted) or those still earnest and still ambitious. Just look in their eyes- its a bit of a cult. Staff still put up with all the usuall retail misery like random schedules, inconsitent hours, long hours on the holidays and the added salt that some random untrained full time staffer is in charge of scheduling this month.
posted by zenon at 3:38 PM on March 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


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