An Ode to Trader Joe's

When I see hipsters packing the Whole Foods parking lot, I just want to mock them. Because down the street is the natural, gourmet grocery where the cool kids have been going for a long time — and spending a fraction of what Whole Foods takes out of your pocket for organic or preservative-free noshables.

I’ve been eating Trader Joe’s food since at least high school, and the California staple has also become a necessity here on the East Coast. Alas, at my midway stop between L.A. and D.C. — Denver, for a stint at the Rocky Mountain News — there were no Trader Joe’s stores. My, how I missed ’em. Since its opening in Pasadena, 1958, the California-based chain has expanded to 30 states and D.C.

There are so many things to love about Trader Joe’s besides the food, which is reason enough. Even the flavored seltzer water to which I’m addicted tastes fruitier, crisper and more natural for 79 cents a liter. They don’t have sales or coupons, or store cards that track your purchases, because they don’t need them: their light sour cream, the best hands-down, is $1.79 per pint. Not to say inflation doesn’t happen — the two-buck-chuck Charles Shaw wine is three-and-a-quarter-buck chuck out here on the East Coast (not like many are complaining — I also know I can always go here for more wines from my home state, as well).

In short, they’ve built the all-American business model. Offer products that people love at good prices, friendly staff instead of grumps, clean and bright stores, and you create an extremely loyal following. As TJ’s puts it, each of its products must “stand on its own” to stay on the shelves, and develop demand. You can also count on the staff to have tasted all of the new products and give advice, if not a free sample at a store cooking station. Per square foot, these stores generate more than twice the sales as Whole Foods. Depending on the store and when you go, they can get pretty crowded, but you can’t blame a business for being popular.

Trader Joe’s products don’t have artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, trans-fats or MSG, and are quite frankly the most delicious grocery items out there.

Some favorites:

  • The Pizza 4 Formaggi – with edam, asiago, pecorino, and grana cheeses: $3.99.
  • The Reduced Guilt Kettle Cooked Potato Chips, which make Baked Lays hang their little cardboard-tasting heads in shame: $1.99. Decadence = these with TJ’s blue cheese roasted pecan dip.
  • The 3-cheese shredded blend of cheddar, mozzarella and jack: Here, bags of shredded cheese are like you just took a block of queso to the cheese grater yourself — never dry and crumbly. $3.99
  • The creative bagged salad blends at around two bucks a pop, and the organic baby carrots that are thicker than the grocery store’s for less.
  • Around St. Paddy’s Day, they have real Irish bangers.
  • The creative and yummy selection of ready-to-eat refrigerated lunch and dinner items. Back in Cali this selection was more extensive, like gyro sandwiches, but I currently have in my fridge the Cubano Seasoned Wrap with roasted pork, ham, swiss, dill pickles and mustard dressing.
  • Try one of the 96 percent lean burgers on the Knotted Challah Rolls with havarti (cheese prices are a fraction of grocery stores). Just sayin’.
  • The popcorn! Bagged varieties include movie theater with butter and salt, olive oil and salt, white cheddar and the new (out here, at least) herbs and spices.
  • Here I can get a bag of either red or green apple slices without the single-serving kiddie packing that drives up prices in the grocery stores, and they last quite a while.

And I can’t say I have much of a sweet tooth — Trader Joe’s has the best junk food around, so I think I’m already doing OK there — but TJ’s has chocolate-covered everything. They also have an impressive frozen dessert section, including the mini ice cream cones and the TJ’s version of Otter Pops (read: real fruit instead of day-glo artificial everything). Their versions of other infamous junk foods are also pretty awesome, such as the TJ’s versions of Funyuns and Ritz Bits.

Oh, I’d hate to see a world without Trader Joe’s.