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.