Confessions of a Trader Joe's Junkie

Lately I've been jonesing for Trader Joe's pretty badly. My husband and I lived just outside of Philly for about a year, where we had our choice of about five TJ's. Now that we're back in Des Moines, the closest Trader Joe’s is now at least three hours away in the Minneapolis area. There are often times I contemplate driving up there and back just for the day so I can get my chile-spiced mango fix or my delicious spicy black bean dip. Or the vodka marinara sauce. Or the gyoza. Or the lime juice popsicles. Or the soycatash. But I digress.

Photo: Comp4Me [Flickr]

Every time I travel I check Trader Joe’s store locations to see if there’s one close that I can stop at. I have my cousin ship me stuff from New York. I have friends in Minneapolis who keep an eye out for me. One of my best friends drove to St. Louis and I actually made her take a cooler so she could bring me back some frozen food. It’s seriously become an obsession. I went on a trip with some friends last year and the first thing we did after getting our rental car was make a TJ’s pit stop. I figured we would need some snacks for the hotel room, you know? I’m pretty sure they all thought I was insane… except for the aforementioned friend who went to Missouri. She immediately picked up on the allure of Trader Joe’s. I was trying to figure out exactly what makes Trader Joe’s so great, and here’s what I found out during my research:

  • Trader Joe’s was founded by Joe Coulombe. He was running a number of Pronto Markets when 7-Eleven started to monopolize the market. He had the idea for a grocery store with more exotic offerings but at decent prices. It took off (obviously) and he started converting all of his Prontos into Trader Joe’s. (Photo: Private Label Magazine)

  • Many of their products are given a quirky name based on their origins – Mexican food is sold under the label Trader Jose’s, Chinese food is sold under Trader Ming’s, Japanese food is sold under Trader Joe-San and vitamins are sold under Trader Darwin’s.

  • The reason TJ’s can sell good-quality stuff so cheap is because they buy directly from small vendors instead of going through a corporate middle-man. This makes the products cheaper for them, which in turn makes them cheaper for us. What a concept.

  • Because they keep their products so cheap, you’ll never find anything on sale at Trader Joe’s.

  • For a grocery store, their benefits and wages are pretty great. Business Week reports that their wages are better than most ($8-$10 an hour three years ago), they give generous bonuses and contribute an extra 15.4 percent of every employee’s gross pay into a retirement plan. They even offer health insurance to part-time workers and their dependents, as long as they work an average of 20 hours per week. My favorite perk is the 10 percent discount. I’d be all over that.

  • Trader Joe’s is the home of Two Buck Chuck! TJ’s is the exclusive dealer of Charles Shaw wine. It’s technically Three Buck Chuck in some states, but at any rate, it’s worth it. For cheap wine, Two Buck Chuck is pretty darn tasty. It took me a while to figure this one out, though, because in Pennsylvania, it’s illegal to sell liquor in grocery stores. It took a trip to Virginia to finally procure the famous Two Buck Chuck.

  • The company has a great sense of humor. Exhibit A: one of the questions in the F.A.Q. on the Trader Joe’s Web site: “Will Trader Joe's products turn me into a superhero, a professional athlete or one of the great brainiacs of humankind? Sorry (seriously, we are because that would be neat). But they will hopefully make your taste buds tingle and leave you with a happy tummy - and wallet. Way better than being a superhero.” Their “Fearless Flyer” is pretty good reading too.

  • You won’t find any overhead P.A. systems at Trader Joe’s: they operate solely on a bell basis. A huge bell is rung every time something comes up – one bell is to open another register, two bells means a customer has a question and three bells calls a manager over.

  • If you’re like me and DESPERATELY want a Trader Joe’s within an hour (I’d even take two hours… Omaha would be great) of you, you can go here and request that they come to your area. If there’s already a TJ’s in your area, I’d appreciate it if you went there anyway and requested that they open one in Des Moines. Thanks.

  • I know there must be some other rabid Trader Joe’s fans out there like me. So spill it: what’s your favorite TJ’s product? What do I need to cart home with me the next time I am in Minneapolis or Kansas City? Better yet, what can I badger my cousin or brother-in-law into mailing me??

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    Newest 5 Comments

    Girl, I feel for ya! BUT, I live 65 miles from anywhere! So any and all of my shopping is an all day event. I go about every 3 weeks to a large city here in Cali and do TJ's first! I take a cooler and 6 or so of those blue ice gel packs, everything makes it home in great condition and haven't lost an item yet to spoilage. Some of our favorites and the vanilla merigue's, orange chicken, cinnamon bread and the tea's. So once a month maybe you should make an all day excursion!?! Good luck with your quest for a store nearer to you!
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    A problem with late night surfing, I get hungry and then I happen on to your site and this entry talking about food. I have been living overseas for over 13 years now. I don't think I've been to a Trader Joes; however, I have heard of them. I may get a chance to go to Minnesota soon so I will definitely find the one there and try it out.
    Thanks for this post!
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    I love Trader Joes, I get a high every time I shop there! I'm so sad they discontinued the Cereal Bites (chocolate and strawberry), they were so dang good! I love their Australian Red Licorice and their potato latkes!
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