LOS ANGELES—The quirky national grocery chain Trader Joe’s opens its first store in New York City today. I know this in part because of press coverage more suitable to the opening of a hip new museum than a seller of mayonnaise and tortilla chips. But I also know this because my friends in New York, normally hard-bitten sophisticates, have suddenly gone giddy for the newest resident of Union Square.
Don’t worry. I’m not here to mock your excitement. I vividly remember the buzz when construction started down the street from my Washington, D.C., apartment in the early ‘90s, signaling the arrival of the city’s first branch of a cool Seattle coffee store called Starbucks. (Yes, kids, there was a time when a new Starbucks actually caused something besides eye-rolling.) Now, as L.A.-born and bred Trader Joe’s hangs its shingle in the Big Apple, I know how Seattleites felt 15 years ago: “Look honey, our little retailer is growing up!”
Here in Los Angeles, TJ’s (as it has been unavoidably nicknamed) is an institution, and as such it’s both loved and, to a much lesser extent, disdained. It began in the 1950s as the Pronto Market chain of convenience stores. In the ‘60s, founder Joe Coulombe renamed the stores after himself, introduced the endearingly goofy nautical theme and Hawaiian shirts for all employees, and started stocking more upscale foods and wines. TJ’s made its name by carrying only items that had run the gantlet of its tasters. In recent years, the company has expanded to more than 200 stores across the country, but it remains privately held.
TJ’s has become an integral part of middle-class life in Los Angeles, mainly because its too-narrow aisles are lined with bourgeois products at proletarian prices. Even if you prefer the quality or selection at a fancier store, once you know something like chèvre or rack of lamb is available for half the price at TJ’s, you feel foolish or profligate buying them elsewhere.
It’s also the only grocery store I know that can and does spark long, mostly serious discussions filled with shopping strategies and insider tips. I recall the early whisperings from wine snob friends a few years ago when TJ’s began selling a $1.99 bottle that was actually drinkable! Who was this Charles Shaw, everyone wanted to know, whose mystery bargain wine had appeared from nowhere and was quickly and famously dubbed “Two-Buck Chuck”? (I understand it will be known as “Three-Buck Chuck” in the New York area.)
If a normal supermarket is like a mall—filled with familiar, consistent, and humdrum name brands—Trader Joe’s is more like a good bazaar, with its eclectic and erratic selection and frequent surprises, both good and bad. And like any bazaar, it’s much easier to navigate with a little experienced help. So, with curious New Yorkers in mind, I asked friends and colleagues in Los Angeles to send me their TJ’s tips and warnings. What follows are the best of them:
Adopt a Soviet Mentality. This is the first thing nearly every regular TJ’s shopper mentions: Products appear suddenly, work their way into your daily routine, and then disappear with no warning. Example: no-boil lasagna noodles. Here one day, gone for months. If you really like something, hoard it. You never know when it will vanish.Best Bargain: Orchids. Every shopper I surveyed had a different best bargain, so I’ll give you mine—beautiful, long-lasting orchids for $8. I can’t tell you how many last-minute gift fiascos these have helped me avoid.The Shopping-List Guarantee. If you go to TJ’s with a shopping list for a dinner party or even a moderately complex recipe, you are guaranteed to leave the store without finding at least one item on the list. Just accept the fact that you will have to hit one or two other stores on the way home. This raises a bigger issue: TJ’s has great prices on many staples, and it’s easy to forget that its selection is tiny compared to a real supermarket. It is not a one-stop shopping solution.Fan Favorites. Here’s a random sampling of some items my survey participants recommend: Simmer sauces; spices; beer and wine other than Chuck; frozen hors d’oeuvres (mini quiches, mushroom turnovers) to have on hand for surprise guests; unpasteurized orange juice; vitamins; canned turkey chili; Fage nonfat Greek yogurt; refrigerated pie crusts; bottled juices.Health Food. Trader Joe’s is mindful of the ingredients it allows in its products, and the number of organic items has increased noticeably in recent years. However, good ingredients do not a healthy diet make. TJ’s offers a bodacious and promiscuously displayed selection of sweets—big tubs of cookies, myriad frozen desserts, and chocolate-covered everything (blueberries, for example). It takes a strong-willed shopper to leave the store without a few thousand empty calories hidden at the bottom of the bag.More Bags Per Dollar. Here’s a fun one, New Yorkers.I’ll be surprised if, within your first few shops at TJ’s, you don’t find yourself at the register thinking,Wow, that was cheaper than I expected. How often does that happen at Whole Foods? Produce Roulette. Most of the fresh fruit comes packaged in plastic containers. You can’t buy just one apple—you buy a box of four, preselected by TJ’s. While the fruits are often quite good, it won’t shock you to learn that, in the experience of my panel, packages of four tend to include at least one clinker. More Fan Favorites. All dairy products; olive oil and pasta; chips and salsa; hot sauces; bread; coffee and tea.A Few Things To Avoid. Even more subjective, but I’ve gotten complaints about the frozen fish (“tasteless”), some of the produce and cheeses, the gelato (“atrocious”), the house-brand raisin bran ("like cardboard”), and the pet food. Of course, the selection varies from region to region, so you’ll have to make your own “no-fly” list.Tough Luck, Baby. You’ll have to look elsewhere for baby food and supplies. Same goes for the harsh chemical cleaning products we wish we could do without but can’t.Weird Products. To TJ’s credit, it stocks many unusual and intriguing products, but if you’re not careful you’ll need to build an extra cabinet to hold all the stuff you toss in the cart and never use. My wife is sure she had a plan for that big bag of rice flour when she bought it, but damned if she can remember what it was …
In short, New Yorkers, you may or may not come to regard Trader Joe’s as grocery nirvana. But, used responsibly, you can certainly find small slices of heaven for bargain prices. Now, we Angelenos just have to hope that TJ’s isn’t going to follow too closely in Starbucks’ footsteps.
Thanks to the panelists who took part in our survey: Karen Grigsby Bates, Madeleine Brand, Kathleen Hallinan, Scott Horner, Cinny Kennard, Kim Masters, Phillip Martin, Cassy Montgomery, Vittorio Morandin, Eric Pinckert, Robert Sachs, and Amy Walters.