What Is It About Trader Joe’s?

Trader Joes10Every time I post about a supermarket or a large retail space—and Best Market taking over the Food Emporium is just the latest example—people ardently wish that we had a Trader Joe’s around here. I’ve been a few times in California, and I’ve never understood the appeal. So I went to the one near Union Square, to see whether I’m missing something.

The place is certainly popular: At 10:30 a.m. on a weekday, checkout lines extended to the back of the store. But why?! I guess if you hate to cook, all those frozen entrées are convenient. Or if you like to cook but hate prep work, pre-chopped vegetables and pre-grated cheese are handy. Or maybe all that plastic-wrapped produce is preferable to worrying that someone fondled the Brussels sprouts before you bought them? Or maybe everything seems cheaper because so much of what’s sold there is white label, rebranded as Trader Joe’s? (Whether it’s cheaper or not, I have no idea.) Those of us who don’t get it—and I know there are others—would genuinely would like to know: What is it about Joe’s, as my late grandmother-in-law used to call it, that made you fall head over heels?

P.S. The charm of the wine store next door must be that it’s all inexpensive, so that you never feel like dirt for buying one of the cheaper bottles in a store with a wide variety of prices.

P.P.S. Maybe while we’re at it, you can explain Shake Shack, too.

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  1. I’m with you on Trader Joes, but what kind of monster misunderstands the incredibleness of Shake Shack?!

    • I must be a monster then because to me, Shake Shake seems like an upscale McDonalds. There is NOTHING I would want on their menu.

      • Shake Shack is a mystery to me. I’m vegetarian and not particularly interested in expensive greasy fast food that’s mostly meat (and cholesterol.) I get that it’s upscale MacDonalds. But I would never eat at MacDonalds and it’s not like I’ve been jonesing for an upscale, pricey MacDonalds either. I don’t get it.

        I’ve only ever shopped for wine at Trader Joe’s and yeah, they have really good wine for low prices, which is nice. The food – well, honestly, the lines are always so long at check-out that I bail. Too much of a madhouse.

  2. Agree on both counts. Both Trader Joes and Shake Shack are way overrated.

  3. Shart Shack is great if you like food with your salt.

  4. Guess you’ve just never experienced the awesome that is Trader Joe’s. Merely walking in once and looking at the shelves isn’t experiencing their food. Its making a blanket judgment based on looks alone. Trader Joe’s food is higher quality, less processed than other brands, more affordable, and way more ethnically diverse. They have good turnover every season so you never see the same thing for too long. Mushroom ravioli in truffle sauce, truffle mushroom pizza, an expansive meat section, I could sit for days talking about some of their packaged foods that are absolutely delicious.

  5. Agreed…just don’t “get” the Trader Joe’s mystique.

  6. I’m also not a fan, but what young people tell me is that it’s by far the cheapest (for decent quality) in the city.

  7. I have never found a single super market that excelled in everything. So, I have never expected Trader Joe to be the be all and end all shopping experience. . . especially in Manhattan where giant stores can’t succeed at today’s rents. Does TJ think of itself as a supermarket? Or a specialty store? Are your readers asking or expecting too much? Nevertheless, I have found it is more fun to shop at Trader Joe than anywhere else. The staff is delightful. Some products are the best anywhere and I will stack their crackers (pardon the pun) against any others. Most of the standard products are as good, some are not, but I expect TJ’s score card would measure up against any other Manhattan store. The prices are very good. And no store can move a checkout line faster. I will always want more than one supermarket in my neighborhood to carry national brands and I want the other to be TJs.

    P.S. That Union Square store is far too small for its regular shoppers. Perhaps it is there for the wine store customers to pick up a few items. At any rate, before making a judgment, try the store in Chelsea which is excellent and BIG enough to hold all the people who enjoy shopping at TJ.

  8. I’ve never purchased meat or veg at Trader Joe’s but the selection of pantry items is superb. They are one of the few places that carry truly nut-free dried fruits and I really appreciate the minimally processed snacks and candies.

    • Minimally processed is right. I like buying my bread at TJ’s too. If I buy a loaf ANYWHERE other than TJ’s, this is what happens. I have a loaf of bread in my house for upwards of a month, despite the “sell by” date, no mold, no going bad.

      I buy a loaf at TJ’s and if I don’t eat that whole freaking loaf within 5 days, I have an entire city of mold all over that thing.

  9. Agree with JD and betty. I don’t go to TJ’s for cheap produce, but I do make a trip at least once a month for specific pantry items. There are some top producers behind their private label products e.g. the frozen croissant (because Arcade is not open on the weekends!). The croissants are produced by Galaxy Desserts, the same folks who make Williams-Sonoma’s croissants. But at TJs you get 16 for $8, vs. $39.95 (plus shipping) at WS http://justinsomnia.org/2007/11/meeting-the-man-behind-trader-joes-chocolate-croissants/ The Union Sq store is not a fair test, it really is too small. Try Chelsea or UWS.

  10. We frequent the Chelsea store which is less claustrophobic than the one in Union Square. Its not perfect, but we get a bunch of staples there of high quality and fair price. Cereals, granola bars, oils, baking goods, tomato sauces, eggs, cheeses, snacks, milk/ cream, breads, nuts, chocolate, beer and frozen foods are a good deal and always consistent. Since you asked, some of my favorite TJ specific items are: Korean BBQ chicken sausages, shaved beef, pear/ champagne vinegar, frozen fries, firm tofu, oatmeal, chipotle salsa, tortillas (way better than WF),baby kale, haricort verts, capers, slider buns, sprouted bread, and they have a wonderful chocolate ice cream. I have to admit I am mostly not crazy about their produce. But honestly, after over paying (many times) for sub standard produce and seafood at Whole Foods, there is no perfect option. TJs staff are very helpful and always friendly. I am always amazed at how pleasant my check out experience is at TJ vs the eternally bitter at WF and clueless at Food Emporium. I tire sometimes of the faux “good for you/good for the earth” messaging at WF. Honestly sometimes WF feels like a SNL skit with its earnest tastings of “quinoa hemp frozen treats–gluten free of course.” If we are going to get another grocery store, I’d rather have the limited but consistent and affordable TJs over another flavor of Food Emporium which is what Key Foods would be.
    No endorsement for Shake Shack from me, but my kids might disagree

  11. The appeal of TJ’s is not staples like milk or bread (where, it should be said, they offer good and inexpensive choices). The key to their appeal is in addictive items like Thai chili cashews and pumpkin pancake mix. They have just enough of the basic stuff at decent prices but every time I go there I get hooked on some new thing like a frozen curry dish they’ll offer as a sample or a cheese that’s half off.

  12. Five words: giant Belgian 72% chocolate bars!

  13. My love of TJ’s is thanks to their quality products at more than reasonable prices. I also enjoy a lot of their seasonal and store brand products that I can’t find anywhere else.

  14. 30% less on most items and higher quality compared to WF. Nuff said! Stay away from the 14th St store which is much too small. Also, excellent helpful staff.

  15. I love this entire debate. It’s what makes Tribeca citizen so good and me so happy to live here. I love the specificity and passion of the responses. I will say that I used to go to visit family on the west coast and smuggle back TJ truffle oil (for a tiny fraction of the usual price) and molasses cookies that were dreamy. Sadly, neither of them are still there. But I think the readers have done a good job of explaining the merits. Plus, little free cups of coffee.

    And I think you couldn’t be more right about shake shack. The burgers are just ok, the shakes are pretty good, and the fries are out and out bad. It’s not the worst in the world, but the hype is totally lost on me.

  16. Everything is cheaper and still good quality. The end. I can get practically a month’s worth of food for less than $100. There is almost nothing priced over $5. No, we’re not big cooks, so maybe that’s key for us. But still, relatively healthy and 1000x less expensive than Whole Foods, where I can’t walk out for less $50 no matter what I get.

    And the employees are always seemingly genuinely pleased to be there. The whole vibe is positive and upbeat and just a good experience — even when waiting in a mile-long line.

    • I agree. Only had a not so great experience with fresh produce, everything else was great value. Little known fact that TJ’s is owned by ALDI and it’s basically as great as ALDI in it’s home market Germany.

  17. I was a cynic too. Maybe this is moot, but you should try going to one that isn’t in the city to get an clearer sense of the appeal. I recently moved to LA after 17-ish years in Tribeca. TJs are everywhere here, and I must say, I’m thankful for them. I never went in to any of the NYC stores because the lines to get in and check out were too long. I figured, whatever money I’m saving isn’t worth the aggravation of waiting to get in/shoving your way through the store. After moving to CA, and shopping there, while having an actual sense personal space around me, I think I finally understand the appeal. It’s all true; inexpensive, quality, & friendly service, (its easier to observe when you’re not shoulder-to-shoulder, going through the place.) As others noted, the one thing that is mediocre is the produce, but it’ll still hold you over in a pinch. And make sure to refrigerate the bread, because it really does seem to mold faster.

  18. Three bags of groceries at Food Emporium or Whole Foods = $150. Three bags of groceries at TJ’s = $75.

  19. For people who think the lines are awful, know that they are long but move extremely quickly, since there are 20+ active check outs operating at one time. Also, often times, an employee will pass through the lines asking if you need them to grab anything for you.

  20. Trader Joe’s What a shame! If you love to cook regardless organic, carver, kosher there really only one store that pleases.
    Fairway even though I hate that they price according to location and availability of international products.

    I am still praying