About 20 years ago I worked for a public relations firm in Carnegie Center with clients in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.My boss, a California native, introduced me to two of California’s finest creations. No, not Napa Valley merlot and the scenic coastal Route One drive. I’m talking about Nordstrom’s and Trader Joe’s. My boss was a stickler for quality and class but like a lot of people who can afford the best, she also deeply loved a great bargain. So after racking up a four-digit bill at Nordstrom’s she would get a glint in her eye and say, “Now, Trader Joe’s! You won’t believe the prices!”
I was skeptical. What could be so great about a food store? “Trust me,” my boss said. “You’ll love it.” And I did. A few years later, when Nordstrom’s came east (to Edison and Freehold), and I was still pulling in a public relations salary, I said, joy to the world. But when would Trader Joe’s get here? We waited and waited and waited, year after year, driving an hour north to the Westfield store or an hour south to the Marlton store. It was like a secret society. Those who knew about Trader Joe’s and those who didn’t.
Finally Trader Joe’s has opened in the Square at West Windsor (a.k.a. the Lowe’s shopping center), a mere four-minute drive from my office on Roszel Road.
What is it about Trader Joe’s that makes its customers so besotted it’s practically embarrassing? People gush, “Ohhh, I love Trader Joe’s” the same way they gush, “Ohhh, I love George Clooney.” All weekend I heard people talking about it: At the AMC movie theater in Hamilton on Saturday night, I overheard someone say to their friend, “I just went to Trader Joe’s. I love that place.” In my Sunday morning spinning class at Gold’s Gym, the two women in front of me were saying “Did you go to Trader Joe’s yet? I just love Trader Joe’s.”
Here’s the bottom line: Trader Joe’s has healthy (mostly organic) food and gourmet food — the two food categories you usually pay more for — for cheap. In some cases, scary cheap. Imagine if Sam’s and Whole Paycheck and Bon Appetit crashed into one another. And they serve it up in a sweet little store with a small town market feel. It’s not impersonal like a supermarket or cavernous like Sam’s, just five little aisles that will rock your world.
For some reason going to Trader Joe’s feels remarkably like going to a party. They play upbeat music — oldies that put you in a party mood or cool Latin American guitar music that sounds like Ottmar & Liebert. The people who work there are happy and polite; the people who shop there are happy, friendly, and polite. (We learned that the company hires crew as much — if not more — for their cheerful personalities as it does for their food knowledge.)
The first night I went I ran into one of our freelance writers with his two sons, big grins on their faces. “Isn’t this great?” he said. “Dad, can we get these?” said one of his sons, holding up a bag of Trader Joe’s chocolate chip “dunker” cookies. The second time I went, as I was deep into the decision-making process between Sea Salt Brownie Petites ($3.99), a Viennese lemon tart ($6.49), the Piled High Apple Pie ($6.99), and the Rockin’ Chocolate Chip Fudge Cake ($5.99), a woman started talking to me — like we were at a party and she was introducing herself. “It’s like being in California,” she said rather breathlessly, as an icebreaker. “They always have little surprises. And little tastings of things. I think they buy from smaller vendors so they can get unique items.”
I made my way down the refrigerated aisle. Great food for lunches — all under $5. Things like Curried Chicken Salad with a side of salad greens ($3.99); spicy California rolls ($3.69 for eight); individual flatbread pizza on handmade ciabatta crust ($4.99); or fresh spring rolls with shrimp (big shrimp!) and veggies ($4.99 for 10 ounces). By the way the fresh mild salsa ($2.99 for 12 ounces) is really good. I keep buying it and finding the container the next morning three-quarters empty in my husband’s home office.
So how do they do it? Trader Joe’s Organic Low-fat Plain Yogurt ($2.99 for 32 ounces; the house brand at Wegman’s is $3.39), a four-pack of Trader Joe’s organic applesauce ($1.99); Trader Joe’s Multi-Grain High-Fiber Bread ($2.49, and six grams of fiber in each slice). It just goes on and on. Joe’s O’s (just like Cheerios, $1.99; same price as Wegman’s), Trader Joe’s Organic Raisin Bran ($4.29). Frozen blueberries ($1.69 for 12 ounces; $2.76 at Wegman’s). In fact all their frozen berries and frozen mango chunks are inexpensive — it’s a smoothie lover’s pajama party. Free range organic chicken breasts ($6.99 a pound; $8.99 a pound at Wegman’s). Get the picture?
We tried to interview the spokesperson for the company but she said they’re not allowed to talk about their business practices. Fortunately, an employee standing near the cheese fridge on one visit offered that they send tasters literally all over the world to find interesting food. When they find something they like, they buy it in bulk — and pay cash — and in most instances package it into the Trader Joe’s house brand, though sometimes they keep the original brand packaging. They buy direct from farmers and growers, with no middlemen.
But really, the most fun part of shopping at Trader Joe’s, in addition to the bargains, is looking for unusual items, like the Dorot brand frozen chopped herbs ($1.99). They come in packages of 20 miniature cubes, like a little ice tray for game board dice — basil, cilantro, garlic — you just pop one out as you need it. One cube equals one clove of garlic or one teaspoon of chopped herbs.
Having just tasted green tea ice cream for the first time, I was happy to see Trader Joe’s carries it ($3.49), made by Mikawaya, “the makers of the finest in traditional Japanese pastries, family owned and operated since 1910” (other flavors include mango and chocolate).
As I picked up a package of Trader Joe’s frozen mandarin orange chicken ($4.99 for five servings) a salesperson looked over my shoulder and said, “We can’t keep those in the store. It’s one of our most popular items.” In fact, this happens a lot at Trader Joe’s — customers talk to one another, and share what they’ve tried and what they recommend. I looked down and indeed there were only five packages left in a bin that must have held 50 or 60. That night my family scarfed it down. Another item that went over big in my house were the Trader Joe’s ice cream sandwiches made with two large chocolate chip cookies and vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips packed around the edges.
Trader Joe’s has a remarkably global selection of frozen entrees from virtually every ethnic cuisine you can think of (chicken tikka masala with cumin basmati rice, $3.49; roasted poblano peppers filled with Spanish rice and shrimp, $7.99 for a box of two; shrimp etouffee, $3.49 for 11.3 ounces), in addition to lots of vegetarian items. The gourmet cheese prices are way below Bon Appetit (St. Andre Triple Creme, $9.99 per pound; $8.99 for a half pound at Bon Appetit).
Even non-food items will attract the bargain hunter. Dr. Bronner’s peppermint pure-castile soap made with organic oils is one of the few brand name items in the soap and shampoo aisle ($2.49 for a five-ounce bar; $3.99 at Whole Foods). A Facebook friend raves about Trader Joe’s Tingly Shampoo.
In one corner of the store is a kitchen area where they hand out bite-sized tastings. On one visit they were serving tomato and fresh mozzarella on toasted baguette slices. On another visit mini pancakes (made from Trader Joe’s pumpkin pancake and waffle mix, $2.99) with real maple syrup.
Another warm and fuzzy part of Trader Joe’s is its distinct retro aura. When you enter the store, you’ll see a rack displaying Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer, its monthly newsletter. Written and designed to look like the Old Farmers Almanac (or the Vermont Country Store catalog), it touts various food items, written with folksy humor, illustrated with old-fashioned pen and ink drawings.
I am a big biscotti baker. Biscotti ingredients are very expensive, like crystallized ginger, hazelnuts, dried cherries, and high-end chocolate. I was happy to read in the Fearless Flyer about Trader Joe’s uncrystallized ginger (a mere $1.49 for eight ounces), “lightly sweetened ginger, without the sugar crystals found on most dried ginger products.” I can now get large hazelnuts for $5.49 a pound ($7.99 a pound at Wegman’s) and dried cherries for $6.98 a pound ($7.99 at Wegman’s).
The October newsletter reveals how Trader Joe’s gets its expensive-looking flowers so inexpensively: it buys directly from growers, including orchids from one of the world’s largest orchid growers, located in northern California.
There are no keytags that get you the sale price. A cashier told me, “We don’t need to have sales. Everything’s always the lowest price.” There are no magazines. There is no annoying intercom. You will, however, occasionally hear bells (Trader Joe’s is built around a nautical theme), which is how the service crew communicate. If you bring your own bags, the cashier gives you a little ticket to write your name and phone number on, to be added to a drawing for $25 of free groceries (drawings take place twice a month).
A couple of weekends ago, at the opening night party of “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are” at George Street Playhouse, the woman on line next to me at the buffet said, by way of an introduction, “Have you been to Trader Joe’s yet? I just love Trader Joe’s.”
Trader Joe’s, the Square at West Windsor, 3528 Route 1, 609-897-0581. www.traderjoes.com. Open daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.