Trader Joe's (a rant)Trader Joe's (a rant)

Have any of you shopped at Trader Joe’s? Is anyone excited about them opening on 14th Street, just a block away from Whole Foods? People keep telling me how much they love this store, and I always tell them that I’ve only been in one, in Boston, and that I didn’t like it at all. I also say, though, that I didn’t have a chance to explore, and that I will give it a chance when it opens here. But when I read quotes like the following one in this New York Times article, my budding enthusiasm disappears:

Trader Joe’s has also guided its customers into the world of prepared food and precut vegetables… “Trader Joe’s customers are people who really care about cooking,” he said, “but like everyone else in America, they don’t feel like they have time to chop all the vegetables, cook the chicken and make the dessert — but they want to be in the kitchen.” The stores stock lots of things like precut butternut squash and beets, “simmer sauces” that make quick stews, and marinated salmon fillets packaged with fresh herbs in oven-ready cooking bags. “We are very careful about marinades,” Mr. Sloan said solemnly. “Dill can be very polarizing.”

About 40 percent of salad greens in American supermarkets are sold already separated, washed and bagged. At Trader Joe’s, the proportion is close to 100 percent.

“Who buys head lettuce anymore?” Ms. Latta said, surveying a produce case stuffed with bags of organic baby arugula, herb salad and sugar snap peas at the original Trader Joe’s, on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena. There was not a vegetable in sight that was not packed in plastic.

I don’t have the knowledge, time, or inclination to be a food snob, but I simply cannot relate to this mentality. Nathan alerted me to an article last week in Slate about the chain restaurant Chipotle. In the article, Daniel Gross mentions that more and more Americans are eating out because the cost differential between eating in a restaurant and going grocery shopping has gotten so small. The reason for that shrinkage is fancy grocery stores, and a complete lack of responsibility on the part of the consumer.

It’s one thing to buy a bag of spinach, which can save you an hour of rinsing if you happen upon a particularly filthy bunch. But to buy pre-peeled and cut garlic, carrots, and celery is totally ridiculous and wasteful. I don’t care how organic and free of pesticides your chopped veggies are—the bag you bought them in is an affront to the organic movement, and these stores should be ashamed to carry such products.

This post is scattered, but my point is this: It’s totally possible to spend far less to eat in than you would spend to go out or to buy every piece of produce safely packaged in a bag. Salad spinners and vegetable peelers were invented for a reason. It takes about three minutes to peel, chop, and seed an entire butternut squash, and it will yield three times as much product that is fresher, more delicious, and much less wasteful than a shrink-wrapped packet of squash pieces. It takes less than a minute to peel and chop a carrot, and it takes about five seconds to press a garlic clove, peel and all, through a garlic press. (Chinatown garlic is an exception, as it is cheaper than water.)

It’s none of my business how people spend their money, but I can’t help but think that money spent on peeled veggies could be better spent on a bottle of wine, a dry-aged steak, or a bottle of white truffle oil. Celery and salad greens are supposed to be cheap. I can’t believe how willing we have become to make them and every other piece of produce expensive.


There’s other factors to account for too, such as if you’re cooking for just yourself a whole butternut might be too much if you didn’t want leftovers. There’s a time/ease factor too- you don’t have to inspect/bag up/wash all your veggies- just toss ‘em in the cart and go. Also, while NYC has lots of ethnic foods in the supermarket, elsewhere Joe’s stands out for it’s diversity (particularly Asian). My 1 trip to a LI Joe’s did not yield much for me, but I can see the appeal of their prepared foods.

ps- if Chipotle switched to whole wheat tortillas, world food domination would be imminent. Keep on cookin!

Thanks for reading and commenting. A whole butternut squash is too much for two people as well, but there are always leftovers. And I know a woman who lives alone, and she uses the top of the squash (above the seeds), and discards the rest. She says it’s still cheaper than buying it already cut, and of course it tastes better.

Your weblog is hilarious, by the way.

Trader Joe’s was the first supermarket to realize you can brand every-damn-thing, even produce. Branding is such an effective mind-bender it can convince dimwitted environmentalists that packaged product A is better for the planet than than unpackaged product B. (The trick is, print a cutesy mother earth “goddess” on product A. She blesses the whole affair.)

Ok, that’s enough sanctimonious bile for one morning, now back to the cave!

Trader Joes sells some great products fairly cheaply. Real Peanut butter rather than the usual supermarket crap, 1 kilogram slabs of Belgium chocolate for a few bucks. Cheaper and much better than the crap that Godiva sells.
They also sell great breakfast cereal. So great that we go out to the burbs to get it because it is the only cereal we will eat.

I would not call Trader Joes a supermarket. They are a grocery store that carry some unique items.

I’ll give it a thorough inspection when it opens, and I hope to find good deals on things like baking chocolate and olive oil. But that doesn’t mean I approve of their produce packaging.

Three minutes to peel, seed, and chop a butternut squash?! As if!! Even the Iron Chef can’t do it that fast! I’m sure we will have to wait many years to get a Trader Joe’s in Pittsburgh, but when we do, I will be first in line to buy the prepared butternut squash. Ruth Reichl has a recipe for butternut squash and hazelnut lasagne in The Gourmet Cookbook that is so delicious that I would make it every month if it weren’t for the onerous chore of preparing that damn tough squash!

I have to confess that I’m also guilty of buying those big clamshell packs of ready-to-use baby spinach at Whole Foods. Yes, I do have a salad spinner, but when you consider all the waste inherent in a head of red leaf lettuce and the cost/benefit ratio I think the clamshells are possibly a better buy. At least at Whole Foods, where you pay $1.69-$1.99/head for lettuce and throw about a quarter of it away. Unless you have pigs or rabbits.

I hate to remind you Leland that you did just rave about the container of hundreds of peeled garlic cloves that you bought…

Although I agree that Trader Joe’s is not a supermarket, it is a wacky store that sells random items at often good prices. I wouldn’t do my weekly shopping there, but when I was in college in Boston, I was known to go out to Trader Joe’s for their cat-shaped cookies and dried cranberries…

I will time myself next time I peel a butternut squash. It doesn’t take long, and I happen to think it’s fun. On the other hand, you’ve probably peeled and chopped 5 million butternuts in your day, and I’ve done more like 20.

I cannot abide those wasteful clamshell packages. I just can’t stand to throw them away afterwards, and I am anything but an environmentalist.

Gosh Em, Leland conceded in his post (near the bottom) that he’s lately bought stripped garlic cloves in Chinatown. No need to browbeat.

And it’s not like we expect people to hoe a row o’ corn, but the hypocrisy of Joe’s is infuriating. They hold themselves up as a quirky, earth-friendly, Hawaiian shirt wearing new age food-o-rama. Meanwhile they’re cranking out more packaged, pricey, preserved nonsense than A&P could dream of.

And how exactly isn’t Joe’s a supermarket? Because it has fewer fresh, unprepared products? They get karma points for this? Ok, fine, from now on I’ll call it what it is: a big fat convenience store. A 7-Eleven for hippies lost in a sea of wealth and sloth.

I know what you mean about clamshells and I do cringe a little when I throw them away, but when I think about how I spent three years washing cloth diapers and hanging them on a clothes line, I think I bought myself a little dispensation, environmentally speaking. And I’m talking about your diapers, Leland, so I don’t need to be scolded by you! Kind of like I justify getting $50 haircuts now because I spent quite a few years going to Jon and Leland’s barber, who cut my hair for $4.50. Of course, I looked like a man, but who was looking at me when I was out in the back yard hanging out diapers…

I’m not scolding! Love you mommy. Thanks for cleaning my dirty diapers!

The best thing about Trader Joe’s is that they will give (pricing) competition to Whole Foods. You might not think they are competition for WFM, but WFM sure does! Watch the prices drop (if they haven’t already) at WFM on things like Kashi, Terra Chips, and other similar items that TJ’s carries.

Well that’s a good thing, although it’s a bunch of junk I would never buy.

You are missing the point entirely— Trader Joes is damn CHEAP. That’s why people love it. NYC Gourmets will walk in, take one look and leave. The store is for people who want to eat frozen food for $3 a pop.

Well I’m willing to accept that if it is in fact true. Nevertheless, I still have a problem with everything being wrapped in plastic and styrofoam.

I concur.

For a long time, you couldn’t even buy ANY produce at Trader Joe’s. At all. But they expanded their line to make the place more of a one-stop shop. Trader Joe’s isn’t a farmer’s market. Remember, the place started out as a convenience store. If you compare the place to something 7-11, and all the plastic food they sell there, you’ll realize that Joe’s is a TON more laudable that a poison purveyor like that. They have a lot of organic products and they frequently use biodegradable packaging. Okay, they can’t always do so, since they source their products from hundreds of suppliers from all over the world. But they are certainly on the right track. Anyway, give them a chance and check out the store. Then see what you think.

Thanks for your insights, Fred. It’s nice to hear from someone who isn’t in the Trader Joe’s cult! I’ll definitely give them a chance and blog extensively about it.

My husband and I went to Trader Joe’s today, the day after it opened, and it was mobbed! Nobody looked around and left. The line to pay went completely around the store. I think this store is amazing - the prices are about half of our neighborhood D’Agostino’s, and the variety and quality of the food is incredible. Smoked salmon for $6.99 a pound? I think Whole Foods should start worrying. A bag of salad greens at Dags is $4.69; at Trader Joe’s it was $1.99$2.49. At Citarella, if you’re lucky, you can find maybe one kind of reduced fat cheese; here we found six or seven, including fontina and smoked gouda. Although the line to pay was long, it moved extremely fast and we were at the cashier and out of there in 12 minutes. Bye-bye Balducci; ciao Citarella — we’re going to be regular customers at Trader Joe’s -it’s certainly worth the short bus ride from the West Village. My husband and I filled three shopping bags for about $50.00 - the prices were even cheaper than Western Beef. And everything looked so appetizing — it was like food porn. Everyone should definitely check it out. P.S. I HATE butternut squash!

A head of lettuce costs $1 at the Union Square Greenmarket. $6.99 is a good price on smoked salmon, and I might consider buying it, along with their cheap butter and eggs. But I would never be lured by a variety of reduced-fat cheese, which I think is vile to begin with.

Packaged goods at Trader Joe’s certainly are cheaper than at Western Beef, which is a meat market. No one above Houston Street beats Western Beef’s prices on freshly butchered meat.

I agree with you about the freshness and price of the meat at Western Beef. We buy almost all of our meat and poultry there, and we’ll miss it when it closes in July to make way for yet another overpriced boutique and condo. (There’s a rumor it may reopen a few blocks north.) And for fresh fish, there’s no place like Chelsea Market. It’s true that the reduced fat and fat-free cheeses sold at supermarkets are disgusting (mostly cheddar & American slices). But I defy you to tell the difference in a taste test between full-fat cheese and, for example, the smoked gouda we bought at TJ’s yesterday. The flavor and texture are exactly the same. Nothing’s missing except the cholesterol. The only problem I foresee with Trader Joe’s is the temptation to grab everything off the shelves, especially all the dark chocolate goodies strategically placed all around the store, notably near the checkout line. Can’t wait till the wine shop opens.

Those of you who are rhapsodising about the prices at Trader Joe’s should take heed of what happened here in Pittsburgh when Whole Foods moved in. Many of their prices were terrific to start off with—truly competitive—but by the time they had been in the area for about a year or so the tariffs on many items moved up, in some cases really sharply. For instance they originally sold a whole roast chicken for $6.99 and now they cost $8.99, a pretty steep increase. Their baguettes were $1.69 and now they’re $1.99. You could get a head of leaf lettuce for $1.69 and now it’s $1.99 (they don’t sell lettuce by the pound but by the head for some reason). Prices on cold cuts in the deli have risen also, but since Leland left home I don’t buy them so much so I can’t quote them.

But my prediction is that these low prices at TJ’s will stay that way just long enough to establish a customer base and drive the neighboring grocery stores out of business, then start to rise.

Trader Joes is not Whole Foods and they are not going to undercut their competitors, drive them out of business and then suddenly raise their prices. I’ve shopped at TJ’s for over 20 years and their prices remain low. The hype surrounding TJ’s is justified. True, they are not a one stop shopping experience. But I get about 2/3 of my groceries there and New Yorkers can consider themselves fortunate that they have finally opened a location there.

Trader Joe’s is full of junk for people who don’t know the first thing about cooking or wine, and who are too lazy or scared to buy groceries from a real food purveyor or wine from a real wine store. It’s bad for New York, and it’s bad for society.

So, Trader Joe’s is opening a store here in Pittsburgh on Penn Ave., just southeast of Penn Circle and right next to the McDonald’s. I was driving over there the other day and saw their humongous banner draped along the side of the building. Ugh.

When I lived in Portland, Oregon, there were Trader Joe’ses around, and while I didn’t like shopping there (and hardly did), I got to experience quite a wine phenomenon involving that store one day. Apparently, I’m not the only reader here who knows about it, either, as someone else referenced the phenomenon in the “name” part of their comment.

Legend has it that in 2002-2003, a particular vineyard in California made much more wine than there was demand. This creates a classic economic situation in which the seller reduces the price of the good to keep people buying it. This, while not entirely the actual reason for the phenomenon, resulted in the sale of Two Buck Chuck’s, a wine that retailed exclusively at Trader Joe’s for $2 (in California). It was $3 in Oregon, presumably because it costs that much to drive cases of it 600 miles.

Two Buck Chuck’s was absolutely terrible wine, but after three other bottles, it wasn’t too bad. :)

way late the party, but i wanted to say that’s a very interesting thing you noticed about the WF prices, rebecca.

and i’m not interested in TJ’s either (i’ve posted on this myself once). produce, wrapped in plastic. no. no thank you. what do people who “want to be in their kitchens” do there? stand quietly?

Leland has missed the main point/advantage of TJ’s nearly completely – it’s about healthier foods at a good or reasonable price. Try to find Cocoa Puffs or typical sugar-hydrogenated-no-fiber-long-list-of-chemicals grocery store selection and it’s hard if not impossible to find at TJ’s. Go to Giant or Safeway and try to find a good selection of Kashi or whole grain breads – how much is organic milk! Hey, it’s convenient to realize that those more pre-packaged foods (say meatballs) will have a very short list of ingredients that we all recognize. OBTW, compare selection and price of nuts with the bigger chain grocery stores. Less but somewhat different selection than whole foods, at a lower price…

Somehow it always gets back to the cereal with these TJ types. (Kashi seems to have enough brand loyalty to invade a small, inorganic country.)

Here’s a short list of ingredients for you: the ingredient. You buy an egg, it’s an egg. Garlic is garlic. They sell these things at Safeway. They don’t come with new-age marketing like, The journey of wellness is, well, a journey, but they can be made into some damn fine, healthy meals. (Which is what kitchen weblogs are about.)

That’s funny, Doc, they do seem to harp on the cereal, don’t they? The list of cereals I buy at any store is very short – Cheerios, Grape-Nuts, Shredded Wheat, and Rice Krispies, and when Calvin leaves that will be shortened to Shredded Wheat and Grape-Nuts. I don’t like Kashi and make my own granola.

I will probably check out the TJ when it opens here but for me it will be about the crowds; I couldn’t believe the check-out line when Leland took me to his. I get a little claustrophobic in situations like that.

Fortunately I have the time to pick and choose where I shop, and since the locations are fairly close together I don’t burn too much gas doing it. I get some things at the farmers market, some things at Aldi, some at WF, some at McGinnis Sisters, and I’m sure I’ll add TJ’s to the list in due time.

Can anyone help? Just moved to New York living on 18th St and 7th avenue. Just spent 100 bucks at the local Gristede’s for just a few bags of standard groceries! Haven’t really been to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods but expect them to be even pricier. Where/How can you buy good food living in Manhattan for a reasonable price?! (If at all).

Welcome to New York, Healthy! What a great neighborhood you’re living in. I recommend FreshDirect with all my heart—they have good deals and good service. You should also check out Western Beef, which has great deals on meat and some staples. Once you start going to different stores, you’ll find good deals on the things you buy most. Olive oil? Whole Foods. Coffee beans? Porto Rico on Bleecker Street. Dairy? Trader Joe’s. Gristedes is lousy across the board, and so is d’Agostino.

I am originaly from California. I know that there was a Trader Joe’s store in Long Beach, California. And if I remember right I think that there was a couple of other Trader Joe’s stores in a few other small cities that were also close to the beach. This was around the years 1992 – 1993. I guess that this store is still in Long Beach, California today. I really do not know because I am in the Army now and I haven’t seen the store in years. (I guess that I could do a computer search for the store….but is it really that important?) Well anyway, from what I remember about the Trader Joe’s store in Long Beach was that it always seemed like a FAKE store to me. Yes I said the word FAKE. I do not know how else to explain that feeling that I have for Trader Joe’s. Maybe the feeling that I have for Trader Joe’s might seem strange to some other people but that was and still is the feeling that I always had and still have for Trader Joe’s even today. I went in there a couple of times. The prices were always way too high and there was allot of crappy junk on the shelves that I never bought. And I do not really remember anyone ever saying any comments like; “Hey, lets go to Trader Joe’s! It’s such a great store!” or “I always stop and get something at Trader Joe’s” or “I like Trader Joe’s” or any other kind of positive comment about Trader Joe’s at all. If anything, from what I can remember was that people in Southern California seemed to have a very bland and bored attitude about Trader Joe’s that was more like: “Whatever” or “That’s nice” or “Big – Deal, who cares?!?!”. I have not thought about Trader Joe’s at all until I started to read all the comments about the Trader Joe’s store in New York City and I thought that I would add my two cents. Thank you.

Signed: a Soldier in Mannheim, Germany
(I just returned from Kuwait.)
Todays Date is 01 / January / 2007.

im only 16 and i dont do the grocery shopping in my household but i like trader joes… ive found that the only prices that are higher than regular supermarkets are the products that are not usually even in regular supermarkets. trader joes isn’t for everybody though…if you don’t like it do your shopping at safeway or albertsons

ha ha, I know how to cook, I know fine wine, fine beer, and produce. I shop at Trader Joe’s all of the time. I also shop at Whole Foods and local produce stores.

Each place has something different to offer. I often supplement the quick-fire ingredients from TJ with fresh produce. When I want fine cheese or something another specialty ingredient, I hit “Whole paycheck”

TJ’s Pad Thai bowls are wonderful when I don’t have any time to make or go out for lunch.

I think you should keep ranting about the plastics, (they do use some bio-degradable packaging if you read the bottom) and outrageous packaging of their frozen foods, wonderful fruits like blueberries imported from Mexico… all do defeat our efforts towards conservation and organic movements. They win for convienence, price and marketing. I use them so I don’t have to shop at Safeway and when I don’t shop at TJ’s, I shop at the farmer’s market for local produce or the local grocery store. I understand your view and hope you keep ranting. It’s a hard one to get. Especially for the new trend followers that want to be viewed as “organic” instead of really getting the meaning. I get the meaning but fail at being the best I could be, I shop at TJ’s every week, not a proud shopper by far.

All I can say is I hope you have found it possible in your experience to try more than one stop at Trader Joes. I love Trader Joes. I go there all the time. I have standards that I don’t even LOOK for anywhere else, because the quality and price are right at TJs. Example: try the organic reduced sugar jams; e.g. Apricot or Blueberry. Yum! Try TJs peanut butter. You might never get peanut butter anywhere else again. (Tip: pour a little of the peanut oil from the top, put into a separate jar and use to saute your veggies in your next stir fry. Wonderful way to use and reuse. Put the rest of the peanut butter in the frij for perfect consistency.) Cereals are cheaper at TJs altho I wish they would bring back the Kashi 7 grain puffed cereal with NO sugar at all. As for butternut squash, thank heaven that someone sells it pre-cut. That is one of the HARDEST veggies to peel and cut there is. I’ve passed UP recipes, and I love to cook, just because they called for prepping butternut squash,,opting instead to go buy a sweet potato and use it! I will give it to you that the prepared products, while unique, and cheaper than most Whole Food stores would charge for them, are for convenience and not essential if you enjoy cooking. But, their hummus! Oh my yes. Gotta have some of that. I like to use their whipped cream cheese too. And I know I’m getting a better price – always – at Trader Joes. Thumbs way up for me!

I love Trader Joe’s, but the wasteful hypocrisy of their plastic-wrapped / styro-packaged produce has always bothered me — you’re spot on here.

I usually just ignore the ‘produce’ section, as what they sell there is usually cheaper elsewhere; I’ve often wondered why the chain bothers with produce at all. I go for the interesting salsas, the prosciutto, the tasty baked goods, cheeses, juices, reasonably-priced butter and eggs, snacks, the really-hard-to-find imported treats and decent beer selection. In other words, just about everything else.

What I find strange is watching people load up on the little shrink-wrapped packages of veg…when there is a cheaper market nearby that stocks an amazing variety of organic and mostly locally-sourced fruits, herbs and vegetables (It’s called Henry’s).


I think it’s not a coincidence that this post on TJ’s is actually mostly on how the store carries fruits and vegetables. While I find that most aisles carry interesting products for a reasonable price, fresh products are just awful (store of New Haven, CT anyway). The systematic packaging is one thing: it’s silly, it forces you to buy a certain number of items but most of all, it makes it difficult to see/touch/smell if the product is good. And most of the time it’s not! Add that both fruits and vegetables are really expensive and yeah, I agree, TJ’s shouldn’t qualify as an organic-friendly store. But that’s really my main concern with this store and if I have time I just go some other place to buy fresh products (and preferably not Whole Foods which has ridiculous prices too). So to be fair, I’d say that if it wasn’t for fresh products, TJ’s would be a great store (excellent cheese reasonably priced for example) but as such, they should completely change their offer of fresh products (no packaging, fresh fresh products and price).

At least on my phone, Patsy’s post was about half strike-through text. What are we supposed to make of that?

It’s interesting to me that these posts were about equally divided between those who felt that TJ’s is higher-priced than other stores and vice-versa. I guess it depends on your frame of reference. As for 2-buck Chuck, if you want to drink wine with every eal (like a true paisan), you could far worse. Just don’t put it on your Kashi.

Hug it out!

This article is ridiculous. I have shopped at several Trader Joe’s stores in different states and they DO have LOTS of FRESH vegetables that are not all sealed in plastic. This writer obviously likes to write about things he knows nothing about and should investigate further.

Lin: Thank you for the nice flame. You might notice that this article was written nearly five years ago. Although TJ’s doesn’t seem to have improved at all. Their “fresh” items are uniformly lousy, and if you think otherwise then you obviously know nothing about food or cooking.

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