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Trying to Get a Handle on the Cult of Trader Joe’s

There are few large-scale businesses that evoke such adoration and loyalty as Trader Joe’s. Think about it. Name an airline, a car company, a department store, or an electronics brand (ok, maybe Apple qualifies) that is able to elicit even a fraction of the devotion and acclaim that Trader Joe’s (or “TJ’s” as its devotees like to call it) can boast. Followers of the grocery chain are known to lobby hard for expansion into new neighborhoods, for convenience sake or simply just access (Trader Joe’s currently boasts 344 stores in 25 states), and fandom extends from the reverent to the obsessed.

I am from Southern California (the birthplace of Trader Joe’s), and a pantry full of Trader Joe’s provisions is just anticipated, if not expected. The food is relatively cheap, comparatively healthy, and consistently good, but there are always exceptions (I am looking at you TJ’s Roasted Vegetable Pizza!). The vibe of the place is funky with a pervasive nautical theme (Hawaiian shirts are customarily worn by management, and life savers and fish netting are usually festooned about the store) and the company’s catchphrase is your neighborhood grocery store.” But humble appearances aside, Trader Joe’s beyond being a cultural phenomenon, is a multi-billion dollar business. Supermarket News estimates that Trader Joe’s total sales for 2009 were $8 billion, with no sign of a decline in sight (even in this flagging economy). With all of this apparent success, one would think that the Trader Joe’s model would be an ideal business model to study and emulate. This is probably true, however, besides being successful, the Trader Joe’s company is notoriously secretive and mysterious.

In a somewhat dissatisfying attempt to blow the roof of the whole operation, Fortune magazine recently published “Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s,” which is less of an exposé and more of an object lesson in how an exposé can stumble (You are best off reading it yourself). Criticism aside, the Fortune magazine article does provide a bit of history (the chain was originally started 43 years ago by Californian Joe Coulombe, and then later sold to Theo Albrecht, a German grocery mogul) and ultimately draws attention to the singular cult of the grocery chain, and how they are able to, not only deliver a remarkably good product, but maintain such rabid loyalty among consumers.

If I were to place myself at the exit of any Trader Joe’s in the country and start asking customers why they had just dropped $150 on soy chips and vegetable Shu Mai, I would probably get arrested. However, if given the chance I am sure many customers would just pledge blind devotion, or talk about the virtues of a $5.99 six pack of beer. But in lieu of driving all the way over to the closest Trader Joe’s, I thought I would informally poll the vast, and vocal, Care2 community. If you are in fact a fan of TJ’s; what is it about the product, the experience, et al, that makes it worthwhile for you? If you are not a fan; what is it about TJ’s that pisses you off so? Does their lack of transparency raise any red flags? Do you find yourself eating more healthily when you shop there, or is it just glorified (and slightly more nutritious) junk food? Why all the hype?

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

218 comments

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9:35PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Interesting, ty

9:34PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Interesting, ty

7:48PM PST on Dec 18, 2011

i enjoy the atmosphere in T.J's and the samples they offer. i do find good prices on organic free range chickens and eggs along with grass fed organic ground beef, also discovered kosher stew meat which always ends with satisfaction tenderness. i like their different variety of products, something new to me. oh and they carry kerrygolds butter at a much excellent price than other stores.

1:06PM PST on Dec 18, 2011

Being vegetarian and wanting organic foods, TJ's is a great place to shop. They're not too pricey and certainly not as bad as Whole Paycheck... er, I mean, Whole Foods.

12:53PM PST on Dec 18, 2011

In NJ, Trader Joe's is like the second coming. One outlet has a liquor license, and does a business I can only estimate in the millions. The other does not sell liquor, but, you would think they are giving things away!

12:44PM PST on Dec 18, 2011

I remember Trader Joe's when it was still a small L.A. area chain and owned by a family in Pasadena, CA. I also remember when they became a chain. They were still good, but nothing like they were when they were local. Oh well, it seems the way of the world these days, but that does not mean the way is good! Anyway, Trader Joe's is all I miss now that I've left California and am living in Canada!

8:37AM PST on Dec 18, 2011

They are building one locally slated to open next spring. To read the comments of the paper I should be prepared to have a orgasmic experience just pulling on the parking lot ( never been in one) It is a store no more or less. I will of course go visit to see what the store is like. But I do not expect to be one of the rabid fans

5:05PM PST on Dec 17, 2011

weird

4:45PM PST on Dec 17, 2011

Long time fan of T J's. I'm a vegan & over the years they have added many more prepared foods that are vegan. I love knowing that I don't have to worry about unhealthy ingredients when shopping. They have a wonderful, helpful staff, alerting me to new vegan products, low priced wines, (not a fan of 3 buck Chuck) but their other wines are great. Love the wine tasting too. Agree there is too much plastic & would certainly be willing to pay more for bio-degradable plastic. Squash cut, peeled & ready to cook is a great time saver.

3:36PM PST on Dec 17, 2011

For me it is hit and miss. Love most of the prices, some really great stuff - like the mixed bags of pears. However, I would like more organic fruit available. GREAT organic string cheese. Most of the ready made meals for two are fab. Do not like the parking lot, always full, sometimes I just keep going. The organic milk [excepting the cream on top organic which is fab!] goes bad before the sell by date. The bread usually molds quickly too. Love the Brats from Germany, but the organic ground beef has bone chips in it -- three times now, YUCK! Love the canned crab for seafood salad. However my biggest peeve has been over the chinese chicken salad, which has great dressing, mandarin oranges, etc, but the actual lettuce is FOUL - chips and pieces of the worst sort of lettuce that goes off almost immediately. VERY upset over that. I don't mind if a German company owns it, they get most of their stuff in the states. Oh, my other big peeve - so many products are Canadian, and as I am boycotting Canada over the Seal Hunts, makes it difficult to buy from them. Just getting ready to go in tomorrow and return an Advent Calendar that has the foulest chocolates I have EVER tasted! Hit or miss, but I do like them for the Hits!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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Judy Apelis Judy Apelis
on Are You TOO Clean?
36 seconds ago

Or maybe their informing the human 'hey I finished your dumb request, now leave me alone...'

Poor little babies. Who are the monsters who killed their mothers?

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