Trader Joe’s and the Word Paradox

Trader Joe’s now officially exists: They’ve opened a store in New York City. And Slate has a story to clue in the Most Important People in the World.

The “Insider’s guide to Trader Joe’s” offers a set of “tips and warnings,” generally worthwhile. Including two sets of “fan favorites,” stuff that TJ does particularly well. (About 80% of what’s sold at a typical Trader Joe’s is exclusive to Trader Joe’s, according to one story I’ve read–and I believe it, since other than booze, wine, and beer, there are few national brands on display).

Reading those lists of favorites, I was struck by what I call the “Word paradox”: That is, “only ten features in Word really matter”–but your list of ten may have zero in common with my list of ten. That is, of the six categories I care most about at TJ, only two are mentioned among the sixteen categories mentioned in the Slate lists.

Here’s what we rely on TJ for, noting that we do most of our grocery shopping at two other stores, a medium-size Safeway and Andronico’s (a tiny little chain):

  • Dried fruit, e.g. three different varieties of dried cherries, three different kinds of dried cranberries…and dozens more that I don’t buy. Nobody does it better. Yes, TJ’s even has unsulphered dried apricots, if you don’t mind the looks.
  • Vitamins & supplements, the purest around (“vitamins” are mentioned in the article).
  • Nuts and sunflower seeds in a staggering range of varieties (including the world’s largest cashews) at very good prices.
  • Kauai coffee (yes, 100% coffee grown on Kauai), similar to Kona (which TJ’s also sells in a 100%-pure version), but about 1/3 the price–I’ve never seen Kauai coffee elsewhere, and TJ doesn’t roast the heck out of their coffee (except for their special blends designed for Starbucks/Peets customers)–“coffee and tea” are also mentioned–and, oh yes, unbleached #4 filters at 100 for $1.60 or so
  • Chocolate–in my case, the three-packs of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate 1.75oz bars (58% cocoa solids, just the right balance for my taste), from Belgium, for a staggering $1.29 for three bars. There are, to be sure, many other varieties.
  • Clif bars at reasonable prices ($1/bar), although that’s becoming a little more common.

But that’s us–the things we want that either aren’t available elsewhere, are done better by TJ, or are a lot cheaper for the same quality. (I don’t think anything we buy except coffee filters and Clif bars falls into the third category.)

Oh, sometimes TJ’s own wine label (or set of labels) is excellent for the money (not two-buck-chuck, but stuff under the Trader Joe’s label). Sometimes not. Frequently it’s not available, because they can’t get the quality they want at the price they want.

I respect TJ’s commitment to avoiding additives and fillers where feasible, and to using reasonably minimal packaging (except for some produce, and we don’t buy fresh produce there). It is a strange place to shop; no question there.

In passing, I note that Slate also had a slightly snarky take on Whole Foods and the whole question of “organic” food when you’re not in an area that grows it locally. We don’t shop at Whole Foods, but the points in the article are very well taken. We do pay attention to where our produce comes from–and even in California, that’s an issue–and increasingly to whether “organic” is an overriding concern. Safeway’s introduced a huge range of organics under its O brand, and apparently plans to beef up the organic fresh produce selection in the future; right now, most of the organic produce we get is at Andronico’s (which has a nasty tendency to overchill its produce). Given the choice between organic produce from Chile and non-organic from 50 miles away? For fruit known to retain a lot of pesticides, we’d probably wait for the California season to emerge; otherwise, we’d take the non-organic. But, as the Whole Foods article notes, most organic food in the U.S. comes from California anyway, so we don’t often have to make that choice.

Now, if California only produced ruby grapefruit…but I guess we’ll keep buying that from Texas, transportation and all.

3 Responses to “Trader Joe’s and the Word Paradox”

  1. Fiona says:

    While in the US last year, we got snacky in San Francisco and went to Trader Joe’s. I’d never heard of it before, and I was like “what is this place – all the fruit’s in plastic! Where’s the normal food?” Having now read the articles in Slate and the NYT I now get what TJ’s is. huh. Fun, but bewildering for a traveller looking for an apple, some crackers and a block of cheese for snacks.

    At any rate, I am constantly amazed how much better the supermarkets are in the US than at home in Australia. So much organic produce (depending where you go of course) huge selections, etc. We have two Whole Foods-esque organic supermarkets in Sydney. Neither near enough to me to shop at.

  2. walt says:

    True, TJ’s wouldn’t be the first place to get a snack, unless you’re in an energy-bar mood.

    At least around here, supermarkets have improved enormously in the past few decades. I seem to remember when you could buy apples (just “apples”), oranges, head lettuce, gnarly carrots, tomatoes…and maybe one or two seasonal items. Now? At our neighborhood market, at least (“neighborhood”=a ten-minute walk away), fruits & veggies I’d never heard of 15 years ago, six different pear varieties in season, signs explaining the significance of new varieties and growing methods…and that’s just the produce section. By law, all fish is now labeled as to whether it’s farm-raised or wild, its origin, and whether it’s ever been frozen (which is frequently an advantage). That market offers a “double satisfaction” guarantee on meat and produce–if you don’t like it, they replace it and give your money back.

    Sometimes I think there are too many choices. But better choices, which is what we’re getting, with more knowledge as to where things came from, how they were produced, and the effects on sustainability–that’s all good. Tomatoes that taste like tomatoes: Hard to argue with that.

    Around our parts, I think it’s competition: TJ’s keeps Safeway honest on one side, Whole Foods on another, and the locals, farmers’ markets, smaller chains, and the like all exert their own pressures.

  3. Steve Oberg says:

    When we lived in “the boondocks” of Indiana, where people think grocery- or any-kind-of-store-variety means a Wal-Mart within 50 miles (I exaggerate, but only a little…), we sorely missed Trader Joes. We had come to love TJs when we lived in the suburbs of Chicago. Whenever my in-laws were planning a visit, my mother-in-law, bless her heart, would call up and say, “So, what do you want from Trader Joes?” Then when they arrived, my mother-in-law would bring with her bags and bags of TJ goodies. My wife and I called it our refugee drop shipment.

    At this very minute my wife is at Trader Joes picking up more goodies. One of the perks of living once again in an area where there is plentiful choice and variety in terms of where to buy things.