My Trader Joe’s Phobia

Annie loves Trader Joe’s. I mean loves them. I’m surprised the company’s logo isn’t tattooed on her butt. Until I met her, however, I had never stepped inside one of their stores.

I’ve experienced jihadist attachment to supermarkets before. I dated several women in Manhattan, and for them it was Whole Foods, Fairway or starve. After a couple of years chauffeuring them on grocery runs, I began to suspect they liked me because I owned a car. When I discussed the possibility of living in Dirty Jerz they exclaimed, “But my stores aren’t there!” You have to hand it to those marketing guys; they’ve fetishized these places into indispensable components of city life – making urbanites loathe escaping stratospheric rents for bigger homes in the suburbs.

Ironically, over the past few years, Fairway and Whole Foods opened outposts a short drive from my house. A Trader Joe’s sprang up five minutes away. In response all the local chains are imitating their new competitors, turning my shopping choices into focus grouped homogenized clones of one another. They also opened an ALDI a mile away. I went in it with Ann and didn’t like it. “So this is what supermarkets used to look like in the Soviet Union!” I said. “Swimwear! Evening wear!”

Ann does most of the food shopping so I don’t bitch about where she goes. She’s a very savvy and thrifty shopper. But when she recently shanghaied me to Trader Joe’s, she got angry with my foot dragging. True, I can be lazy, but that wasn’t the reason.

“What’s your problem?” she says, exasperated. “You like the food from Trader Joe’s!”

“I do,” I say. “But the place gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

“Why?”

“Have you ever noticed the staff is way too happy to see you and have box-cutters?”

The staff at Trader Joe’s are actually very nice. The bell thing drives me batshit, but I’ve never run into a surly cashier. Ever. Not even a sad looking stock boy. The cynical part of me that’s lived through corporate jingoism and foodie bootlicking propaganda finds this very unsettling. Trader Joe’s, for all it’s semi-hippie commune branding, is part of a retail empire owned by a multi-billionaire. I have to wonder if there’s a corporate apparatchik in the back exhorting everyone to smile and dumping Zoloft into the Kool-Aid dispenser.

Before the culinary evangelization of the past fifteen years, going to the store was just that, going to the store. When I was a kid it wasn’t a lifestyle choice or religious experience. It was a vital function. You bought your Wonder Bread without an iota of guilt and didn’t agonize over whether the tuna you bought was sustainably farmed or genociding Flipper’s kin.  Today’s food stores are a far cry from the working class food marts of my youth.

That’s to the New Food Movement; we now have an endless amount of stores and food choices to plow through. That’s not altogether bad. The coffee selection is a hell of a lot better than the old days. I can get Hawaiian Kona just about everywhere. I can buy crate loads of good tuna and Kirkland Gin at Costco, Fairway has the best cheeses and Trader Joe’s puts out very good pre-made meals – TV dinners basically – but good.  And in all these places, the selection of produce is an improvement over the supermarkets of the 1970′s.

But, if I’m honest, it’s not Trader Joe’s shtick that bugs me – it’s the customers. Watching yoga-panted mommies sipping those tiny paper cups of coffee while scrutinizing package labels induces flashbacks to my food-service combat days at The Bistro; struggling to placate pretentious food-as-lifestyle drones who somehow managed to sexualize, politicize, over-romanticize and polarize the most basic human function – eating.

The whole organic hoopla is a case in point. If I had a nickel for every time a customer grilled me over the philosophical and ecological provenance of the food, I’d be writing this from my mansion in the south of France. I’m not going to bore you with studies that have shown organic food isn’t any healthier than its non-organic counterparts – or that organic farming isn’t a viable option when trying to feed billions of people. I am absolutely sure many people pick the organic option because they honestly believe its better for them and their children. Fine. But let’s face it; many people are organic because they want to feel better about themselves. For them food isn’t sustenance, it’s a statement. It’s often a quick, easy and rather masturbatory piece of faux virtuousness. How else can you explain purchasing organic vodka? Are you kidding? You want to pickle your liver and stroke your social consciousness too?

Of course, the advertising guys took this and ran with it. Now there are people who are really sincere about this stuff. God bless. But too many people jump on the sustainable/organic bandwagon because it’s fashionable feel-good horseshit.  I will never forget restaurant customers who were more concerned about the ethics of their food, but couldn’t be bothered about ethics among humans. I’m talking about those smug patrons who demanded free-range chickens but told me to get rid of the homeless guy looking in the front window. That disconnect disgusted me. It still does. That’s why I get aggravated in Trader Joe’s.

Now before you all start sending me hate mail, I don’t think everyone who goes to Whole Foods, Fairway or Trader’s is a deluded Yuppie snob. I go there too!  But because I was brutalized by food Nazis, I’ve developed a hyper-vigilance about this stuff; like an ex-serviceman always on the lookout for snipers. It’s probably unhealthy and yes, I’m being a bit of an asshole. But if you’ve trawled the aisles of these stores, I’m sure you’ve encountered some of the food Taliban and their outsized precious sensibilities.

I tell all this to Annie but she’s unimpressed. She’s not an ideologue regarding food and looks on my rages with a healthy amount of skepticism.

“Yeah,” she says. “But I bought a pound of Trader Joe’s chocolate three days ago and it’s gone.”

“Okay,” I sigh. “Let’s go.”

Busted. I love the chocolate at Traders. I just wish they’d bring back those Thai tuna dishes in the foil packs. Where the hell did they go? Why do they turn you on to a product and then get rid of it? I swear, those little snacks in the back remind me of heroin dealers hooking people on free samples.

It’s half an hour before closing and the parking lot at Trader Joe’s is mobbed. Once inside I have to navigate my shopping cart around throngs of people nibbling on freebies and doing biblical exegeses on the ingredients in the organic shepherd’s pie. But as I begin to hyperventilate, Annie shoots me a wicked look.

Time to keep my mouth shut.


Comments

My Trader Joe’s Phobia — 45 Comments

  1. We do not have a Trader Joes where we live. The closest one is a 5 – 6 hour drive, Santa Fe, NM, which makes for a nice weekend getaway for us a few times a year. The big draw for us is their 1 # Belgian chocolate bars. It really is excellent chocolate, and a good reason to get away. At Christmas time, when we were in Tucson, they were out of chocolate! There was or is some sort of world wide shortage of chocolate due to draught or weather conditions. The warehouse was out. We have gotten more since then, but imagine not being able to get good chocolate.

  2. I like Trader Joe’s. Their quality is better than most of the big chain markets, and I like the fact that their people are cheerful, helpful, and polite.

    I agree with you about most of the customers, though. There are lot of pretentious yuppie scum shopping there.

    I have worked at Whole Foods. I can say that most of their stuff is WAY overpriced. All the ‘organic’ and ‘sustainably farmed/raised/fished/etc.’ labels are mostly marketing. (the quality of their meat *is* very good tho)

    I would crack up when a yuppie soccer mom would scour the store to find a package of certified organic quinoa, and obsessed about whether the chicken was ‘free range’ and go on and on about sustainability and the environment, and then proceed to load her bags into a ginostrous Ford Excursion that got 7mpg…

    Also, *NEVER* buy anything from Whole Foods’ pre-cut case in the produce section! I know what goes on in the prep room, and I will never buy from there!

    • It is so reletive, as with anything. So called pretentious yuppy scum are no less irritating than so called humongus, waddling sheeple who mindlessly gorge on chemical soaked “food” in support of earth raping corporate pirates. But *no judgement*, lol. At least the yuppie “scum” are generally cleaner, healthier, fitter, and more attractively dressed, lol. Embrace the choices we have available to us today – there is literally something for Each and Every one of us, and we are all free to choose our hearts desire. It’s really a blessing. Enjoy!

  3. Jesus, Steve, you nailed it. Out here in Omaha, TJ’s is not bad, but the local Whole Foods clientele makes me all shooty-stabby. And yeah, the supernice staff at TJ’s is pleasant, but makes me wary, for the same reasons. I was never a waiter, but I did work in food service and retail, and I am … shall we say … suspicious. (And we do have Aldi and it is just like a Soviet market, only with things to buy.)

    Those joints are selling a lifestyle and a self-image, and that’s the deal. Anyone can sell bacon. They are selling the shit out of the sizzle.

    • “Shooty-Stabby”, gotta use that one. Eh, When I’m back home visiting the States, I love going to Trader J’s and Whole Paycheck just to see the show of gorgeous produce and the snootiness of how their picked and purchased from the masses. Everything is nicely arranged, I even take pictures for my friends. Ever notice though that the people who only buy organic look a little odd?

  4. Very excited to see new posts! Thanks to Annie for encouraging you to blog more lately. Have read and enjoyed the posts for honestly I don’t even know how long now, it was definitely back in the actual waiter days. Thanks for sharing!

  5. What a pleasure to see more posts from you lately – glad you’re feeling like blogging a bit, these days!

    I wanted to chime in that I share your disappointment with the introduce you and then leave you hanging methods of Trader Joe’s – when I was in law school, I used to take the train to Bethesda just to go to Joe’s and buy those Portuguese Sweet Rolls. I’ve stopped into the store hundreds of times since the last time I had one, with the sole purpose of finding those delicious bread products, and I’m always disappointed. I keep hoping they’ll re-emerge. . .

  6. As I say when the subject comes up, Whole Paycheck has lovely produce exqusitely displayed, at 130% of what I’m willing to pay for it.

    Though, in the spring, they have the best fiddleheads. :)

  7. I agree about the Trader Joe customers. Self entitled d-bags and their spawn running around texting and jumping in front of you. And they are always wiping everything down with the hand sanitizers provided at the door. To this date I don’t ever recall an ebola outbreak at any supermarket. Best time to go is Sunday when these d-bags are in church.

  8. glad to see you back. Thanks, Annie, for nudging him. I’m in Salt Lake City and never thought I’d see TJ here…can’t sell wine or booze except in our sanctioned alcohol stores and while beer can be found in supermarkets and 7-11′s

  9. arrggh… the beer is only 3.2. For real beer see aforementioned stores. But somehow or other, TJ seemed to agree “no alcohol” and we recently got a smallish store. Yes, even my generation shoppers are the yuppie types. There are 2 things exactly that I buy there. They just don’t carry enough of the good stuff. sigh

  10. You’re right on: studies (somewhere…) show that people who emphasize organic shopping give less to charity, etc etc. Research theorize that by buying organic, the shopper has done his or her part to help the world and can be done with it.

    You also can’t be the prices at the TJs near my house. It’s as good as shopping at a Market Basket (discount chain in the Boston area), more or less withouth the panic-inducing atmosphere.

  11. I grew up going to Trader Joe’s, and a friend of mine manages one of their stores. In LA, they tend to get the grad student and elderly demographics; the food pr0n people go to Whole Foods or Gelsons. Trader Joe’s will break your heart if you get too attached to a particular product and then it gets discontinued — but go talk to the store manager and let them know you want to see it back. The managers have a fair amount of influence with HQ, who negotiates with the suppliers, and it doesn’t take very many customers asking to bring a product back.

  12. Hey Steve, have you seen the first ep of “Portlandia” where the couple asks about the food being served at the restaurant then go actually investigate it? It’s a howl. I shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and honestly, I do it because there are certain things they carry that taste better. I also live part time at Costco which in my ‘hood, has started using highlighter to show when things are organic. Welcome to Yuppie living.

  13. We just had a TJ open up near us, but I’ve never been in one. I guess the stereotype you describe of pretentious feel-gooders has kept me away.

    My wife and I do the bulk of our grocery shopping at Aldi. We can navigate the store in a short time, grab everything we need and get out. I’m not there to be entertained or dazzled; I’m there to get my food supplies.

  14. I live in a town where organic food is very big; eating it is a sign of righteousness. And some of the folks who eat organic are also socially conscious, give to the right causes, volunteer to help the less fortunate, etc.

    But for others, it’s just a sign of self-obsession: putting the best possible food in _your_ body in the hopes that some great spiritual or mental juju will rub off on you. It does follow that articles on “how to be happy” are prominently placed in the local lifestyle weeklies and are big faves with the organic food crowd who, by their financial status, don’t have nearly as much to be unhappy about as the guys in the back room who are juicing carrots for them for minimum wage.

    But TJ’s itself is actually a different matter. What with the pre-prep food, it’s a short-cut to gracious eating for the monetarily-gifted but temporally challenged, which is a big group out this way. If you’re seriously interested in organic, we have other supers that do those things. Buying at TJ’s here is about convenience more than righteousness. (It may interest you to know that TJ’s and Aldi’s are owned by the same company; We don’t have Aldi’s here, but as far as I can tell it’s a low-end TJ’s.)

    And yes, I don’t know why the help is so happy, but I have a grudge against TJs. The church I attend “adopted a felon” — he was on parole, he was going to be released in our county where he knew no one, and he needed a support system. My church gave him one, and he got a job at TJ’s was an exemplary worker — and they let him go at the end of his 90-day probationary period, even though the store manager spoke on his behalf, because the parent company didn’t want to take the risk of employing a former felon.

    I haven’t bought a thing at TJ’s since.

    • Bob, that’s so odd. Can I ask where your store is located? Cause at my store (I’m pushing six years at TJ’s) in southern California I work with quite a few ex-felons. No big deal is made of it.

  15. I hate idiots that spout off at the mouth about peoples decision to buy organic, free range, whatever. Fact is, for the most part, nutritionally, there’s negligible difference between organically and conventionally grown food. It’s about the growing and processing. I prefer not to expose my baby to food that ‘COULD’ be exposed to harmful pesticides or be a GMO food. If I choose to pickle my liver, that’s just fine, it’s a decision that I have control over.

    You write with same level of bitterness and judgement as you used to wait tables with..

    • Don’t know why people are reading you if they are so cranky about what you write. Thanks Annie for getting this guy back on the band wagon. Here in the capitol of Ohio we have every kind of food vendor imaginable except for a Wegman’s. We are also test marketing guinea pigs for a huge variety of items – many of which later disappear. It’s nirvana at times and nerve wracking at others. What – your Costco has gin?! I’m on the phone right now cause mine doesn’t.

  16. Sorry you caught some culinary PTSD, but there’s a cure: have a nosh.

    The missus and I are foodies, but not in a religious way. We just really like it when the product is good. Trader Joe’s is an oasis here in the upper midwest, where the food culture isn’t. A food culture. Food here sucks. I have to make my own bagels and lox because what they call a bagel is a dinner roll with a whole in it and they call smoked salmon lox. Lox is unhealthfully salty, idiots! It’s CURED, not SMOKED. Sorry. My own PTSD I guess. But as for bizarrely friendly staff, you ain’t seen nuffin till you’ve been to Minnesota, where Stepford clerks are everywhere, and they make this transplant from the NYMetro want to go School Shooter. I used to be pleasant enough to retail staff, but the people here are so aggressively friendly that I have become a constant grouch just so they might shut the hell up for crying all night. On Friday, every grinning moron at the checkout line or pulling a lever on an espresso machine asks if you “Have anything exciting planned for the weekend.” Really, that’s what they say. And they stop whatever they are doing if you don’t answer them. They actually make you wait until you tell them your exciting plans. I just want a cup of coffee, not a deep involvement in one another’s lives.

    Oh, and as far as GMO, it isn’t unsafe, though I am not fond of food treated with pesticides or poultry fed with hormones. Some things really are bad for you. And there are differences in foods from different sources. For instance, Green Giant makes the worst fresh produce ever. Organic carrots always have more flavor and better texture than non-organic.

    I’d say more but my process completed. Love the blog.

    • I laughed till I cried when I read, ” On Friday, every grinning moron at the checkout line or pulling a lever on an espresso machine asks if you “Have anything exciting planned for the weekend.” Really, that’s what they say. And they stop whatever they are doing if you don’t answer them. That was friggin’ hilarious! Because it’s so true!

    • I’m afraid that’s where you’re wrong. I’m a former employee of the company and while the pay and benefits are better than a lot of other markets it is not always enough to pay all the bills. Hours are determined by your availability and productivity. They are also not guaranteed so you never know how many you’ll have. You go to the front desk with your fingers crossed that you have enough hours. I know I did. Most stores are very good about that and treat employees extremely well. We work non-stop 8 hour shifts that are very hard on the body.
      As for the smiles that seem like their plastered on employees faces.,Well, that is because the company has what they refer to as a WOW! Customer Experience. You either deliver some WOW! or watch your hours dwindle down to the point where you can’t even pay your insurance anymore.
      Trader Joe’s is great for customers. I always enjoyed my customers and their unique personalities, but not so much for employees or “crew members” as they call us at work. Customers aren’t the problem. Management is the problem. They don’t order enough product, items are constantly discontinued or out of stock, stores are understaffed, etc. Everything rises and falls on leadership. Unfortunately, many managers blame the crew for their own mistakes. It’s a damn shame!

      • I second that emotion and fact-stating. Just had to stop working there because of the same reasons…and may I add that favoritism plays a bhuge part in these managers’ decision making as to who gets the hours. Our captain (store manager) actually said: “competition is good”, referring to us crew members trying to get the most hours. Really messed up…that’s not a team work atmosphere. So many comments here are so correct about the fake-ass stuff that goes on. Love the original post! Ha!

  17. I have 3 TJ’s within a 5 mile radius; I don’t buy produce there (prefer Sprouts), but buy spices/herbs, frozen almond croissants (4 for $3.99 and comparable to higher end markets’), “two buck” (now $2.50) chuck, craft beers by the bottle (!), and love their newsletter!

    Hmm, WF – well it’s a 20 mile plus drive to 3 stores (south, west, north), so I don’t do it – they used to offer a wonderful orange danish and what they call(ed) a “sugar bun” (similar to the JimTown store in Northern Cal’s “French Donut muffins”).

  18. HAHAHAHAHA! This is hilarious! I work in a small town in Montana, been a server at one of the better restaurants for 8 years. We have a lot of wealthy people from all over who buy property and eat at our restaurant. It’s super nuts! Somehow though the wealthiest of our guests are the least picky and almost embarrassed about not wanting the mashed potatoes or bread and feel the need to explain they are cutting the carbs/gluten-free. They are so nice. But it’s the “kind of” wealthy, or the “I act like I am wealthy because I drive this car or wear this handbag” people that announce their opinion on every little thing about the food, except for the fact that it looks and tastes awesome. Really? You took a bite, said it looks great and tastes great but you are disappointed because no one explained to you that veal picatta has flour involved, because you didn’t read the menu description and weren’t listening to your server. These people need to go to whole foods, just cook for themselves, and stay home.

  19. Those Thai tuna dishes in the foil packets were the best, they have occasionally brought them back but I have a feeling the second time was that they just found missing stock in the back of a main warehouse. As for why Trader Joe’s workers seem a bit creepy happy: As a TJ’s employee of 6 years I make over 20$ an hour, get benefits and have 20thou in my retirement fund, paid vacations, paid gym membership, the people I work with occasionally feed us crazy amounts of food and put on wine or beer tastings and some of us sit around drawing awesome signs. I’m not saying that it is my dream job, but it certainly makes me feel respected and valued. Its not easy, but it is fun, The last job I was working I got paid 3 dollars an hour, worked from 7 in the morning to 12 midnight and once worked a month strait without a day off. If you want to see stressed out workers sneak into a restaurant kitchen.

  20. Just realized this blog is called “Waiter Rant”… Derp. Never mind what I said about sneaking into kitchens.

  21. as has been said before: traider joe’s and aldi are owned by the same german billionaire(s). funny thing, that.

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  23. LOL– I’m a TJ’s crew member and… well, this spoke to me.

    As for the fact that we are way too happy to see you and have box cutters– well, that’s true.
    So, seriously, don’t piss us off. (haha, joke). The truth is, at least here in LA– most of TJ’s crew members are college educated liberal types who are working at TJs while we work on becoming actors, directors, models, artists, musicians, and novelists.
    We like our jobs, for the most part, because our co-workers are smart and fun to hang out with. TJs treats us pretty well (even though as the company grows the benefits and the raises seem to be decreasing), and the work-environment is mostly chill.
    They encourage us to talk to our customers and make the shopping experience enjoyable (or “kaizen” as TJ’s like to say).
    There are unhappy “stock boys” (and girls, and men, and women) but for the most part– we are all just chill.
    Because most of us are stoned.

    As for the yoga moms and those tiny cups of coffee… Don’t get me started.

    :-) Peace

  24. Hey- I live in Canada and have never been to Trader Joe’s. However, I just wanted to say that there are environmental reasons, as well as health reasons, for choosing organic products; hence, organic vodka. If you were adamantly opposed to the use of GMO crops, and choose to buy organic cotton, for example, it wouldn’t make sense for you to buy vodka which was made using GMO grains. Additionally, if you are concerned about the way pesticides, herbicides, and commercial fertilizers affect the environment, you would not want your vodka to be made with grains that are grown in a conventional manner.

    I understand that if can be annoying when customers ask too many questions about the food, especially when you’re busy, and when the questions are out of place. I work in a sports bar, and the food is really cheap- for those prices, one really should not expect too much. When I go out to eat, I try to go to places with a reputation for concerning themselves with the provinance of the food. I only ask questions in higher-end restos when the waiter is not very busy. Barring that, I order the least offensive option.

    By the way, I loved your book!

  25. There’s no Trader Joe’s where I live in Germany, but instead we have ALDI, which actually owns Joe’s. ALDI is more budget-oriented but still has amazing deals, including some Trader Joe’s brands.

    Just a few examples of what I can buy there include 250g of almonds (Trader Joe’s-branded) for 1.60 EUR and a bottle of surprisingly good wine for 2.79 EUR.

    You should never be afraid to shop discount.

    • Huh. Aldi here (Iowa, USA) is almost entirely discount–by *far* the cheapest place to buy basics like milk, butter, eggs, sugar/flour/nuts/crackers/chips etc. and fresh produce in bulk. They’ve got limited options, so if you don’t want seeds in your jam, or you like a cocoa mix that *isn’t” both bland and bitter, you’re out of luck, but the Choceur chocolates are *excellent*, and they sometimes get great frozen overruns (I love the frozen single servings of stuffed salmon)!

      But it’s been over a decade since I’ve lived within driving distance of a Trader Joe’s, so I don’t know the overlap.

      –Nonie

  26. Re pretentious yuppies: Some of my best friends are yuppies, so I try not to be too cranky about ‘em, but I must admit I was flabberghasted to hear that car companies had to make their hybrid cars look noticeably different from their regular ones (even if it made the cars slightly less efficient) because “Who’d want to drive a hybrid if nobody could tell?”

    Yeah, I *am* naive; I’d assumed one drove the things for ecological reasons rather than to show off. Oy!

    –Nonie

  27. ALDI looks like a super market in the USSR? Honestly, you have no idea. Nada, none, zilch, zero. I’ve seen supermarkets in the former communist part of Germany, and compared to these, the most frugal ALDI looks like Mall-o-rama. And the East Germans had the highest standard of living in the Comecon bloc. So, the Soviets were like at least one notch down.
    But then, you people think universal health care is “socialist”.
    Nuff sed.

  28. Please don’t dis Aldi. I am sure your book and your speaking engagements are doing well for you and the Missus, but some of can’t afford Whole Foods or Trader Joes.

    But even though I can = I’m not spoiled and prefer to do my shopping where there aren’t off duty police directing traffic due to past road rage incidents in the parking lots of our local WF and TJs.

    I also think both are pretentious beyond words. I can make just as great a meal from the fresh produce and meat at Aldi as I can from those other stores. And by shopping in “Mother Russia’s home store” I save a hell of a lot of money doing so.

    Again, I am happy you are doing so well, but there is no reason to be snarky where some us shop.

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