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It has gone too long without saying, I ♥ Trader Joe’s. TJ’s has been there for me as few grocery stores have. It started out, in my world, as the place to go to get reasonable wine and beer and maybe a few party snacks to go with them but it has evolved into a place to reliably buy grocery products that enhance quality-of-life for its customers on the value and quality front.

TJ's sign

I moved to LA from NY in 1987. Trader Joe was a definitely an established store but it was mostly a place that you went to if you and your roommate were audacious enough to plan to have a little party on your lowly lackey salary or Film School stipend and you wanted to have peanutbutter-filled pretzels and heated up stuffed mushroom caps along with the well priced bottled beer and wine. You just had to be willing to try some odder labels in the beer department and as we all now know, a $7.00 bottle of wine from Australia has much going for it. TJ’s still wasn’t a replacement for the grocery store unless you were willing to go with the flash frozen fish filets and chicken breasts. It wouldn’t be until years later that you could also pick up fresh meat, produce and paper products to round out the shopping.

The first Trader Joe’s was opened in 1969 in Pasadena, California, a well-to-do city in its own right but also certainly a part of  Greater Los Angeles. I couldn’t get the website to deliver the info of how many stores there are currently but an interactive map allows you to roam about the country and seeing their icon pop up and as a chain they are still growing and popping up in major cities across the country.

There seem to be about 70 stores in the Southern California area and 10 in the Bay Area (fewer than I thought). I know there was one in Eugene, Oregon when I visited in the late ‘90’s and my home town of Scarsdale, New York got their store in the ‘90’s also. And from the Cascades to the Hudson people certainly get it – Trader Joe’s is a boon for the personal budget and so the store is always busy and parking competitive.

But TJ’s isn’t just about saving you money. If that was all they were about then they’d just be another Smart and Final or Costco with a limited appeal. With the Trader Joe’s brand they make an effort to have quality products that are ethically produced and environmentally friendly. The following declaration is from the Trader Joe’s website:

When you see our name on a label, you can be assured that the product contains:

  • √ NO artificial flavors or preservatives
  • √ NO synthetic colors
  • √ NO MSG
  • √ NO genetically modified ingredients
  • √ NO partially hydrogenated oils (artificial trans-fats)
  • √ NO “marketing” costs
  • √ YES tasting panel approval
  • √ YES quality ingredients
  • √ YES great price

And also they provide some unique products that people swear by, like Vegan Chocolate Chip cookies, frozen pizzas imported from Italy and heavenly frozen chocolate ganache cake. Their frozen mac and cheese and heat-up-in-a-skillet gnocchi are also excellent tasting. You might see the equivalents of some of these products in specialty grocery stores, but usually at twice the price. The Trader Joe’s brand of dark chocolate peanut butter cups are so good I can no longer eat the market standard, Reese’s, because those now taste chemical-y and overly sweet.

Trader Joe’s does have some misfires, of course, and I think those are in the entrée department and sauces. And we have become attached to some products, like frozen pierogies, that they discontinue if those products are not selling big enough. Keeping their inventory limited is part of their strategy for being successful with less square footage than your average supermarket and it is what helps to keep their costs low. Their level of customer service has always been quite fine, too, including having little treasure hunts at certain stores to amuse the kids, with a little box to select a silly prize from if your child finds all the pelicans or pirates or whatever that store uses for its easter eggs.

Am I gushing unabashedly? Is my affection for their business model and product over the top? Perhaps. But I know that absence makes the heart grow fonder and for the 6 months that I sojourned in Miami, Florida back in 2001, I came to understand that I couldn’t really feel at home there. And one of the major reasons, Reason #3, in fact, that made the city unviable for me (soul killing humidity and an unrelentingly flat landscape being Reasons #1 and #2) was…no Trader Joe’s. It was just too hard. No amount of arepas, viejas rojas or alfajors could fill the void.

These are a few of my Trader Joe’s must-buy’s, though some are too decadent to always keep in stock they are nice to turn to for a treat:

Parmesan Pastry Pups – natural beef mini hot dog appetizers
Crab and Langostino Rangoon – not too cream cheesy, they are great
Macaroni and Cheese – such tasty comfort food available in 5 minutes
Bacon Cheddar Ranch dip – self explanatory
Belgian Chocolate Pudding
White Balsamic Vinegar
Natural Peanut Butter
Tahini Sauce
Fruit Leathers
Ultimate Chocolate Ice Cream/Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups
Roasted salted cashews or almonds (50% less salt)

And of course the beer and wine that brought us all there in the first place.  They carry a lot more variety now than they did twenty years ago, including Scrimshaw and Redhawk’s Red Tail Ale, two of my favorites. I’m not thrilled with Two Buck Chuck but they have a $4.99 dollar bottle of Chianti that’s plenty good enough for me.

And have you tried these?
organic pop tart, I mean 'toaster pastries'

I don’t even like poptarts but these sounded intriguing. I now have to get two boxes each time because they go fast.

And if I had to pick one thing as my Most Valuable Player I think it would be The Salsa Verde. I think the price has crept up from $1.49 to $1.99 in the twenty-odd years that I’ve been buying it. Talking about quality of life, I try to make sure I always know where my next bottle is coming from because I would get very cranky if we ran out. And yes, I brought jars of it to Miami with me when I needed to pop back to California in the midst of my six month stay.

So what are some of your TJ’s MVP’s? If anybody is willing to share their can’t-live- without-it Trader Joe’s product or a TJ’s story, I’d love to know.

Mural that used to be on display at the Culver City Trader Joe's, my regular store when I lived in LA. (Thank you Bat-Blog.com, where this picture was posted.)

Mural that used to be on display at the Culver City Trader Joe’s, my old nabe. (Thank you Bat-Blog.com, where this picture was posted.)