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Oct 31, 2006 07:39 PM

Trader Joe's MSP - Crushing Disappointment (very long rant)

First, some back story. I used to travel to California lots, years ago, when Trader Joe’s was still relatively new and hadn’t made it very far east. I like them for their charming and quirky imported treats, and their vast selection of little-known local California wines that were priced cheap. And they used to locate in the interesting off-beat neighborhoods where rent was low. In the old days, they were more like what Cost Plus World Imports is today.

Years later, when they opened their store in Annapolis (where I was living at the time) some of the quirky charm had faded a bit, but they still seemed true to their original goal of off-beat treasures, cheap. Except that their locale in Annapolis was anything but low-rent. Very much affluent, berky-lefty-yuppie demographic.

Then along comes Aldi. I don’t know how many ‘hounds in MSP have shopped at Aldi, but it’s a weird experience. It’s like being in a movie – all the products *look* familiar, but different somehow. It’s like a set designer for a film had come up with packaging for the movie that resembled a well-known product. And the products are adequate, just house-branded cheaper versions made to look similar. Aldi is OK, but no great shakes. They have a few good products. Their frozen soups are good. Their cheap black tea bags are better than most. But don’t count on them for meat, produce, or dairy. Sounding familiar? The Aldi Group owns Trader Joe's.

We’re lucky in MSP. Between Kowalski’s, Lund’s, and Byerly’s, and even Rainbow, we don’t want for great grocery stores. Add the Midtown Global Market, United Noodle, and the several farmer’s markets, and we’re downright spoiled. As for wine... Surdyk’s. Sam’s. MGM.

So a few weeks ago I was pumped up and had some time and was in town and made the trek with my CO (chowhound other) to TJ’s. I was almost embarrassed to admit that it was even a TJ’s. The produce was worse than Rainbow. The dairy was appalling. And everything was now a house-brand knockoff off something that you would find a better version of at United Noodle or even Costco. The house-branding I'm sure is influenced by the Aldi corporate culture.

And don’t get me started on the wine. I don’t think I’ve seen a more anemic wine selection in MSP since I’ve moved here. Even the old Liquor Depot had it going on ten times better than TJ’s. Say what you will about three-buck chuck, but Surdyk’s or Sam’s will sell you a much better bottle of something for only seven or eight bucks, and to me that’s worth it. And, like Annapolis, Edina is their target demographic, as opposed to Richfield which is the Aldi demographic. I really felt like I wasn’t welcome (by the other shoppers, that is). The staff on the other hand were great!

Yes, I’ll still go on occasion, but only if I’m going with someone else who absolutely has to go. But really, almost anything I could get there I could get somewhere else in town better.

We should appreciate our local establishments, and keep them well customed, rather than throwing our affections away on a what, to me, seems like a global corporation with a carefully crafted counterculture image.

OK. Rant over. Thanks.

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  1. I too used to shop years ago at Trader Joe's in Santa Ana, California. There were maybe 12 stores at the time. Last week we went to TJ's in St. Louis and it was nothing like we remembered. It was a disappointment. I had no idea they are owned by Aldi's. That totally explains the oddities of the place.
    That said, we did did buy some very good canned organic pinto beans, several kinds of chocolate, and some interesting moderately priced wine. The produce at this particular store looked fine, but limited. It was amazingly crowded with frantic shoppers stuffing their carts. The staff was great at this store, too. A weird experience all around, but the quality of what we bought was decent.

    1. I would agree it's not necessarily worth a trek across the twin cities to shop at TJ's. For me, it just happens to be the closest place to home, so it's convenient if I just need to pick up some chicken or spices.

      It's not just TJ that's gone the route of private house label products. Even Byerly's Lunds have a lot more house brands now than before. Remember, Sola is actually their own brand.

      TJ does provide some cheaper versions of ethnic staples like jasmine rice if you don't have time to go to United Noodle.

      I still have trouble justifying some of the high prices for produce and other food items at Kowalski's, Lunds and Byerly's . For the optimum balance between price, quality, selection, and obsure varieties, I will always pick Central Market/HEB in Texas.

      However, I will definitely say Lunds/Byerly's dry-aged prime meats is a stellar find anywhere in the country.

      1. Thank you Loren3 - I've been thinking the same thing about Trader Joe's in MSP. The Hub and I have been a few times (even though it's way out of the way from St Paul), thinking to support a new venture. Well. I looked. Considered. Mulled. Compared. About the only things I can say I will buy again are some of the goat cheeses, since they have good prices for when you need "a lot" versus when you need "great," and the jarred "3" or "4" or "76" cheese pasta sauce. (Hub says it tastes like hi-toned Spaghettios, but HEY, I've got a 13 year old pasta-hound.)

        As for produce? C'mon - when I see uniformly round apples each individually encased in a pre-formed plastic pod, all ready to be picked up at four-for-whatever-price, I think: How creepy is this? Other produce might not have been as creepy, but I could have picked it up at the Farmer's Market or Shuang Hur for half the price. Even my local (admittedly high-priced) co-op can do better on a lot of this stuff in the value category.

        I agree with you on the Aldi culture, even though I happily pick up a number of Aldi goods for my pantry and to augment my college-boy's larder. Aldi and TJs seem to be trying to compete with the big-box supermarkets, but they are penetrating only to a small degree. Most of the discerning shoppers I know have dipped a toe into the TJs water, then hightailed it back to their usual haunts, like Cub, the MGM, the farmers' markets, United Noodles, Shuang Hur and Dragon Star.

        I'll disagree with you on the 3 Buck Chuck for this reason - it's great to be lavish with the wine in cooking, and I can't do that with the Surdyk's wine sale good stuff. Chuck's not undrinkable, so I don't feel that I am polluting my food, but I'd rather save the 8-10 dollar a bottle stuff for sipping, rather than braising, at least on your everyday weeknight.

        Will I be at TJ's again? Yes, as I have guests who love it coming into town and I want a decent, affordable cheese spread. Will I go out of the way otherwise? Not likely. Keep shopping local, keep spending your food dollars where you have a little more connection to the food, and keep holding these cookie-cutter stores to a higher standard. I'd love to hear some of your picks for certain items in the Twin Cities - you seem to be keyed into the idea of shopping for what-you-want, versus what-you-can-get.


        1. I went there a few weeks ago to see what all the fuss was about and had a similar experience. I was underwhelmed to say the least. The three-buck-chuck was disappointing as well. Too sweet for my taste.

          If you are looking for a great wine selection in the East Metro try Big Discount Liquor on Concord St. in South St. Paul. It is run by a couple of 20-something slackers, but they really know their wine. If you go ask for Zach.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Sven

            "20-something slackers who know their wine"

            man alive, does that EVER sound like an oxymoron to me! Even so, it's appealing to know where to go for good wine sellers.

          2. I live in the Chicago area and was thrilled when we moved back here 4 years ago to find that a TJ's had opened down the road from us. I had heard so many raves from all the food boards. At first it was great because they had so many brands that my regular grocery didn't, but then I realized I was doing two shopping trips. I'd go to TJ's first, buy what I could there, and then go to the regular grocery. Kind of a pain, but on the other hand, I'm not a poster on Chowhounds for nothing! Then it became annoyingly obvious how substandard their fresh produce was. We're not picky eaters, but we like to eat fresh vegetables and fruit. There are times when finding fresh vegetables that are in decent shape and don't look like they've been sitting in a storeroom for a couple of days is a bit of a challenge.

            The last time I bought frozen fish from there (and it was something basic like cod or flounder), it did not taste good. Originally I had been very happy with their fish, but that's seemed to deteriorate as well.

            Another thing about them that bugs me is the lack of logic behind their selection of ingredients. One time I was in the store and needed some dried oregano. How basic is that? Not only did they not have it, but when I asked one of the people who worked in the store if perhaps there was some in the back, they acted as if oregano was the most exotic thing in the world.

            As you can probably guess, I've simply stopped shopping at TJs. I suppose if we were more into frozen or canned items, then I'd still be going back, but I'm not. I think a lot of what they're selling is too gimmicky for my tastes and they simply fail to deliver on what I see as the basics.