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Trader Joe's in Cary-- not seeing what the big deal is...

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After reading about others' gushing over Trader Joe (TJ), especially about how it was so much better than Whole Foods (WH), I had to go check the place out this weekend. Perhaps with was because my expectations were raised too high but I don't see what the fuss is about. I'll try to go down each aisle in my mind's eye and comment and make comparisons.

1. Floral-- not even a fair fight, Whole Foods wins, at least the ones in Durham and Chapel Hill do.
2. Bakery-- TJ has excellent bread selection but I' give the quality nod to Weaver Street (WS), and overall I have to give the nod to WS or WF because the TJ's pastry selection is lame and just as expensive.
3. Cheese-- TJ wins here, very good selection and some excellent bargains like fontina for $3.99/lb.
4. Veggies/produce-- TJ is rather limited, especially organic stuff. Where's the produce? WF and WS wins easily.
6. Dairy/eggs/etc.-- Milk costs a little less at TJ but that's about the only difference I noticed. Only brand of sour cream they had was Cabot.
5. Nuts/Jellies/ Juices, etc.-- TJ's has some interesting choices, their angle seems to be foods of the world, but their prices aren't that much better than WF.
6. Coffees/ teas-- TJ wins here. I'd say their coffee is a good 30-40% cheaper. Can't comment on quality until I try it but Tanzanian peaberry at $6.99 a pound? Wow!
7. Meats/seafood-- WF wins the meat dept.easily because it has a much wider selection and butchers. TJ win the seafood, there are some great deals here like mahi at $4.99/ lb or swordfish at $6.39/lb.
8. Wine/beer-- Not a wine guy so I won't comment but WF and especially WS have much better beer departments.

So in short, TJ has some great deals here and there and lots of exotic temptations, especially in the frozen foods section, but their lack of a good veg, produce, and pastries, limited organic choices, and no conveyer belts on cash registers leave much to be desired. My trip to Cary made me realize how spoiled we are in Chapel Hill with WF, WS, Southern Season, and even Earth Fare to choose from.

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  1. Someone else with more experience with TJ can weigh in here, but it is my impression that TJ is NOT intended to be a direct competitor to a full scale gourmet supermarket like WF, Earth Fare, or Weaver Street. So I think your expectations are unrealistic. It's smaller and more specialized. They select a limited number of quality products and offer them to customers at a lower price than you would normally (not always) find at the upscale supermarkets. Comparing their floral, produce, meats selection doesn't make sense. They don't pretend to compete on this basis. They are at a different scale. But...
    I totally disagree with you about the nuts etc. TJ's bargains are real, Try finding pignoli nuts at $10.00/lb or almonds at $5/lb at WF. It takes some experience shopping at TJs, but if you adjust your expectations, you will begin to see where they really shine.

    2 Replies
    1. re: TerryG

      In the "Thoroughly Fed UP with Whole Foods in Raleigh" thread, there are plenty of posts comparing the relative merits of WF and TJ. Thus my comparison of the two. If they want to be specialized and offer a limited number of quality products as you say then perhaps they shouldn't have half-assed floral, veg, and meat departments.

      1. re: bbqme

        Not sure what you mean by "half assed". There were plenty of quality products in all those depts-- just not as many of them. If you want a larger selection, go to a supermarket. IIRC, TJ stores are only about 15,000 sq ft (I may be way off here). At that size, I think they do a good job of offering selection in a variety of categories. I just think it's apples and oranges to compare stores that operate at a different scale.

    2. If you thought their produce and meat selection was limited, you should have seen it 4 years ago - it was even smaller.

      TJ's strength is house branded import items. Their hazelnut spread is from Turkey. Their frozen green beans are from France. Their dried tomato antipasto is from Sicily. Their Dijon is from France.

      The other day I browsed WF for the first time in several years. While they had a lot of 'wow' products, nothing was attractive - pricewise. I left without buying anything.

      For better prices and selection on produce and meat I go to a small pan-ethnic produce stand, a large California Asian chain, or a neighborhood meat market.


      1. I have the best of both worlds here in Pittsburgh. Trader Joe's just opened literally a 2 minute drive away from the Whole Foods. We stop at TJ first, buying their cheaper cheese, frozen items (lemon sorbet for $1.99), some frozen lunches, lunch meat and ground meat. We like the frozen indian and asian selections for a quick lunch at work. We then go to whole foods for the fresh produce and fresh seafood. TJ does have much cheaper seafood, but there is a definite quality/taste difference too. That being said, TJ's alaskan cod at $5.99 a pound worked almost as well as Whole Food's cod priced around $18 a pound when we made fish tacos last week.

        1. I'm with bbqme. They didn't seem to have what I buy. I would have considered the boneless leg of lamb, but they all seemed to be packed in a marinate of some sort. They had a couple of strips but they were cut Food Lion thin. I'll continue to do most of my shopping at Fresh Market, Whole Foods and Harris Teeter.

          I did get a bottle of Three Buck Chuck which I will try tonight with a roast from Harris Teeter.

          1. Apples and oranges.

            WF is a full-service supermarket, to use the American vernacular.

            TJ's is quite specialized and hardly a supermarket.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Atlantis

              I agree 100% with Atlantis. TJ's is a small, specialized gourmet food store with (mostly) cheap prices. WF is pricier and has a bigger (but not necessarily better) selection. I've been going to different TJ's for over 20 years and always get psyched up when one opens closer to me (I'm in Philly now and we have 5 or so). Enjoy it for what it is.

            2. I've never thought of TJs as a place for produce. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing it when I first started going back in the early 90s. It is certainly not the end all be all, but as has been noted, if you cherry pick, it's pretty nice.

              What I go for:
              cheeses (especially logs of fresh goat)
              nuts and dried fruits. This is especially helpful for the restaurant. If I buy from my purveyors, I've often got to buy a ton at once which brings up the issue of trying to store what might be a years supply of something like currants, let alone the spoilage issue. With TJs I can buy handy little packages for not a whole lot more per pound and only open what I need.
              Tasty Bites Indian dishes. TJs was the first place I ever saw them, now it appears they're being sold under their label. Pretty good to have around to augment a meal at home.
              Canned foods. Good quality and fair prices on everything from beans to soups and such.

              The wines can be a good deal but are often caveat emptor.

              To me, the rest of the stuff is just handy if you want to save yourself a trip elsewhere.

              1. It is what it is. It complements the area's food market options. There will never be a place that's tops in both selection and prices. That's just the way it is.

                But guess what? I love food, and I love shopping for food (the only shopping I like), so I'm totally okay with the fact that I'll visit a variety of stores over the course of a month.

                1 Reply
                1. re: surfacenoise

                  Me too!! Sad, isn't it...if I didn't love shopping for food so much,clothes shopping might be more fun

                  ITA, you definitely do need to see TJ's as a complementary food source. I'd never attempt to live on TJ's alone, but I'd never go back to supermarket bacon or yogurt, either.

                  1. I still haven't made it over to TJ's but I can tell that some of the comparisons are unfair. WS may be preferable for a lot of items but some of us actually live in Raleigh and can't get out to Weaver Street to buy bread, etc. Also, many of us simply cannot afford WF's prices anymore. They seem to have gone entirely out of control.

                    TJ's is just another choice. If it isn't to your liking, that's cool, too.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: rockycat

                      I think you're interpreting my post the worng way. In the other thread, people made it sound like Trader Joe was this wonderful be-all-and-end. It's not. It has some good deals here and there but that's it. A lot of the things that are expensive at WF, the meats, veggies, produce aren't even carried at TJ's. Lastly, WF's 360 branded items, which has gotten quite ubequitous, are good values as anything I saw at TJ's.

                      I'll definitely drop into Tj's when hit Grand Asia Market and/or the Indian places in Chatam Square but it's not a replacement of Whole Foods or Weaver Street.

                    2. I haven't yet made it to the new TJ's yet either. But the TJ's in San Francisco carries some fantastic handmade four tortillas. I'm hoping this store carries them too.

                      1. Finally did make it over this morning. For the most part, the prices seemed pretty reasonable. The selection of dried fruits and nuts was impressive and I now know where to go the next time I need Morello cherries. Unfortunately, all the bread is bagged in plastic so even if it started out tasting great, it doesn't now. I'm also not too happy about most of the meat being pre-marinated. I generally prefer to taste the meat, not what it's been soaking in. I was excited to see the Niman Ranch ribs until I noticed all of them were pre-sauced, too. I'll be a lot of TJ's customers prefer having all the work done for them, though.

                        If I lived closer to the store I'd probably be there on a semi-regular basis. Since I don't, it will probably serve as a nice place to get interesting specialty items on an occasional basis. More choice is always a good thing.

                        I'm guessing we may be seeing another location in the N. Raleigh/Wake Forest area before too long.

                        1. Well, while growing up here I lived in Hollywood, CA for a while and my opinion is that with all the transplants here, the "big deal" is simply that something familiar from their old home town comes here and makes them feel warm and fuzzy ;)

                          That said, I think TJ's is a great place with pretty good prices for what they offer. I used to eat the Salmon pinwheels all the time and I'm not a big fish eater

                          1. The big deal is the price. I have become fed up with WF because I am sick of paying so much for quality products. Trader Joe's not only offers very high quality things- cereals with no preservatives and high fiber content, cage free eggs, natural peanut butter, but also a lot of fun innovations- the guacamole kit, the "mix pack" of 6 beers, and all at an affordable price. At our store many things run out, though. So I say go your own way! More TJ's for the rest of us ;).

                            1. Here's the big deal...We live in an area (East Central Coast of FL) that doesn't have a TJ's or Whole Foods within 50 miles. Having to choose between which one we're going to would be a real treat down here.