Why Trader Joe's?
- tablewines Jan 6, 2007 09:07 PM
For those of us new to Trader Joe's, will the loyal followers let us know what the magic is and what to look for when shopping there?
Well, that's a bit extreme. Are you implying that you never simply heat something up for dinner. That each and every meal need be a personal expression of love and skill? Certainly grabbing goodies at Trader Joes would hardly replace crafting something from scratch at home, but there's plenty to like about it.
First off, guilty pleasures: The soups, Indian meals, and other canned stuff is nice to have in the pantry if you need a quick bite. I think they're typically better than most.
Staples (that is where the place shines for me, especially at the restaurant): They sell a lot of dried fruits and nuts in nice small packages (8oz to 16oz) much cheaper than anywhere else I can find them. Lot's of things, like, say dried currents, I'd have to buy in 25# bags from my wholesaler if I wanted them for the restaurant. Well, what am I going to do with the 24.5 lbs I have left over after I made whatever special I wanted them for. When I had a TJs close by, I was able to keep a milk crate filled with small bags of assorted things like that and only open what I needed. I recall the TJs in Santa Cruz had french green lentils long before I could find them anywhere but by the case from my purveyor. I had a little bistro and didn't often need that much. They were often barely more expensive if that.
Besides that, things like chocolate and preserves are of high quality and much cheaper than Whole Foods.
So the staples are really what I like it for. That said, to be honest, when I went to Cary, I was pumped as time away had sort of built it up in my memory. All in all, I was a bit underwhelmed but certainly found enough things that I'm happy to see one coming closer by.
I've been hanging out on the "chains" board lately to find the answer to this question. There are loads of threads that mention specific products - as well as more philosphical discussions.
They have a ton of delicious options as far as frozen/canned/boxed meals are concerned. Much better quality than anything you get at a normal grocery store. Plus, the employees seem to really know their stuff and offer suggestions and advice.
What I get at my TJs that I can't get elsewhere for less:
Barbara's Puffins cereal
frozen fish and seafood
molasses chew cookies
2 buck chuck, in a pinch
prepared lentils and beets (in refrigerated section)
fat free plain yogurt
double roasted salsa
cocolate covered cherries
marinated tri tip
Quality products at a reasonable price. Compared to a regular supermarket-cheaper. Unique products from around the world.
Products they carry face a rigorous review as to quality, ingredients and price. Many products are made or packaged especially for them-no middle man=lower prices for you. Products that are good for you...you won't find cold cuts or hot dogs with nitrites or milk from cows which have been given bovine growth hormones, even the eggs are individually stamped with an expiration date.
Everything is backed by their guarantee:
"Our Product Guarantee: We tried it! We liked it! If you
don’t, bring it back for a full refund, no questions asked."
TRADER JOES FAQ's
My favorites are the Truly Handmade Flour Tortillas (they have a coarser texture than regular flour tortillas, may be a little charred in spots, and are shaped more like amoebas, less like perfect circles), and the Thai spiced nuts.
It took my wife and I about 6 months in California before we finally got it. Our first few visits we couldn't figure out what all the ruckus was about, but it finally worked its way into our lives.
For a while we didn't think that we could do our regular grocery shopping there and find everything that we needed but it turns out that if you look, they have just about every staple that you need and it is high quality and priced lower than the Nabisco/Kraft options at the other stores.
It comes down to cost and quality. The quality that they sell is equvalent to Whole Foods and yet costs less than Kroger. True, they don't have a robust meat or produce department, but tthey are adequate for the average week, and on dry and frozen staples you can't beat them. Besides, we should be spreading our resouces around anyway, get to know your farmer's market (they have those here, right?)
The other thing that it nice is that they are pretty good as far as sourcing their products responsibly and still mamaging to price them competitively. Their milk for instance, doesn't contain RBGH, and costs the same as the Kroger brand steroid soup. Their paper towels contain recycled content and cost the same as the generics at other stores. They took a stand against transfats in their products years ago. They are always selling inexpensive, whole grain, alternatives to everthing from tortilla chips to cereal.
By about a year into living in California, we almost never set foot in another grocery store, except for some produce and spice items, and we never felt as though we were missing anything. I mean when you can get a jar of marinated artichoke hearts for 1.99 and you have to pay 3.50 at Kroger, why even set foot in Kroger?
I had this exact discussion with the NE regional manager last week. I just don;t get it. I thought the 2 stores in FFD county CT were mini-stores. I walk into them, look around and leave.
This weekend I tried again telling myself i would try the pasta sauces and the frozen pizza. I bought a couple of jars of pasta and 2 frozen pizzas. All very reasonably priced.
Made the four cheeser while making meatballs yesterday (multi-tasking is great) and watching the football games. I gotta tell you the pizza was really good, and i wanted NOT to like it. I will definitely buy and use again.
The two sauces are still in the pantry.
What was interesting is all the threads speak of the high quality. Yet when I read the ingredients for the pasta sauces in the store, half were made with real tomatoes and half from "tomato puree". Bought NONE of the puree sauces. Given the significant price increase of my go-to sauce, Rao's, i am playing leonard Nimoy "in search of" more reasonably priced until I have some time to make a batch to freeze.
Great prices on coffees, cheeses, snack foods, frozen foods/pre-prepared foods and so on. My problem with TJ is that a lot of the stuff that they sell are indulgence foods. Yes, chocolate covered cherries are $15.99 at Southern Season and only $5.99 at TJ but do I really need chocolate covered cherries, regardless of what the price is? I was hoping for a place that sold good quality produce/veg, dairy/eggs, breads, and meats at better prices than Whole Foods. Their frozen seafood has goos selection and low price but since a lot of it is coming from China, Thailand, Vietnam, etc. who have qquestionable aquaculture and fishing practices I'm a bit wary buying the products.
TJs has some great products, and some duds. I'd throw in that it makes snacking easy, because of their large assortment of dried fruits, nuts, and trail mixes. Their frozen foods and pre-made salads are a pretty good fix for lunches at work.
But the real reason I like it is the same reason I like any other little gourmet store or specialty food shop. As a foodie, I find going to the regular grocery store a chore - it's all the same, utilitarian, boring. Find me a place where I can enjoy walking slowly, discovering new products (even if I don't buy them), and that inspires me to cook again after a busy week of life, and shopping becomes a pleasure again. TJ's is like that.
It also depends on where you live. Here in the Twin Cities, we have a number of really good grocery stores, wine shops, cheese shops, Asian/Mexican grocers, and farmers markets; TJs is less important because of that. In our TJ, the produce is nothing to write home about.
The up side - prepared foods that are "clean", i.e. no HFCS, no modified food starch, no artificial flavors. If you want to throw a few items in your freezer or pantry, these are tastier and healthier than you typically find at a major grocery chain - that icky Nabisco/Kraft option that biggun mentioned above.
The Trader Joe's I go to is great because every time the lines get long, a bell is rung and more staff comes out to open up new lines.
The Ralph's down the street often has one line open with other employees just standing around as the line gets longer and longer.
I have quite a drive to get to TJ's. But they have stuff you can't find anywhere else, and their prepared/frozen foods are really good. For example, I was starving when I was shopping there one day, and I picked up one of their wrap sandwiches (I think it was a chicken club), not expecting anything great. For the price and for a pre-made sandwich, it was excellent--tasty, not at all dry, with quality ingredients.
I can't do my "staples" shopping there, but for snacks and embellishments (read: sauces), they really can't be beat. I'm hoping one comes to my immediate area soon.
I hardly buy any of their premade goods, i usually shop there for the following.
Organic Milk, eggs, produce at prices much cheaper than WF. The produce here in SD is very good. I also get my organic yoghurt here too. The cheese selection is not as good as WF but it is cheaper.
Organic meats, the selection is not great though. I wish there were more buitchers in my area.
Ingredients like nuts, dried fruit, jarred artichokes, grapeleaves, etc at cheap prices.
Frozen seafood, decent.
Wine, beer and liquor---great values here.
I also buy their blueberry juice, pomengranite juice, limeade and tejava tea($.99 a bottle).
As far as ready to eat food goes, most of it flat out sucks. The only ones i like to have on hand when i dont feel like eating are the handnmade chicken/bean burritos and the Tarte D'alsace.
I'm surprised to hear that people speak so highly of their wine selection in other states. At the store in Cary North Carolina, the selection was downright awful. Primarily bulk brands and their own private label stuff (which I have not tried yet). Maybe it's just their starting set and will improve later. In other markets, do they have consistantly good selections, or are they primarily deep deals on recognizeable brands?
It's the same in Minneapolis - a wine selection that's almost embarassing. There are so many great wine stores here in town that offer dynamite wines in the $7-8 range that there's no excuse for 3-buck chuck. And their beer selection (or lack thereof) - Cost Plus World Imports does a much better job.
I think I finally figured out Trader Joes. I too lived in Minneapolis once, and Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill.......Each of those cities have excellent grocery and specialty stores, esp the Twin Cities area, just super high end stores and dozens of co-ops. Turns out, most cities don't have that kind of supermarket and specialty quality.
Now I live in the NYC metro area, and let me tell you, the quality of the supermarkets here is pitiful. With that in mind, Trader Joes does have a nice selection of frozen seafood and prepared meals, this makes it a nice option for those with little else.
I just feel sad for most people that get excited for Trader Joes, not because TJ is mediocre (it is) but because they have such poor food quality in general.
Their organic chicken is way cheaper than Whole Foods, their Kosher chicken is cheaper than the Kosher market. Our Kosher meat market hasn't had a good cleaning in a very long time.
Their canned vegetables/fruits are cheaper than the regular stores, their jams and preserves also, and very good quality with an abundance of assortments. Their dairy products are all rBst free, and their array of organics has grown over the years, if you're into that sort of thing. For most items, organics at TJ's are the regular price at other stores. Their breads are very good, wines, frozen fruits and vegetables. Their cheeses are also top quality, and you don't have to buy two pounds like from Costco.
I've been shopping at TJs since the mid-90s so I have plenty of experience.
IMO, TJs is great for cheese, cold cuts, some produce (such as bagged greens and kumquats), yogurt, juices, crackers, dried fruits, nuts, cereal, milk, eggs, water (Pelligrino and Gerolsteiner), frozen veggies, and some cookies/candy.
The frozen, prepared stuff is hit or miss.
I avoid packaged produce such as apples since, lots of the time, there are hidden bad spots. I think their baked stuff generally sucks except some of the bread products. The salsa and spaghetti sauces are mostly miss and not hits for me.
I do like the variety and finding new things there as someone else said.
They carry alot of the same packaged stuff as Cost Plus or high end grocery stores like Whole Foods for less money. Also they have a great selection of cheeses.
Costco has better prices on thinks like Odawalla juice and Pelligrino but if you don't want to buy a case TJs is still reasonable.
My husband likes several of the frozen meals, especially the Indian ones. They are good for a quick dinner or to take to work for lunch.
Here they carry baked goods from some of the local bakeries and it is priced less that at a supermarket.
Oh-their indian simmer sauces are very decent. I like to serve them with diced paneer, frozen peas and chick peas/spinach/whatever. Their frozen naan is quick and good too. Less greasy than your local indian buffet, for sure.
I did some poking around on another board and saw a great post about the Two Buck Chuck wine (now Three buck I believe). It said to go and buy a bottle, head out to the parking lot to open and taste. If it's a decent batch, go back in and buy a case. If it's not good, wait a few weeks and repeat hoping that a new batch has arrived.
Thanks to every one for replying to my original question.
I believe it's still 2 buck chuck in California -- some states have higher and/or different alcohol tax and distribution systems that increase the cost.
Like MVNYC, I don't buy a lot of prepared foods. I mostly buy:
Dairy products, including organic milk and sour cream, butter and Fage Total yogurt
Nuts and dried fruit
Condiments, oils, vinegars, sea salt, pepper, etc.
"Cooking" cheese (cheddar, gruyere, etc.)
Sausages, cold cuts, etc.
Frozen veggies (organic corn and peas, artichoke hearts)
I have a really good butcher, but occasionally I buy meat, especially the organic roasting chickens.
And of course, all those yummy snack foods, chocolates, etc.
The price/quality ratio is good, but I think what makes shopping at Trader Joe's so appealing is that the ratio of things I want to buy to things I don't is very high: unlike a supermarket, I don't have to walk through aisles of products I have no intention of buying to get to the products I want.
The first trip I ever took to TJs back in CA, we did this, only we did it with the TJs house brand French wines. I do recall the 1988 Trader Joes Cotes du Rhone was absolutely delicious at $1.99/ bottle. The perfect storm of a very good vintage in the area, the fact that Rhone wines weren't nearly as popular as they are now, and the fact the the dollar was much stronger gave us that baby. We did just what you said, bought one each of all the $1.99 TJs Frenchies and went back for cases of the good stuff. I recall the 88 Bordeaux (I forget the village) was pretty damned tasty as well. These days, I don't have much use for "The Chuck". I can't imagine its ever any better than pretty good and I could always stand to drink a little less. Why waste the liver space on something that has little chance of being any better than "Hey that's not bad"
I like the idea of liver space as valuable real estate! I can see the future of wine reviews now.
After several horrible shopping situations at TJ's here in LA, I vowed to never go again. Is it the small aisles of LA bs that make everyone who shops there incredibly crabby? You'd think it'd be more fun. Well, then they got me with the gyozas (their supplier went bankrupt so they are searching for a new one), the gyoza sauce (which is excellent on grilled aspargus btw), the appetizers and, surprisingly enough, the grilled tenderloin, which is terrific. I don't know where they get this meat, but they are really more like petit filets. Hey, if I can cook steak in an oven and not ruin it, it has to be good. While I still dislike the attitude of the shoppers (people of La Brea, would it hurt to smile?), I still go there every week or so to stock up on goodies and treats.
Great post LMS -- made me laugh because I totally know what you are talking about -- ESPECIALLY LaBrea store! I chalk it up to way too many cranky, dour, self-important hipsters in the area....
The newer stores in WeHo and Culver City are a little better, when it comes to aisle space and less cranky customers. But the LaBrea store is like going into battle with the other shoppers, and just no fun at all.
I'm still trying to understand the mystique fellow CH'ers have with TJ. Likewise I had a nice conversation with the regional manager to understand if we had a mini-version store.
So I went and tried some of the basics:
Marinara - a little sweet for my taste, but will give it a 6 on 1-10. Calling this Rao's quality is a complete joke. But it's half the price. (For the record, I saw a 32-oz bottle of Rao's at a local Shaw's for $11.99, you gotta be kidding, me and Mrs Jfood will make a batch and freeze, ain't that hard)
Organic Vodka Sauce - better for me than the Marinara, not great and would give it a 7
Four cheese pizza - Pretty good, the best of the four items. i'd give it an 8-9.
Margherita Pizza - not very good, sauce had a weird flavor, cheese pretty good. I can't go higher than a 3-4 on this item.
The Oreo knock-offs are still theonly item I think is well done.
Will try other sauces, frozen dumplings and stuff over the next few weeks and report back.
Affordable organics for example maple syrup for less than non-organic elsewhere.
Decent bread and cheese at good prices.
Nuts that don't cost an arm and a leg.
Usually friendly service however my usual store has gotten a little surly. I'll see if they bounce back now that the holidays are over.
There are some things I get at TJ's that I can't get elsewhere - some prepared frozen foods. But a lot of the things I get there are things that I could get, but I would have to either pay a lot at the grocery store because they are in the natural foods section, or would have to go to a specialty store to get.
I snack on dry-roasted, salted edamame. TJ's has it for $1.00 a bag. Shaw's has it for $3.50 per package (larger package, but not 3.5 x larger).
Boxed Indian food, like Palak Paneer, is much more expensive, and not always as good elsewhere.
I love their vegan pizza (I'm not a vegan). It's about $4. I see the same pizza (probably by the same manufacturer) for $7 at Shaw's.
They have nice cheeses at TJ's. I could get the same, or similar for much more money at a specialty store in the area.
I can't get the freeze-dried fruits (mango, pineapple, apple) anywhere else.
Puffins cereal is MUCH cheaper at TJ's.
The dog treats I buy are hard to find, and much cheaper there. And I have to get them due to my dog being allergic to rice, corn, and poultry. Treats are hard to find!
The list goes on. I love TJs. I only wish that I didn't live in MA where their wine sales are so restricted.
I shop at TJs not only for the good specialty items, but also for cost reasons.
for example, for those of you cereal enthusiasts, wheatabix is a british cereal that my bf loves and it sells for $4/box at your local grocery store (here in boston, wheatabix is found at shaw's), but at trader joe's it's $2.29 which is a significant discount.
I like organic products. Organic butter was $6. a Lb at whole food and wild oats until TJ's started carrying it. I have seen the same thing happen with numerous items. TJ's is not afraid to try new things, if they don't sell enough they get rid of it. I probably return 1 or 2 new items a week that I bought, I tried and did not love. They always take it back. Also if you want to try something at the store walk over to the sample bar, ask the clerk to sample the item and they will right there. If you can't see what the great thing is about trader joes then don't go. Keep going to Vons and Ralphs and for your big events go to Costco.