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Trader Joe's--I just don't get it

johnb Dec 17, 2007 04:53 PM

At the moment I'm writing this, there are 5, count 'em 5, Trader Joe's threads among the first 25 or so threads on this board. What is the big deal with Trader Joe's?? I just don't understand. I've been in there a few times, and to me it's a place with lots of unusual stuff, decently priced, but not anyplace I could do my regular shopping. But even if it were, why the huge level of interest???? It's Ok, but really........

I did a quick search of this board and apparently, assuming I did it right, about 12-13% of threads that have been posted have Trader Joe's somewhere in them, and mostly in the thread title.

I can't fathom it.

Am I just an old fuddy duddy (as my daughter claims)?

  1. Tupstate Dec 17, 2007 05:18 PM

    I think it is a good store with some nice items. I would not go crazy for it. I will admit before going there to check it out, in another area I was visiting. I was wondering what all the hype was. They have good products , but I am not going out of my way to get their products if it is not near my home. You are not an old Fuddy Duddy. I think the word is down to earth!

    1. n
      nosh Dec 17, 2007 05:27 PM

      Yes, you are. Acceptance is the first step on the road to recovery and enlightenment.

      A decade or two ago, when Trader Joe's was sprouting its wings, I used to visit as an occasional addition to my grocery shopping at the supermarket. But now there are three in the area once served by one, and now I do my regular day-to-day shopping there and go to the supermarket for mass items on sale like paper goods, kitty litter, and Coke products. Trader Joe's is WAY cheaper and much better for the staples in my house -- milk, butter, bread, eggs, cheese, OJ, canned tuna, olive oil, and ice cream. You have to be somewhat careful about their produce, but sweet onions, zucchini, red bell peppers, and bagged lemons are much cheaper than the super. So I've got my basics.

      At that point Trader Joe's just becomes fun. Any new products I haven't seen before? Do I want some nuts? How about one of their delicious and inexpensive frozen desserts -- tortes, cheesecakes, profiteroles, more. What has an interesting description or unusual label and is a great value in the wine section? Need some beer that isn't Bud or Miller? Chocolates, candies, frozen fish, appetizers, spreads, soups? Haven't even mentioned the floral section at my store for barely half the price of the supers.

      TJ's is quick, convenient, a value. It is also fun. Customers, and staff, seem much happier to be there than the dour attitudes in the supermarkets. Sure, an occasional item will be a dismal failure (they'll gladly refund your money, even without a receipt or the leftovers) and many favorites go extinct. But for those who get it, Trader Joe's is just really, almost, fun.

      1 Reply
      1. re: nosh
        coney with everything Dec 19, 2007 04:11 AM

        Nicely said, Nosh. It is a pleasant experience--good prices, you always find something new and interesting, the employees are enthusiastic and helpful, and the prices are good. So what's not to like?

      2. s
        swsidejim Dec 18, 2007 05:17 AM

        your not alone johnb,

        I dont get it either, nor do I have any use for TJ's.

        different strokes I guess.

        1. g
          gloriousfood Dec 18, 2007 05:26 AM

          I can take it or leave it. But I'm fortunate to live in a city with so many shopping alternatives. If it were the only game in town, I could see how it could be a godsend.

          What I wish CH would do is to establish a separate TJ board.

          1. ccbweb Dec 18, 2007 07:48 AM

            It's a place that unlike many chains is particularly suited to Chowhound and chowhounds exactly because of that combination you mention of unusual stuff and decent prices. They have unique things and some of it is very very good/delicious.

            Why it generates the passion and passionate disagreement to the level seen on this board, I have no idea. As you note, many people seem very concerned with the notion that they can't do their regular shopping there....which doesn't really comment on the individual items that are worth going to the shop for. Perhaps the level of conversation is because it isn't all things to all people but since it's a "grocery store" folks think it should be.

            I'm a fan of many of their products (including the coffee, nuts and dried fruits, frozen turkey meatballs...)

            1. f
              fern Dec 18, 2007 08:05 AM

              If you live in an area that has only ordinary grocery stores like Albertson's and not much else, TJs is a real treat. Where I live we don't have much in the way of butcher, fish or cheese shops nearby, and have very ordinary produce and meat at the grocery store. Organics are hard to come by anyplace else and especially at Trader Joe's prices. I am SO happy to have one about 20 minutes away and make the trip now and then to stock up on cheese, nuts, olive oil, fresh and frozen organic vegetables, chocolate!, crackers...

              I really like it but understand that for many people it is not a big deal because they have easy access to these things and more. Until TJs arrived I did not.

              1. m
                maisonbistro Dec 18, 2007 08:09 AM

                Well, as a Montrealer who is a foodie and always in search or something different - I have to tell you how lucky you guys are to have Trader Joes in the states. We don't have anything comparable here. NOTHING. Considering we are quite the "foodie" city, it's a shame. DOn't get me wrong, we have tons of little stores and out of the way places to get incredible ingredients, a farmer's market that is great, but year round, nothing beats Trader Joes. Whenever I'm in a state that has them, I go nuts.

                I think it's just because it's gotten so commonplace that people are just not wowed by it anymore. But you have some incdredible things there -

                I am Trader Joe envy.

                1. a
                  Amelie Dec 18, 2007 05:00 PM

                  I live in Arkansas and would LOVE to have a Trader Joe's, a Whole Foods, almost anything besides damned Walmart.

                  Cheers,

                  Amelie

                  :-)

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Amelie
                    m
                    msfc Jan 3, 2008 09:41 AM

                    Oh poor you, Amelie. I lived outside of Little Rock for a year from '96-97 and I was amazed that every highway interchange seemed to sport a Walmart...

                  2. Suzy Q Dec 18, 2007 06:19 PM

                    Count me in with the folks who just don't "get" the Trader Joe's worship. It's not someplace I'd go out of my way to visit, although if I'm in the neighborhood I might stop in. Maybe it's just my local store, but it's small, frequently out of stock on many items, and the produce is so-so. The fresh flowers, however, are beautiful, but the ones I get at the Fresh Market last much longer.

                    14 Replies
                    1. re: Suzy Q
                      ccbweb Dec 18, 2007 08:42 PM

                      Produce is not the reason to go to Trader Joe's. Pantry staples, dried nuts and fruits and unique frozen items are the purpose of the store in my opinion.

                      1. re: ccbweb
                        h
                        Hensley Dec 19, 2007 12:02 PM

                        I like Trader Joes overall, but have really been surprised how bad how roughly every 1 out of 10 items I buy are.

                        1. re: ccbweb
                          boogiebaby Dec 19, 2007 12:19 PM

                          Exactly. Their nuts and trail mixes are great and priced well below other stores. They have a great selection of wines, also at good prices. I live in So. CA and dairy items are expensive here. I get a gallon of milk at TJs for $3.29 versus $4.79 at my local grocery store. Eggs are $1.19, versus $3.29 at the grocery store. The TJ brand kids whole milk yogurts are $2.49 versus the brand name ones at the grocery store for $4.29.

                          I don't buy their soups, or cereals, but I like their prepared salads, the dried pastas, frozen veggies (the haricot verts and edamame are great), and dairy items.

                          1. re: boogiebaby
                            johnb Dec 19, 2007 02:27 PM

                            My lord in heaven, if local grocery prices were that high where I am (North Carolina these days) I'd probably be a regular at Trader Joe's myself. You say $4.79 for a gallon of milk???? $3.29 for eggs????? I'll think I'll rent a truck and drive out there with some staples. Make a killing. I can see it now---Trader John's.

                            But seriously, is that typical of grocery prices in Southern Cal.?

                            1. re: johnb
                              m
                              MysticYoYo Dec 19, 2007 02:45 PM

                              johnb, I'll tag along with ya and sell gasoline-- we'll make a killing!

                              I went to TJ's when I was in California 2 years ago and was charmed by it and brought some stuff back. My friend will mail me treats from time to time. Where I live in Florida (near Cocoa Beach) the closest TJ's is near Atlanta and the closest Whole Foods is a store about 25 miles away that is a recently acquired Wild Oats store, so it's slim pickings here. I would love to have a TJ's that I could summarily dismiss.

                              1. re: johnb
                                ccbweb Dec 19, 2007 04:33 PM

                                My wife and I live in San Francisco right now and most of my family is in Santa Barbara. Those prices are what I see when we're visiting in Santa Barbara and, in fact, a bit lower than what we see in many supermarkets here in San Francisco. Trader Joe's does a great business in just those staples partly because their prices are very competitive.

                                1. re: johnb
                                  BarmyFotheringayPhipps Dec 19, 2007 07:11 PM

                                  TJs is definitely cheaper on many, many staples -- including eggs and dairy -- than the major supermarkets here in Boston.

                                  I don't think anyone could seriously do all their grocery shopping at Trader Joes unless they primarily ate prepared and frozen foods. As many have noted, the produce section is a joke, and meats are largely non-existent. However, they have many high-quality staples that we buy all the time: olive oil, whole wheat couscous, dishwasher detergent, three types of granola and muesli that we combine in one big container for our morning yogurt, frozen mixed berries (also for the yogurt), clover honey (ditto), various types of nuts, dishwasher detergent, etc.

                                  It depends on how you do your shopping, really: if you're the sort who wants or needs to get all your grocery shopping done in one go, Trader Joe's probably isn't for you. If, like us, you shop in small amounts several times a week, Trader Joe's is an excellent adjunct here in Boston to Shaw's, Stop and Shop, Russo's and Whole Foods.

                                  1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps
                                    mcel215 Dec 20, 2007 01:23 AM

                                    Market Basket here in Woburn, has really great prices! Their fish, fresh meat department, and produce lately have improved vastly. I hate the crowds, but you can't beat the quality and price.

                                    Then of course, there is Costco (that's a different thread)!

                                    Both of these places to me anyway, beat out TJ's.

                                    1. re: mcel215
                                      ccbweb Dec 20, 2007 08:32 AM

                                      Costco has some great stuff, but if you're one or two people the sizes of those things can be fairly daunting and unless there's significant storage/freezer space available, impossible to make use of.

                                      1. re: ccbweb
                                        BarmyFotheringayPhipps Dec 20, 2007 09:31 AM

                                        One benefit of BJs (the northeastern counterpart of Costco and Sam's Club) is that they tend to stock their food items in somewhat smaller sizes and multi-packs. I've belonged to all three at one time or another and BJs is definitely better to buy food at for a two-person family.

                                  2. re: johnb
                                    c
                                    Cathy Dec 20, 2007 03:59 AM

                                    California has regulations on the Dairy Industry. For one thing, we cannot "import" milk from another state and all of our milk has to have Vitamin D added. There are price minimums that must be adhered to, even with sales.

                                    Example: last year a local grocery chain, Ralph's- that is the same corporation as Kroger's- had a printed weekly ad of 1/2 lb block cheddar cheese for $1.49. Regulators got wind of the (preprinted) ad and the cheese was labeled with a copy of the regulations and had to be sold for $2.99. Ralphs put its own disclaimer and for every block of cheese you bought, they gave you a certificate good for $1.49 on a future purchase.

                                    We don't have much of a choice when it comes to dairy an TJs always has the lowest prices allowed for the most part.

                                    But...we have sunshine pretty much year round...

                                    1. re: Cathy
                                      alkapal Dec 24, 2007 03:37 AM

                                      "I'm the government regulator, and I'm here to help you."

                                      LOL!

                                    2. re: johnb
                                      boogiebaby Dec 21, 2007 12:15 PM

                                      Yep, those are the prices out here. I'm about 20 miles outside of downtown LA. With a 4 year old and a 2 year old, we go through a lot of milk, cheese and eggs, so TJs makes the most sense for us (or we buy the milk at Costco if I won't make a trip there just for milk). My average TJs reciept usually has milk, a carton of eggs, a hunk of cheese or two, 1-2 prepackaged salads (for lunch), some $.99 marinara (good for kiddie lunches), and a few Fage yogurts for me. Sometimes I'll pick up some wine or some hummus.

                                      But like Cathy said, we've got sunshine all year long... :)

                                    3. re: boogiebaby
                                      m
                                      ML8000 Dec 20, 2007 12:24 AM

                                      The price disparity between TJs and the average chain supermarket is really amazing, at least in California.

                                      Assuming the quality of goods were simply even, the price difference alone is just too high to ignore. When I go to a chain supermarket and look at the price on basics, I feel ripped off and I only buy what I need.

                                      From my POV, the overall quality is 60-70% better then chains...or maybe it's just a relief not being taken. Lower prices, better quality...I think that explains their following.

                                2. v
                                  vlad Dec 19, 2007 03:22 PM

                                  TJs is foodie paradise. I have relatives in Europe who regularly ask me to send them various TJs items.

                                  Your affection or rather, lack of, might also stem from your upbringing. I know most Europeans in the States absolutely love TJs, while I don't see it being as big as a hit in the Midwest. This is not a knock on anyone, but simply some anecdotal observation.

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: vlad
                                    coney with everything Dec 20, 2007 03:35 AM

                                    Not sure why you say that--I live in Metro Detroit and the two TJ's I frequent are more than busy.

                                    TJ's does its due diligence when it opens stores, and I doubt they'd open where there wasn't evidence of an enthusiastic food loving community.

                                    I think one of the reasons there is so much discussion of TJs is that other than the warehouse clubs, there are no national grocery chains in the US. TJ's is something we have in common from sea to shining sea, as it were, so people from all over the country can weigh in on the merits of their products.

                                    1. re: coney with everything
                                      c
                                      Cathy Dec 20, 2007 04:06 AM

                                      Yes, indeed, CWE- I drove from San Diego to Detroit for Thanksgiving and went to TJs for a bunch of staples for the meal, and then to Costco for the rest. I knew the general floor layout and the items I wanted.

                                      It was comforting to not have to navigate Kroger's or the grocery stores I was unfamiliar with (except the Bob's of Westland and Bob's of Canton turned out to be quite interesting on the day after Thanksgiving, with no crowds...)

                                    2. re: vlad
                                      j
                                      janeydee123 Dec 23, 2007 02:07 PM

                                      Well, let me just pick the hayseed out of my teeth here in fly-over country....TJs do well in Illinois.

                                      1. re: janeydee123
                                        v
                                        vlad Dec 23, 2007 03:56 PM

                                        I did not mean to be offensive in any way, shape or form.

                                        But, generally, I don't think that TJs offerings are going to be that popular in the Midwest, especially relative to the West and East Coast.

                                        The coasts, especially the West, tend to be much more ethnically mixed. TJs offerings reflect that. As my data point, take a look at a map of their locations. They are much, much more heavily weighted to the coasts than they are the Midwest.

                                        The Midwest and South are almost completely devoid of TJs.

                                        http://www.traderjoes.com/locations.asp

                                        1. re: vlad
                                          coney with everything Dec 24, 2007 02:54 AM

                                          I'd say that the map correlates well to population centers, other than Texas and Florida being missing. Each of those dots represents an unknown number of stores anyway--the Michigan dot represents at least 5 stores that I know of. (which also begs the question: how do you define "Midwest"? Include or exclude the Great Lakes states?) It's interesting that California and Nevada are the only states that get multiple dots, LOL.

                                          I think they are expanding logically from their focal points--California and Massachusetts. As they move out from those points, they extend their infrastructure so that they eventually can make the next push outward.

                                          I would also argue that ethnicity isn't a factor so much, but an existing foodie culture of some size is. In Metro Detroit, we already had several "gourmet" vegetable/grocery stores before TJ's started locating here. The TJ's nearest to me is directly across the road from such a store. Just like the phenomenon of Starbuck's expansion causing growth in independent coffeehouses, TJ's shows up where there is already an interest in an experience beyond Krogers/Safeway/Jewel-Osco.

                                    3. jfood Dec 20, 2007 08:40 AM

                                      jfood giggled a little when he saw the onslaught as well and when little jfood calls him fuddy duddy, it's a term of endearment. :-))

                                      Earlier this year jfood had the same brain cramp and went to TJ's a few times and did not get it either. To try to understand a little better he placed a call and had a nice chat with their regional VP. Very nice guy and really knows his niche.

                                      Jfood and VP agreed that in an area where you have grocers that offer organic, healthy, fru-fru items TJ's is probably redundant to your needs. And in FFD County CT that is the case. BUT, in areas where the Stop and Shop, or A&P or Safeway or Kroegers does not offer these items, TJ's fills that niche. Likewise some custos, due to time constraints can not visit grocers regularly enough for pre-frozen entrees and TJ's fills that niche. Then there are the people who just plain like it for no other reason than Jfood likes Skippy over Peter Pan.

                                      In the end they agreed that TJ's is not for everyone, has a very loyal and vocal following and is doing very well. So the Vocalness is seen on these boards. If you like it and need it, it is a great store. If you have other more convenient options, it's not that big a deal.

                                      From one fuddy duddy to another.

                                      1. g
                                        gourmanda Dec 20, 2007 08:51 AM

                                        I'm with you, Johnnb. I don't get it at all. The one near us is crowded, small, HUGE checkout lines, laughable produce and the frozen stuff. . .well, it's frozen stuff. As for jarred/canned/bottled food products, I find the same things at a nearby small health-food type grocer for a lot less hassle. But then, I also have an amazing local gourmet grocery store that serves my weekly needs. Obviously TJs makes sense for some, but not at all for me.

                                        1. c
                                          cookiegirl Dec 20, 2007 09:51 AM

                                          It took me a while to get it, but there are some things I prefer to get at TJs or can't get elsewhere so it serves a niche for me. I think the only produce I've ever bought there has been a crate of clementines and I don't foresee that changing anytime based on seeing the (poor) quality and hearing all of the comments. Their frozen foods are hit or miss. When I lived in Chicago, they had salmon burgers that I liked, but haven't been able to find them in DC and the frozen raw shrimp are decent. Other than that, I have found their frozen meats/seafood pretty bad. I rarely like frozen prepared meals, but they have rice bowls (chicken vindaloo, kung pao chicken) that are good. Some of the desserts have been quite good, especially ice cream, others not so much. I think you really have to try things out and figure out what fits your tastes, which is not always an option.

                                          I bake a lot and find the nuts there signficantly cheaper than elsewhere and there's always good wine and beer deals to be had. With the canned foods, I stick with what I've found to be good - beans, some veggies. It's good for rice and grains as well.

                                          If you don't like a lot of frozen and/or processed foods, you're going to be fairly limited in what you can get there. It does have its strengths, but to each his/her own.

                                          1. o
                                            odkaty Dec 21, 2007 06:24 AM

                                            I've never found anything in a Trader Joe's that has made me want to return. I buy ingredients not prepared items so Trader Joe's has little to offer. The few times I've tried them for a prepared item (stop in to pick up soup or a salad for a quick lunch) I've found the offerings disgusting.

                                            1. m
                                              malibumike Dec 21, 2007 07:55 AM

                                              Years ago TJ's used to be a good place to get more exotic cheese from foreign countries but as I understand somebody in govt. tinkered with the trade tarrifs and no more good deals. If you experiment a little you can find some good wines though.

                                              1. e
                                                exvaxman Dec 23, 2007 06:29 PM

                                                Well, there are several items that my 84 year old father loves that are only available at Trader Joe's. When we moved him out here a couple of years ago after triple bypass and new heart valve, despite many other places HE MISSED TRADER JOES. Going from NYC to Milwaukee where you don't have Zabar's and Balducci's, etc. After he moved here there was an announcement that one was moving in within sight of his assisted living place. The Trader Joe's folks were kind enough to let him in before the grand opening so he could make out shopping lists for me until the crowds died down.
                                                Good quality, lots of local goods (in our case), convient, far cheaper than other places in our area that I consider not worth the price (Whole Foods, Fresh Market). Very easy to check out of and very nice people manning the checkouts. You do know that Trader Joes is also owned by the same folks that own Aldi's? So a very efficient busines model. Now if one of the new Tesco's would move into the area..... Only complaint about them is that there are a lot of people who just can't decide what they want and block the small isles. Or the people who go there for the social aspect. Until they were "discovered" it was easy to run into for a gallon of milk. No longer.

                                                1. alkapal Dec 24, 2007 03:45 AM

                                                  cheese selection and prices are good! triple creme french brie for $7/#.

                                                  their stoplight bell peppers are a great deal -- half the price of the same thing at whole foods across the street.

                                                  8 oz. good french chocolate truffles: $3!!!

                                                  pumpkin butter, btw: stocks for year running out at rte 7/idyllwood store...peppermint joe joes still available, but waning.

                                                  1. c
                                                    crt Dec 25, 2007 12:27 PM

                                                    Plain and simple. Since you begged the question. Yes you are just an old fuddy duddy.

                                                    Obviously it is a very popular due to fact that you can find items there that you can't find in your plain everyday run of the mill boring grocery chains such as Food For Less, Ralphs, Albertsons, Stater Brothers (here on the West Coast). That is why it has a huge level of interest. I don't think that's so hard to fathom.

                                                    While I'm sure that most folks don't do their regular shopping there, I'm sure that there are those who do.

                                                    1. i
                                                      irishnyc Dec 26, 2007 09:03 AM

                                                      I shop at TJ's, and go well out of my way to get there, for many reasons. Great prices. Great selections. I don't have to search the shelves for the right brand/version (low sodium, low fat, etc.) of anything. Great prices on frozen seafood, which makes it a lot easier to work fish into our diet because then I don't have to go to the fishmonger a few times a week. I also stock up on prepared food that the husband can easily heat up for a snack.

                                                      1. m
                                                        msfc Jan 3, 2008 09:52 AM

                                                        I don't get it either. I lived in the San Diego area all of my life until '96 and I didn't see the appeal then either; I prefered Boney's (now Henry's, at least some of them) to TJ. When I was in Cambridge, MA a couple of years ago, we stopped in at the TJ to see what the fuss was about (they had lots of banners up and we had to go to a store in the same center anyhow). The food samples were nothing to get excited about, the wine was not to our taste, and the couple of items we picked up weren't anything to write home about.

                                                        A TJ opened in my town in NC a couple of months or so ago. I have yet to stop by even though it's not really out of my way. Maybe one of these days I will.

                                                        1. b
                                                          buttermonkey Jan 15, 2008 09:41 PM

                                                          TJ's WAS great when they were small and mainly out west (circa 1990). Now, IMO, I can't say that. Aldi bought them a couple of years ago and expanded big time and quality went down big time. Now, I feel, TJ's is hit and miss and lacks consistancy. But, they have laots of plonc wines and beer cheap. Gotta love the 2 buck Chuck a.k.a. Charles Shaw. <giggle>

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: buttermonkey
                                                            z
                                                            ziggylu Jan 16, 2008 06:42 AM

                                                            Trader Joe's was purchased by an Albrecht family trust back in the late 70s. It still remains separate from the rest of the Aldi conglomerate and run by the trust.

                                                            That said agree with the big expansion the company saw in the 90s it's not quite what it was in the early days back in California...

                                                            1. re: ziggylu
                                                              johnb Jan 16, 2008 10:32 AM

                                                              It's even more complicated than that. There are actually two Aldi's--the founding brothers had a dispute back in 1960, over whether to sell cigarettes, and split the group into a north and a south part, and similarly they have split the world so any one country will generally be the territory of only one group. The US is Aldi Sud (south) territory. Trader Joes, meanwhile, is owned by a trust set up by the brother who owns Aldi Nord. The two Aldi's do cooperate in various ways, but since the US is Aldi Sud while TJ is owned by the family that owns Aldi Nord, there is little if any overlap between them.

                                                              Interestingly, even before I knew about the Aldi/TJ connection, I used to describe TJ as a sort of an upscale Aldi's. Clearly there are some similarities.

                                                              1. re: ziggylu
                                                                b
                                                                buttermonkey Jan 16, 2008 06:14 PM

                                                                either way it is not what it was and consistancy is lacking but there is lots of plonc cheap.

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