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Aug 19, 2008 12:21 PM

I don't get Trader Joe's

A new Trader Joe's opened near me, and as I walked in yesterday I had the same feeling I always get when setting foot in a TJ's - frustration. I think it's because everything in there is something new, or at least it seems like it's all unique to TJ's, and since I don't know what anything is, I don't know where to start. They've got organic, whole grain flax seed next to frozen enchiladas and cheesecakes. Is it a health food store or a quick-mart? On top of that, it's always so crowded. I can't take 5 seconds to look at something without getting bumped by a Scottsdale housewife in her Ugg boots. I get overwhelmed.
I ask because I feel like I'm missing out on something. The people who shop there really seem to love it. Can you TJ's devotees give me some advice to help me wrap my head around this place, or at least some suggestions of things to try?
Also, it seems like a large part of their inventory is pre-prepared and frozen food. What does Trader Joe's have over the Fresh & Easy that just opened near me, or vice versa? Thanks.

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    1. I don't know that I can help very much with the overwhelming frustration, nor can I assist with bad manners from any zipcode, but I will tell you what I buy - and why - at TJ's. I do not purchase much pre-prepared food, so someone else will have to answer that question for you.
      1. frozen cubes of garlic & basil -- in 1 tsp sizes, these give a fresh taste when you do not have the fresh product or are in a huge hurry
      2. frozen croissants and pain au chocolat - good product for the price, flaky and tasty as long as you let them rise for 7-9 hours (overnight, while I sleep)
      3. multi-grain sourdough bread - because it makes great toast
      4. cheeses - because there is generally a pretty decent selection and better price than a gourmet cheese shop (A.J.'s in the Phoenix area = EX)
      5. kalamata olives, artichoke hearts and red bell peppers in jars = the ready-to-go start of a Mediterranean salad when kept in the fridge
      6. heavy cream - because it has a higher butterfat content than grocery store brands
      7. fage and greek yoghurt - because they're delicious and there
      8. sesame crackers - $1.29 @ TJ's, the same package = $3.29 @ WF
      9. wines - see above; there is a decent selection of daily wines here. I recently bought a bottle that was entirely black with huge orange question mark for the label. I have no idea what it tastes like, but sitting on my counter it makes me smile every time I see it and no one can resist commenting on it. Cheap entertainment for under four dollars
      10. king arthur flour - $3.99 at Tj's, $5.99 @ Bashas'
      11. frozen bag of nasi goreng - disregard previous comments about not buying pre-prepared food, my nephews love this stuff
      12. dried fruit and nuts - good quality, lower prices than I find elsewhere
      13. prosciutto - see above
      14. fresh flowers are fresh and inexpensive, pots of basil are fresh and a dead steal @ $3.29
      15. frozen bag of greens - Southern greens like the mixture of collards & kale & turnip that are tough to find in small quantities
      This listing is off the top of my head, reviewing my last trip. I, too, envy the people who seem organized, purpose-driven and efficiently load their carts with packets, boxes and sacks o'stuff. I'm just not one of them.

      I have had poor luck with TJ's frozen fish and no longer buy it. My salmon & halibut tries have always been watery and mushy.
      I bought a cheese enchilada once and pronounced it "meh" especially when we have the likes of Los Favoritos Taco Shop or Phoenix Ranch Market in town for a real treat.
      Once, in desperation, I bought a packaged salad that was completely forgettable.
      Meats have also been hit or miss. An organic Kosher chicken was delicious, a pork roast - not so much. Packaged Bul Golgi was flavorful but can also be tough. I was very surprised to find the odd-sized pieces in the package.

      Is Trader Joe's a crapshoot? Not completely. Are there TJ-only products? You bettcha. Just because they're unique doesn't make them shine, in my opinion. Generally, if it is something I would likely buy normally, I may give it a try (Dijon mustard = so-so, mayonnaise = not a "do again"). If it is something bizarre and off-the-wall, I'll pass.

      You might try going to TJs at an off hour - when hungry parents are not supper shopping with whiney children or any time on Saturday. Tuesday, mid-morning, could give you a fairer idea of what is what while sacrificing the Ugg encounter with Suzy Scottsdale. Good Luck

      1. I don't get what you don't get. It's an upscale Aldi's. Given its footprint it obviously can't compare to a full-service grocery but it features a lot of convenience foods at better quality and price points than a typical supermarket. Like its big brother Aldi's it takes advantage of volume buying and generally -- but not always -- offers more attractive price points than comparable items elsewhere. It has always trended toward bringing name-brands in-house. For example, they used to carry Soy Vey, a pricey but very good teriyaki marinade product. Their price was easily 30-40% better than anywhere else. They now carry the TJ-branded product (presumably their own version and not a repackaging. This is a pretty common practice.

        1. AJ, It's simple really. Trader Joe's is to grocery stores as Rachel Ray is to cooking...

          5 Replies
          1. re: Glassman

            great analogy, I love it, and agree 100%.

            1. re: swsidejim

              i agree as well. i bought one thing i really loved there and haven't seen it again - their strawberry rhubarb pie. which means i've only been there 2-3 times max. i go to WF weekly.

              1. re: fara

                I don't get it either. Everything is prepackaged, even produce. The only reason we go to TJ is for Two Buck Chuck. I consider it a store for non scratch cooks.

                1. re: Janet

                  <"I consider it a store for non scratch cooks.">

                  That's funny. I'm probably a 99.5% From Scratch cook and have been all my married life. When I go to TJ's I buy ingredients:
                  Great EVOO, vinegars, durum wheat pastas of every description, organic cereals, breads & rolls, crackers, rices, mustards, mayo, ketchup, olives/peppers/beans in jars, tuna in olive oil/salmon/sardines in tins,
                  coffee, imported cheeses, organic yogurt/eggs/milk, juices.... and more. In my pantry right now is just one prepared food stuff: their prepared tomato sauce. Lovely flavor and perfect "in a pinch."

            2. re: Glassman

              "AJ, It's simple really. Trader Joe's is to grocery stores as Rachel Ray is to cooking..."

              Loud, Hoarse & Squeaky?

            3. The original comment has been removed