Friday, October 20, 2006

Trader Joe's: New York's Happy Grocery

I'm a huge grocery store fan. Getting groceries is one of my favorite things to do and I love checking out weird and interesting new ingredients and filling up all the little plastic baggies with exotic produce and picking out Grade A cuts of meat and fresh seafood still glistening from the sea. I'm a veteran of most of the grocery stores in the city and all the major gourmet grocery stores in New York have good and bad things to say about them.

But I had yet to go to the latest West Coast invasion after Whole Foods and Jamba Juice, Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s opened on St. Patrick’s Day, but it may as well have been Trader Joe’s Day because the entire city pounced on Trader Joe’s as soon as they opened their doors. Seven months later, this place is still more crowded than Macy’s on the day after Thanksgiving. There are still lines to actually get in the store, and once inside, you see a mob clamoring over spinach & artichoke dip like another Katrina was coming.

That’s the mentality you need to shop there. TJ’s keeps you on your toes. You have to adopt a Soviet mentality to shop there, meaning that when you see something you like, you have to HOARD. Products appear suddenly and then disappear before you can ask one of the excessively good TJ shelvers where’d it go. And while the Hawaiian-style chips are still around in TJ’s repertoire, you gotta be aggressive and grab every bag in sight while they’re still there. Shelves go bare at Trader Joe’s, like natural-disaster-area-emergency-evacuation bare. I thought about getting some frozen artichoke hearts, not because I needed or even really like them all that much. I made a tour of the store, and when I got back to the frozen foods section, all the bags were gone!

But all is not lost in the Trader Joe’s experience because the staff really tries to make you feel like you’re part of some pluralistic utopian community that farms together and milks cows together. Shopping there is like being with Amnesty International. You get the impression that everything was made or baked by some sort of activist—like the corn chips were made by Native Americans protesting for their rights and the garlic hummus was made by sympathetic Muslims committed to equal rights for women and the Irish soda bread was made by U2 GAP red-shirt groupies who took a break from marching for Protestant-Catholic peace to bake bread or the chipotle salsa was made by Mexican-Americans standing up for the rights of migrant workers.

What’s most admirable in the cacophony of people ramming carts into each other, the line stretching the entire perimeter of the store, and the fact that it takes 20 minutes to get down an aisle is that you get the impression that everyone is happy to be there despite the inconveniences. The TJ elves could lead the entire store in a rousing round of Kum-Ba-Yah while they merrily stock the shelves with more of those exotic nut mixes. Kum-Ba-Yah, Trader Joe’s.

8 comments:

teahouse said...

My sister got me hooked on Trader Joe's chicken broth last Thanksgiving. We must have gone through 2-3 gallons of that stuff. But it worked - our turkey came out squeezably juicy.

I have yet to visit the one in Manhattan. I'm a little intimidated by the crowds.

Anonymous said...

From Jayne: I have heard so much about Trader Joe's. There was a campaign to bring them to C'ville, but it did not work. I am not certain I could take the crowd or the need to grab-it-now to make a purchase, even in a Kum-Ba-Yah atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Trader Joe ho'...

But I stock up so mucvh when I'm there that I don't have to tolerate the crowds too often!

But I'm running low at the moment...

So.... soon.... sooon...

Eric said...

As much as I love TJ's (I used to live down the street from it in San Diego and it was NEVER this crowded), I tend to avoid it altogether since I have to work so hard to get to it only to stand in line for hours and fight crowds for the leftovers.
That said, I'd move heaven and earth to get to a TJ's if they'd open one on the UWS if for nothign else than their whole grain tortilla chips. Yum

marshmallow said...

i haven't been there yet!

MalcolmNotAlbee said...

Why on earth would anyone put themselves through the experience you're describing? New York City has a number of wonderful stores and shopping areas. Dean & DeLuca, Fairway, Zabar's, Italian food shops of all kinds along Arthur Avenue, Chelsea Market, etc.

Trader Joe's sounds like it found a gimmick and the gimmick is to make you grateful they exist. Baloney. It's all illusionary. I went into one on the west coast and frankly, I thought the actual reason for its existence - zany store-made items - wasn't worth the money.

Trader Joe's is a complete waste of your time and it points out, once again, that New York City is really a provincial town of in-crowd fools who'd rather act like sheep than be considered out of the loop.

TCho said...

Well that took it to another level.

Cliff said...

What a funny, awesome post. I walked by Trader Joe's just the other day, and to be honest I was a little offended. Give me my overpriced, overrated Whole Foods anytime!