I went shopping at Trader Joe’s this afternoon.
Now, I realize that doesn’t sound especially momentous. This was, however, the first time I’d darkened the doorstep of a Trader Joe’s in a good eight years — since my corporate days, when I worked a mere two blocks from the local TJ’s and dropped in there frequently. My new life in self-employment keeping me chained to my desk at home most of the time, and with the home of the “Fearless Flyer” being now more than a little out of my way, TJ’s and I have drifted apart.
But not today.
A shiny new Trader Joe’s opened in Santa Rosa a while back, right around the corner from my favorite Hawaiian barbecue joint — which, as fate would have it, has been closed ever since some nutcase drove his car through the front of the restaurant. With the news of the recent death of Trader Joe’s reclusive German owner, Theo Albrecht, fresh in my mind, and with a few hours of free time on my hands, I decided to venture in and check out the goods.
For the benefit of those of you unfortunate enough to live out of range of a Trader Joe’s, I’ll explain what I’m talking about. Trader Joe’s is a chain of specialty markets that’s big here in California. Originally a group of convenience stores, Trader Joe’s changed its image in the late 1960s, adopting a Polynesian motif and stocking select products sold mostly under its house brand names. (These often riff on the ethnicity of the comestibles in question — my chicken quesadillas, for example, bore the moniker “Trader Jose’s.”) Unlike a conventional supermarket, where you can buy practically anything your stomach desires, Trader Joe’s focuses on a narrow blend of gourmet and organic foods and household products. The store caters to a niche clientele including foodies, aging hippies, and bargain hunters.
Eschewing big-budget advertising, Trader Joe’s mostly draws customers in via its “Fearless Flyer,” a multipage direct-mail circular printed on cheap paper and featuring cartoons in the style of Victorian-era illustration. The store’s merchandise profile changes constantly — you learn never to get hooked on a Trader Joe’s item, because they’ll stop selling it the moment you do — but often includes unique products (especially seafood and frozen entrees) you’d never find anywhere else. Because almost all of the product line is branded in-house, TJ’s “cuts out the middleman” and frequently offers surprisingly good value for such an upscale retailer.
I strolled into the shiny new-ish TJ’s today with few expectations. I ended up needing a second handbasket to carry all of the stuff I lugged to the cash register, where a stone-faced college student in an aloha shirt (that’s part of the TJ’s vibe — all of the employees wear colorful Hawaiian shirts, and summon one another to the registers not with an intercom, but with a hand bell) totaled and bagged my purchases. I came away with frozen dinner items to feed myself for the next week, a few snacks, two cans of whole bean coffee, and a box of vanilla almond granola (quite tasty — I’m eating a bowl as I type).
The store was brightly lit and cheery, if rather spartan in decor — another Trader Joe’s trademark — and everyone, both staff and shoppers, seemed happy to be there. (Everyone, that is, except my cashier, whose personality made the prosaic bag of raw almonds I bought seem lively by comparison.) I know I was.
Thanks, Trader Joe.