Truth be told, I have wanted to write about this subject for some time, and my visit to Trader Joe’s last week has pushed me over the edge. For anyone who has never had a chance to visit this unusual store, with its extraordinary selection of unexpected products and ingredients, you may want to take my ranting with a grain of salt. It’s worth visiting, without a doubt, so don’t let me scare you away. But my husband, Les, and I ride our dedication to TJ’s like a seesaw—we are either raving about their products to everyone who will listen, or flat-out cursing them over some repeated offense—and I have been curious to know if other shoppers have experienced the same.
Make no mistake, there is plenty I appreciate about Trader Joe’s, where the employees wear Hawaiian print shirts and they all seem to be in a perpetual state of excited happiness. Many of the workers at our local store have been there since the doors first opened, so I expect it may be a terrific place to work.
The now-national chain began with a single California store in 1967, and a mission to bring interesting products to culture-savvy shoppers who enjoy exploring the flavors of the world (in other words, me). And for that, they have been pretty darn successful. Because of Trader Joe’s, I learned about zhoug, Calabrian chile paste, za’atar seasoning and nduja. Shopping there is fun, and the stores are small, so it doesn’t take all day to find something inspiring. They don’t mess around with sales or membership cards or loyalty programs or whatever other gimmicks irritate you at other stores. The price is the price, and it’s almost always a good one.
This is not a commercial for them, just an honest personal assessment, but I have more to say—a lot more. I’ll begin with the positive, in no particular order.
Their commitment to products without “HFCS” and “GMO” ingredients
This is a big one for me. Since I first began to learn about the sketchy origin of high-fructose corn syrup, I had spent at least an extra half hour on every grocery store visit, to ensure I had enough time to do proper vetting against this ingredient. Then, Trader Joe’s opened in my city. I don’t have to scan the labels anymore, because of their promise to reject products containing HFCS. The same goes with genetically modified organisms (GMO). Less time reading labels means more time to focus on being inspired toward new recipes.
Good alternatives to big-name items, usually at much better prices
This speaks mostly for itself, but I’ll offer a few of my favorite examples: I love plain kefir as a base for my healthy breakfast fruit smoothies, and the Trader Joe’s brand is significantly less expensive than the Lifeway brand that is available at other markets. Same with their butter, which has short, fat sticks rather than the usual long, skinny ones. They fit better in my butter dish and the packages even fit better in the fridge door. Their organic natural peanut butter has been my go-to for a decade. We use a lot of canola oil at our house, especially for baking or high heat recipes, and the bottle at TJ’s is not only a more convenient shape and size at a better price, it gets bonus points for being expeller-pressed.
The best selection ANYWHERE of dried fruits and nuts
I mean, an entire aisle length of every kind you can imagine and then a bunch more that you didn’t. They have dried sweet cherries and dried Montmorency tart cherries. Raisins and golden raisins and jumbo raisins. Raisins mixed with dried cherries, blueberries and cranberries (this is the “Golden Berry” blend that my hubby enjoys on his morning cereal). Dried figs and apricots and bananas—you get the idea. Same with nuts, and not only every variety imaginable, but also options for roasted or raw, salted and unsalted, even 50% salted! Whole nuts or halves and pieces. Don’t even get me started on the imaginative flavor combinations they put on the nuts, like the spicy Thai, Lime and Chili cashews, Everything But the Bagel mixed nuts, or the brand new Crunchy Chili Onion peanuts (I just bought a bag this week—I’ll let you know).
Helpful, knowledgeable employees who make thoughtful recommendations
Unlike so many other stores I frequent, Trader Joe’s trains their employees to be ready for customer requests, and nine times out of 10, they lead me directly to the item I need (if they have it). I was buying ingredients one day to make my Copycat Chicken Lettuce Wraps, and I couldn’t find canned water chestnuts. Turns out, Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry them. But when an employee noticed me searching and offered to help, she proposed an alternative in fresh, cut-up jicama sticks. “Would this give you the texture you’re looking for, without adding an off flavor?” And they did!
TJ’s is the store for anyone throwing a wine and cheese party.
Their wine selection is vast—an amazing feat, considering their small footprint—and they are big supporters of smaller, independent wineries, with a broad range of private label offerings. You will find your favorite varietals at several price points, from their famous “Two-Buck Chuck”—the house brand** that sold for $1.99 a bottle back in the day but is now up to $4.49, still a phenomenal bargain—all the way up to a Caymus Cabernet that I spotted last week for $75. The wines are well-organized, and labeled with descriptions that don’t sound snobbish, making it a great place to discover wines you didn’t know about, like Vinho Verde from Spain, or an Italian Montepulciano. I especially appreciate that they carry a Kosher for Passover chardonnay, unoaked, and it’s pretty good!
**UPDATE: On September 13, 2022, the creator of “Two-Buck Chuck,” Fred Franzia, has passed away.
Need some cheese to go with that wine? Scoot on down the row to the specialty cheese case where you’ll find a few standards, such as the Unexpected Cheddar that is immensely popular at our house, with its sharp, salty flavor that hints at Parmesan. And depending on your timing, you’re guaranteed to find a nice “seasonal” cheese, like the cinnamon-dusted Toscana that I picked up on my recent visit.
Speaking of seasonal, count of Trader Joe’s to bring home the flavors
Without a doubt, TJ’s has nailed this. Their stores don’t have enough space to carry all the things, all the time. Their solution for keeping things interesting is seasonal swapping. For better or worse, we are about to enter “pumpkin spice” season at TJ’s which, for me, marks the official start of autumn.
I personally can’t wait to see the big crate full of fantasy pumpkins on the sidewalk, and I’ll buy a few to dress up our front steps. A big display case will be set up near the front of the store, packed on every side with all things pumpkin spice, including a few things that probably have no business carrying those flavors. It can be a little overwhelming for those who like a taste of pumpkin spice—TJ’s has it for their coffee cup, breakfast waffles, ravioli, hummus, dog biscuits, scented candles and even body butter—and downright annoying for customers who would prefer to just carve a jack-o-lantern and call it fall. Nonetheless, moving products through with the seasons helps Trader Joe’s give the people what they want right now, and they are darn good at it.
Maybe a little too good?
This notion of “seasonal” brings me around to discussing the dark side of Trader Joe’s—the grievances that leave me frustrated, annoyed or downright furious.
Lame excuses for not having the products you have come to love
Oh, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve made a trip to TJ’s for something I’ve gotten excited about only to find it gone. If you dare to ask for something that is even one minute expired from their scheduled inventory, you can bet your pumpkin spice one of their uber-cheerful employees will inform you that the item was—wait for it— “seasonal.” This is their first, go-to answer. It’s so aggravating, and sometimes, it seems like an easy excuse. This idea of retiring products makes sense to a point. I don’t expect Trader Joe’s to have pumpkin spice baton cookies in April, but what about when I’m trying to find the brand-new Crunchy Jalapeno Lime and Onion condiment that was literally in the Fearless Flyer ad I picked up on my previous-week visit?
I walked through every aisle without luck and was eventually told, “Oh, we sold out last week and it’s gone for the season!” Well, damn. Maybe next year—or maybe not, depending on how well the product performed in sales.
I’m still aching from the disappearance of the honey-pale ale mustard I loved. At first, they told me that was seasonal, but I learned the next year it was permanently discontinued because it wasn’t a good seller. This made more sense because, let’s be honest, mustard isn’t seasonal. So, what about the mayonnaise we (and millions of other customers) loved?
When the “seasonal” claim holds not a shred of truth, and when the product was undeniably popular, that’s when you can expect the other pat answer: they’re having a problem with that supplier. That’s what they told us when we couldn’t find our favorite expeller pressed canola oil mayo. That stuff was like oxygen for our sandwich-loving selves, and we were downright panicked when it vanished. The company line was that the “canola oil had gotten too expensive” for them to continue selling the mayo. Funny thing, though—they still carry the aforementioned canola oil that I love, and its price hasn’t changed. There’s a clinical term for this type of response, and I’m pretty sure it’s “gaslighting.”
Fresh items turn south way too quickly
OK, fellow serious home cooks, how frustrating is it—on a 1 to 10 scale—to plan a menu, shop the day before, and discover upon setup for the meal that one of your key ingredients has already begun to spoil? Trader Joe’s has a fantastic return policy, and I have never had a problem with them refunding or replacing anything. But their fresh meats and produce have a very short life, and it isn’t at all convenient to haul myself back across town with a stinky chicken or moldy bell pepper when I need to have dinner on the table in the next hour. Depending on how busy I am the next day, I may or may not be able to do it then, either. I’ve mostly stopped purchasing fresh meat there, which is a shame because they have a good selection. The rule of thumb at our house is, “don’t buy it unless the oven is already pre-heated at home.”
All that plastic wrapping on the vegetables
Why? Just why do all the vegetables have to be bagged in plastic? I don’t want to imagine the environmental impact of this, and though some of their produce items do need to be contained—the yummy salad kits, for example—other items, like bunches of fresh scallions or whole heads of cauliflower, don’t. My hunch is that they don’t have the proper prep spaces to handle the produce differently, but all that plastic troubles me. Another thing that’s interesting about their produce is that nothing is priced by weight, which is a big plus for keeping the checkout lines moving faster, but it does mean you can spend extra time digging for the largest delicata squash to be sure you get your money’s worth on items priced by the piece. I’m speaking hypothetically, of course—delicata squash is seasonal and hasn’t hit the stores yet. (insert smirk emoji)
All that delicious bread comes in frozen
The selection of bread is great, but it all comes in frozen and the moisture that collects inside the bags increases the likelihood of mold. This has not been a problem for me personally in recent years—I have bought nary a loaf anywhere since I started baking with sourdough—but if you want one of those beautiful ciabattas, buy it on the morning of the day you plan to use it. Even the tortillas are affected by the freezing; it isn’t unusual to find them stuck together in the package after something went awry with the thawing. Not much fun when you’re in a hurry to make breakfast burritos.
Consistency of products is lacking
There’s nothing like anticipating a taste of something that you have grown to love, and then opening the bag to find a completely different product. That’s part of the game with some of the items at Trader Joe’s. Les and I have noticed this especially with their snack items, including the spicy ghost pepper potato chips—one bag will be bland and barely seasoned, and the next will burn your lips off. Once, I opened a bag of multigrain pita chips in the car on the way home and turned my car around on the spot to exchange them because they were thicker than usual and stale. I opened the replacement bag there at the customer service desk, and guess what? They were perfect.
I gave up on the TJ’s peppermint fluoride toothpaste—it was my go-to for years, because I can’t tolerate the xylitol sweetener that’s in most commercial brands—but I started noticing that a few tubes had an underlying taste of moldy bread. If you think it sounds disgusting, be thankful you didn’t have a mouthful. It was hit or miss at first, and they always exchanged it for me. But during the height of COVID, they were not accepting returns, and I’ve moved on to another brand.
The “customer engagement” efforts that go a little too far
This seems to have (finally) stopped at our store, but I am curious to know if this has happened to you. For years, I dreaded the quirky, borderline-invasive small talk that the front-end team at my store routinely initiated as they were ringing up my items.
- “What have you been up to today?”
- “How are you going to use this horseradish cheddar?”
- “Are you headed home after this?”
- “Aha, the pumpkin spice body butter!”
After a while, Les and I amused ourselves by imagining comebacks that would turn the tables on those awkward conversations. If we really wanted to be pre-emptive, we might have strung our responses together right at the greeting, like this:
Helpful TJ’s employee: “Hi there! I can take you right over here!”
Us: “Thanks so much! We’re in a hurry to get home so we can puree this horseradish cheese with moldy peppermint toothpaste. Won’t that be an awesome crostini topping for this half-frozen bread? Hey, double bag our order please—we have to stop off at the morgue for an identification on the way home. Whew, I’m glad it’s pumpkin spice season. So, here’s what I plan to do with this body butter…”
We are still feeling the love
At the end of all this ranting, I readily admit that the positives of Trader Joe’s outweigh the negatives.
It would take an awful lot to make us walk away, and our local store even has a place in our personal story. Sometime around the middle of 2014, I spotted a familiar face on my way to the checkout and commented on the fact that we each had a box of Trader Joe’s brand Toasted Oatmeal Flakes cereal in our baskets. I recognized Les from the pool league we both played in at the time, but he was drawing a blank—apparently, he didn’t recognize me without high heels and a pool cue in my hand! Later that year, we became teammates, then friends the next year, and what followed is obvious.
That “coincidental” meeting is further testament to the fact that some things are meant to last and others are not—this summer, Trader Joe’s discontinued our favorite cereal. I think it was a problem with the supplier, or something like that.