- Photo illustration by Adam McCabe
If you haven’t already experienced one, you might be wondering: What is the big freaking deal about Trader Joe’s anyway? Well, I’m not here to sell you on it. Frankly, every person who shrugs and says “BFD” is one less person I’ll have to fight for a parking space, and with what I know of TJ’s parking lots, that’s a good thing. But if you’re a total TJ’s noob, here’s a rundown of what you can anticipate once the 12,500-square-foot store opens at 131 N. Orlando Ave. in Winter Park at 8 a.m. on Friday, June 27.
OK but for real, what’s the deal?
Back in Orlando Weekly’s 2007 Holiday Guide issue, I wrote about how all I wanted for Christmas was a Trader Joe’s. I don’t think I’d change my description of the chain from what I wrote then: “TJ’s is where you go when you get paid peanuts, but have a taste for Marcona almonds dusted with rosemary and sea salt. … [It’s] high livin’ for broke folks.” This high-low formula is what gains Trader Joe’s its rabid following. It’s cheap, but it’s not a big-box store like Costco; it sells healthy, non-GMO foods, but it’s not a temple of high-priced purity like Whole Foods can be. In some ways it’s the best of both those worlds: gourmet goods like wild-caught salmon, burrata and organic blueberry juice at fish-stick, cheddar-slice and Cran-Apple prices.
The store has evolved over the years. Where once there were very few perishables – no produce or dairy – now there are sections stocked with organic goat kefir and big plastic clamshells full of fresh basil. However, it’s not a total one-stop shop. You’ll find cleaning supplies, personal-care items (like soaps and vitamins) and pet products, but nothing like the kind of selection you’d find at a Publix or the like. Trader Joe’s stocks about 80 percent private-label goods, so if you’re the brand-loyal sort, you won’t find your Crest, Calgon or Courry-brand cat food here.
One thing that hasn’t changed much is the wine and beer selection, renowned for its cheapness. The famous Two Buck Chuck is up to $2.99 in most stores now, so we’ll have to call it Three Buck Chuck – but it’s still a hell of a buy, if perhaps not the most refined bottle. (Oenophiles should go for the Trader Joe’s Grand Reserve.)
The theme park of grocery stores
Like a theme park, TJ’s has a story and they stick to it. They’re “traders on the culinary seas,” hence the nautical-tiki decor, the Hawaiian shirts on the employees (the “crew” is divided into “mates” and “captains”) and the ship’s bell instead of a PA system.
As mentioned above, Trader Joe’s sells mostly private-label products, meaning even if the cereal is made in the same factory with the same ingredients, it’s not a box of Cheerios – it’s a box of Joe’s O’s. And unlike many store brands, which opt for a quiet, generic-lite aesthetic on their store-label goods, TJ’s goes for the zany when they name their products. Look for Trader Giotto’s spaghetti sauce, Trader José’s refried beans, Trader Ming’s chow mein and other borderline-bad-taste puns on the shelves. Sign up for the “Fearless Flyer” (a weekly email of new and featured products) to stay in the know … and experience a regular dose of TJ’s-themed humor.
Lines. Lines like Disney.
When the 14th Street location opened in Manhattan, lines to purchase groceries wrapped from the front of the store to the back, up to the front again and back to the back again. Meanwhile, there was a line out the door onto the street just to get into the store. Eight years later, it still gets that backed up in the evening hours. Of course, that’s New York and those people are crazy, but last year, I witnessed a similar register line in Gainesville on the weekend that fall semester started. Just wear comfy shoes or bring a book or something; don’t be that asshole with the heavy sighs and loud general complaints.
Don’t expect it to be easy to even get into that register line, either: Backed-up traffic to get into the lot and circling SUVs fighting for parking spots are standard at Trader Joe’s. One of the many ways TJ’s keeps costs down is by building (relatively) small stores without an asphalt sea of parking slots. The Dr. Phillips store, opening late 2014 or early 2015, was temporarily blocked by residents concerned about increased traffic; developer Unicorp had to promise to hire an off-duty sheriff to supervise the lot during peak hours for the first six months before they could move forward with construction.
However, anyone who’s shopped at the Aloma Avenue Whole Foods should be equipped to handle the space limitations. No big thing, Orlando.
Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy, and just because it’s healthy doesn’t mean it’s low-cal. All those organic almonds, no-sugar-added juices, high-cacao dark chocolates and resveratrol-rich red wines may be cheap and good for you, but they’re surrounded by shelves full of cookie butter, toffee nibs and cheese-smothered truffle-puree pizzas. Also, Trader Joe’s will let you try anything before you buy it – they’ll simply open it up right there for you – so if you aren’t careful, a short trip to the store could turn into a moveable feast. See you in the aisles!