In a recurring daydream, I am reclining on Espresso Pillows and having a drink with Two-Buck Chuck while munching on Pork Gyoza Potstickers or Pita Crisps dipped in Pumpkin Cream Cheese. Van Morrison or the Beach Boys are playing in the background, and dozens of smiling people spontaneously start singing, using their bottles of salad dressing or olive oil as microphones.
Then I wake up, and I’m trudging up and down the supermarket aisle, plucking items by rote from the shelf. Same old cereal and charmless chicken thighs. Don’t forget the toilet paper. Push cart, fill cart, repeat. It’s kind of like being a miner, except it’s much too bright, and the Muzak is too loud.
“If only I could be shopping at Trader Joe’s,” I’ve sighed for years.
But now, my daydream is coming true. At long last, a Trader Joe’s is opening in South Florida, on Friday, at 9205 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest, site of the former Border’s bookshop opposite Shorty’s.
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If you hunger for good food at good prices, the arrival of TJ’s brings visions of Roasted Seaweed Snacks raining from the sky like dollar bills.
Is it really possible to fantasize about a grocery store? If you, like me, are a Trader Joe’s groupie, yes it is.
The chore of shopping and the brainteaser of stimulating taste buds week after week is made more adventurous and economical by this California-born, German-owned chain, which sells its own line of unconventional products, thus eliminating the middleman.
You can find Trader Joe’s Mango Passion Granola, Carrot Ginger Soup, Dark Chocolate Roasted Pistachio Toffee, Speculoos Cookie Butter (the consistency of peanut butter but with a Belgian cookie, caramel, gingerbread flavor), Tofu Edamame Nuggets, Celtic Cheddar Trio, Monkey Business Trek Mix, Roasted Vegetable Multi-Grain Pasta, Smokehouse Pulled Beef Brisket, Beurre Meuniere Popcorn, Midnight Moo Chocolate Syrup, Masala Simmer Sauce and Broccoli and Cauliflower Duet.
There are self-rising croissants, lavender clothes-dryer bags, scone mixes, real cheap real maple syrup, exceptional frozen entrees, citrus body cleansers and cedarwood household cleaners. The bountiful, fanciful alcohol section includes Charles Shaw wine starting at $1.99 or a bottle of brawny barolo for $15. Did I mention clever greeting cards for only 99 cents?
Ask diehard TJ’s fans, and the list of favorites will tumble off grateful tongues.
“Thai and Lime Cashews,” replied one friend, who was rebuffed by another nuts nut: “Coconut Cashews are better.”
Trader Joe’s buyers travel the world searching for new and unusual products on which to imprint their brand name. So there’s Trader Giotto’s pasta sauce, Trader Jose’s microbrewed beer, Trader Jacques’ oatmeal exfoliant savon de France and Trader Ming’s stir-fry dishes.
Stores have a South Pacific theme. Employees, led not by a manager but a “captain,” wear Hawaiian shirts. You taste food samples and coffee at a tiki hut. You can buy a bag of frozen vegetables called Contemplate Your Inner Peas.
Somehow this is not cloyingly cute because it’s done with a wink. A TJ’s store, known in the industry as a “limited assortment retailer,” is about a quarter the size of a Publix, and designed to feel like an air-conditioned farmer’s market.
Because the clerks are so friendly and knowledgeable, shopping at TJ’s will actually put you in a good mood – a boon in South Florida, where too many people employed to provide service treat the concept with a silent shrug. TJ’s employees will not only guide you to a product but offer you a free bite and their opinion of it. Nor is it rare to see shoppers who are strangers sharing recommendations.
I first became acquainted with Trader Joe’s on visits to California. Our family of five became addicted during a year we spent living in Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s the only grocery store my kids willingly enter, and they have become sampling experts and connoisseurs of certain items, like Pomegranate Organic Toaster Pastries.
Since then, I have gone to great lengths to bring TJ’s products home. I’ve Mapquested locations in Washington, D.C., Chapel Hill, N.C., Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago. Wherever I am, I pester friends or relatives with the question, “Hey, do you have a Trader Joe’s nearby?”
I’ve boxed and mailed items and had my carry-on suitcase searched by TSA inspectors who suspected bomb-making material but found bars of lemon verbena soap. I’ve stuffed the minivan on summer vacations in Michigan. I’ve hauled coolers to Naples so that, after a visit with my parents, we can stop at Trader Joe’s and restock before the drive back to Miami.
Smitten shopper or sucker to the cult of TJ’s? Well, I’m not alone. Earlier this month a fellow junkie won a legal battle against TJ’s. Michael Hallatt, who lives in Vancouver, opened a shop called Pirate Joe’s two years ago to satisfy craving in Canada, where TJ’s does not operate. Hallatt drove his van across the border and filled it weekly with $25,000 worth of products he purchased at TJ’s stores in Washington or Oregon. Then he resold them in Vancouver with a small markup.
The chain tried to block Hallatt, one of its best customers, by posting his photo in stores. When Trader Joe’s sued him for trademark infringement, he dropped the P from his shop’s name, turning it into “Irate Joe’s.” After a U.S. judge ruled against the company, Hallatt celebrated by giving out free chocolate, but said he’d rather see TJ’s open in Canada than continue to run his marginally profitable business.
Trader Joe’s was founded in Pasadena, Calif., by Joe Couloumbe in 1967. Coulombe sold it to German grocery CEO Theo Albrecht in 1979, but headquarters stayed in Monrovia, Calif. The Albrecht family, which owns the two branches of the ALDI chain, remains secretive about TJ’s suppliers and the deals it cuts with them in order to keep competitors guessing. TJ’s, which has 400 stores in 35 states, has followed a calculating expansion plan, presumably to maintain the brand’s cool, quirky vibe and avoid the overproliferation that damaged Starbucks.
Trader Joe’s is not as inexpensive as ALDI, but it won’t empty your whole wallet the way Whole Foods does. Do not expect to do 100 percent of your family shopping at TJ’s. The selection of bulk items is limited, and the produce section is small. But if you have seen your grocery bills balloon while your paycheck leaks red ink, you won’t be able to resist TJ’s bargains on everything from orange juice to shampoo. Organic, gourmet and seasonal items are featured in TJ’s Fearless Flyer and recipes on its website.
If absence makes the stomach grow fonder, let’s hope that familiarity doesn’t breed indigestion. Now that we will have a Trader Joe’s to call our own, filling bags there won’t feel like Christmas anymore. But at least I’ll be singing while I shop.