Trader Joe's Fan - Cult of Joes

From the NY Post Website

New Yorkers salivate for eccentric grocer's March 17 debut Software designer David Galbraith pronounces himself "stoked." East Village resident Brooke Nipar has been talking about it for months. And artist E.V. Day says she's "so excited I'm frothing at the mouth."

The event that has them in such a dither: the opening of a gourmet food store on 14th Street near Union Square.

In a city already awash in enough extra-virgin Tuscan olive oil and organic fingerling potatoes to keep an army of foodies in rations until the next millennium, that might seem an odd cause for jubilation. But this isn't just any gourmet food store - it's the city's first outpost of Trader Joe's, set to open March 17 at 142 E. 14th St., near Third Avenue.

Still confused?

New York, meet Trader Joe's, a 39-year-old California-based chain that inspires a fervor among its many rabid fans that might seem a little unusual to the uninitiated. They sing the praises of its prices (so cheap!), its exotic treats (the Thai lime-and-chile cashews!) the cheerful, Hawaiian-shirted workers (so friendly!), the goofy humor (so down-to-earth!). There are two Web sites devoted to Trader Joe's, and at least one singles group for Trader Joe's shoppers, based in Seattle.

"It's the only supermarket I know that has a cult following," marvels Len Lewis, a business writer and the author of the new book "The Trader Joe's Adventure: Turning a Unique Approach to Business Into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon."

"It's unique among retail food stores. It's kind of like the Grateful Dead of supermarkets."

The object of all that adulation is a chain of 250 stores, spread over 19 states, that has its roots in Southern California. The namesake and founder, Joe Coulombe, owned a chain of convenience stores around Los Angeles that in 1967 he upscaled into gourmet-food operations selling imported and specialty items at bargain prices.

Though the chain is now owned by a German grocery conglomerate, Aldi, much of the template for those initial stores survives: cedar-plank walls, a nautical theme, an irreverent sense of humor, workers in Hawaiian shirts who bear the titles captain (store manager), first mate (assistant manager) and crew member. And rock-bottom prices on a wide range of often-beguiling items, from spinach and goat-cheese quesadillas and soy-and-flaxseed tortilla chips to shade-grown French roast coffee and frozen shrimp tempura, 80 percent of them sporting the Trader Joe's house label.

Ask Trader Joe-Heads what they love so much about the store, and in the gush that follows, the prices will invariably get a prominent mention. By largely buying direct from manufacturers, literally scouring the world for bargains and striking hard deals with suppliers, Trader Joe's is able to offer some remarkable prices on high-quality products, says Lewis. They're often well below those of stores like Whole Foods, whether it's frozen ahi tuna steaks for $4.59 a pound, key-lime cheesecakes for $3.99, or the infamous "Two Buck Chuck" - the store's house-label wine, which sells as low as $1.99 a bottle (see above). More to the point, Manhattan real estate won't change that - your favorite salmon jerky will cost the same here as it does in L.A.

The prices made E.V. Day an instant convert when she discovered Trader Joe's as a student in Southern California 10 years ago.

On a student budget, "It was incredible to find this chain where could get a six-pack of really good beer for $3.99, and amazing fresh salsa for $1.99," she says. "And the quality is so good you never feel like you're sacrificing anything."

Then there's the chain's progressive social values, which combine the aggressive pricing structure of a Wal-Mart with the business philosophy of Ben and Jerry. Many items are organic, personal-care products are not animal-tested, eggs are from uncaged chickens, detergents are biodegradable, and artificial ingredients are verboten, allowing you to score a bargain while feeling good about yourself.

"It's almost like the way a food co-op is," Day says. "You feel like you're participating in something, and it makes you feel good."

In addition, points out David Galbraith, those progressive values are delivered with a lack of sanctimony and a quirky sense of humor, reflected in labels like Trader Jose's and Trader Giotto's (for Mexican and Italian items, respectively), product names like Semi-Precious Stone Wheat Crackers, and a vitamin line called Trader Darwin's - "for survival of the fittest."

" 'Environmentally friendly' is quite often self-righteous, but they make it friendly and happy," says Galbraith, who recently rented a car and drove two hours each way to make a run to a Long Island Trader Joe's.

Which brings us to another factor invariably mentioned by acolytes: a notoriously upbeat staff, who are handpicked for their outgoing personalities and paid handsomely for retail workers - up to $40,000 a year for a starting worker, according to Lewis, which may explain some of the giddiness.

"It's a very fun place; people are always smiling there, and the staff is very friendly," says Massachusetts resident Jovanna Brooks, who loves the store so much - and noted so much similar enthusiasm among her friends - that she started the Web site traderjoefan.com, where people trade recipes and tips about favorite finds. (The offerings at Trader Joe's change frequently - new products are introduced every month, announced in the Fearless Flyer, a folksy newsletter that Lewis likens to what you'd see "if Monty Python put together a supermarket flyer.")

"It really appeals to people's hearts as well as their minds, and the heart is the fun and the uniqueness," says Brooks. The people who contact her through the site "just want to scream to the world that they're Trader Joe's fans."

That kind of enthusiasm was hard to miss when I started asking around, trying to figure out what the big deal was. Co-workers raved about the groovy vibe and the bargain cheeses; a musician from San Francisco I know practically wept with joy when I told him about the new store; when I walked through Macy's with a Trader Joe's bag, a saleswoman accosted me and waxed rhapsodic about the ones she shopped at in California. Over and over I hear the same thing, "I loooove Trader Joe's."

After days of this kind of thing, I figure I'd better go see it for myself. So I hop a train to Westfield, N.J., where a Trader Joe's sits a couple blocks from the station. As I browse aisles of ginger peanut noodle salad and frozen fire-roasted vegetables, my pulse quickens, and I immediately begin calculating how much I can carry back on the train. If I forgo the $5 bohemian lager, I can add a $3 bag of avocados (organic!) and rib steaks from New Zealand (grass-fed!).

I load up as many snacks as I can and cart them back to The Post, where my co-workers dig in - drinking the Trader Joe's Kool-Aid, as it were. They ooh over the cilantro-and-chive yogurt dip, marvel at the chili-spiced dried mango, quaff the $4 chardonnay.

"So," asks one: "When is this store opening?"

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