CHAPEL HILL -- Dozens of workers -- nay, crew members -- bustled inside the soon to open Trader Joe's in Eastgate Shopping Center this week.
They inventoried vegetable chips and bottles of wine. They shelved items, swept the floor and readied the store for the 5,000 customers -- landlubbers, they're called -- expected Friday starting at 9 a.m.
After months of waiting, the much-anticipated Trader Joe's, a California-based specialty grocery store known for its Hawaiian shirt-clad employees, quality goods and low prices, is finally opening.
On Wednesday, there was a definite excitement in the air.
"The whole setting up, placing the first product on the shelf, is very euphoric," said Greg Fort, the "captain" of the Chapel Hill store who's been at the helm of two other store openings.
For months, Triangle residents have buzzed about the store.
"There's been a lady who keeps driving by and asking when we're going to open," said Laura Korch, a crew member. "It's been fun. It's a little chaotic."
The enthusiasm customers have for the store is nothing new to Jovanna Brooks, creator of TraderJoesFan.com, a Web site where fans discuss new products and new stores and trade recipes made with Trader Joe's products.
"They have a lot of very unique things that are very delicious," she said.
The store has organic and fair-trade goods and keeps prices low, some 20-40 percent cheaper than other grocery chains, Brooks said.
The store does particularly well in pre-packaged items, like the green tea baking mix and pre-made frozen oatmeal, that don't use preservatives and are good for busy young professionals and families.
"The only negative... is that they don't have the same variety of fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables," Brooks said.
About 85 percent of the store's goods are under the private Trader Joe's label. By cutting out the middle man whenever possible, the company is able to buy in bulk, do quality control and keep prices low.
One famous example is the store's exclusive deal with Charles Shaw wine, known as Two Buck Chuck because it's only $1.99 a bottle in California.
"We have a special relationship with our suppliers," said crew member Bryan Kueffner, a veteran Trader Joe's employee.
Those relationships and Trader Joe's particular business model took decades to build.
The store was founded in 1958 near Los Angeles as Pronto Markets. In the late '60s, founder Joe Coulombe, "Trader Joe," changed the company's direction to specialize in natural foods and good wines.
In 1979, Coulombe sold the chain to members of a German family who also own Aldi Inc., an international grocer.
But despite the international ownership and now hundreds of stores, the company tries to keep each location tied to communities.
The Chapel Hill store's interior is painted Carolina blue out of loyalty to nearby UNC Chapel Hill. The murals, painted by a local artist, mostly feature scenes from Carolina that would win the loyalty of any Tar Heel heart.
But Tar Heels born and Tar Heels bred should be forewarned -- Duke University's Blue Devil mascot and a red N.C. State University flag do appear in the store.
"The experience when you come here to shop is what I think separate us from everyone else. It's a little mom-and-pop," said Fort.
© 2007 by The Durham Herald Company. All rights reserved.