The Things They Carried, Carted, Packed and Checked

I wrote this article for a publication, but they killed it -- just hours before they published an article on the same exact topic by a staff writer. Scrambling to find another publication who would publish, at the 11th hour, a story that had already been covered proved fruitless as would be expected, but I decided to publish this here so that all the wonderful and crazy people who helped me with the story could see it. I'm also publishing this on my site, because the article that actually ran seemed to be written with as much enthusiasm as an essay titled "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," and I wanted people to enjoy reading these stories of how fanatical lovers of Trader Joe's really can be.

March 18, 2006

Specialty grocer Trader Joe's will finally be gracing New York with a location near Union Square, bringing an end to a curious phenomenon in New York—call it extreme Trader Joe's shopping.

Deborah Skinner, who used to live in Los Angeles, where the inexpensive, high-quality chain originated, is a classic example of an extreme Trader Joe's shopper. Skinner, a 36-year-old journalist, has lived in New York for 13 years and used to make Trader Joe's expeditions to Westfield, NJ, by train with three large bags and a backpack. (Now she and her husband drive from their home in Brooklyn.) The trip used to take almost two hours each way—a half-hour from her then-apartment in Alphabet City to Penn Station, an hour on New Jersey Transit usually involving a transfer and a ten-minute walk to the store. One time, she missed the train to New Jersey and waited almost an hour for the next one, but she didn't mind it as much as she would have if she had missed it on the return when she was carrying so much frozen food.

“The train station was about a 10-minute walk from the Trader Joe’s, and it’s a fast walk when you’re going, but it was a really hard walk on the way back, because I often had 15 bottles of wine with me. And then I had to take it up three flights of stairs [to her apartment],” she says.

Besides her 15 wine bottles, Skinner would also be carting items like two 64-oz. bottles of Sir Strawberry juice, frozen mushroom and broccoli quiche, vegetarian potstickers, veggie burgers, the three-layer torte which is made of cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto and three or four bottles of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Moisturizing Lotion, which she has used since 1989 and whose price was only recently raised from $1.99 to $2.49 for an 18-oz. bottle.

The difficulty of shopping in New Jersey makes the shopping she did on trips to Los Angeles seem easy by comparison. “I once brought back a case of wine and a load of frozen food on the plane,” she recalls.

Trading analyst Amy Brady, 27, does a different kind of extreme Trader Joe’s shopping. “Whenever I go to Trader Joe’s, I know I’m going there specifically for the salsa. I buy so many bottles of salsa at a time that I am always a little nervous the cashiers are going to tell me I am buying too many.” Brady buys about 10-12 bottles at a time, and sometimes takes all the ones they have displayed, even though doing so makes her feel bad for the people won’t discover how good it is because she’s cleared out the supply. “If it’s sold out, that ruins my whole trip to Trader Joe’s, but I understand that it’s sold out, because it’s so good that other people buy everything that’s available too,” she says. Trader Jose’s Salsa Autentica is the only salsa she eats, because it’s all natural and has just a few ingredients—tomatoes, onions and spices.

Brady’s dozen 12-oz. bottles must last her at least three months, right? Wrong. “About two weeks. It’s so bad—I’ll seriously come home and have, for dinner, salsa and chips.” She usually finishes a jar in one meal.

In a city where specialty or organic grocery stores like Balducci’s, Dean and DeLuca, Zabar’s, Gourmet Garage, Citarella, Whole Foods, Wholesome Market, Garden of Eden and Fairway are as numerous as skyscrapers, New Yorkers who go out of their way to go to Trader Joe’s might seem as silly as Midwesterners who come to Times Square to eat at buffets.

Britta Van Dun, a 30-year-old writer, has a childhood Trader Joe’s memory that may explain what drives extreme TJ’s shoppers: “My father would stop by the Trader Joe’s in Long Beach [while on business], and would have brought along with him an Igloo ice chest. He’d load it with brie, Camembert, Gruyere, Swiss cheese—basically a litany of fancy cheeses—and cordial cherries and perishables and buy bags and bags of non-perishables like a boatload of chocolates, imported beer, peanut butter-filled pretzels, and these pretzel nuggets with sunflower seeds. When he would come home [to Tucson, Ariz.], it would be like Santa Claus came. We were like, ‘What is this Trader Joe’s where you can get this amazing food for so cheap?’” She says that the nicer groceries in Tuscon had some of the items, but at higher prices that would have made her frugal father more cautious.

“Somehow Trader Joe’s made these luxuries possible,” she says.

Customers like 23-year-old Teresa Liao, an account manager at Seamless Web, rave about the service. “If you have a question, like, ‘Do you know where the peanut butter is?’ They’ll take you there, but if you go to Wal-Mart, they’ll say, ‘Aisle 5,’” says Liao, whose mother will spend 40 minutes driving her back to her Upper East Side apartment from New Hyde Park on Long Island so Liao doesn’t have to lug her frozen chicken burritos, oatmeal chocolate cookies and soy chips on the train.

Some people love the grocer known for its Hawaiian-shirted personnel more for its quirks than its food. CJ Freshour, a 30-year-old office manager in commercial real estate who used to live in Los Angeles, says, “My absolute favorite thing about Trader Joe’s is their flyer. I used to read their flyer from cover to cover. I remember looking forward to it whenever it came out.” She says the so-called Fearless Flyer contains illustrations, goofy stories about the origins of featured products, tips on how to prepare certain foods and pairing suggestions for wines.

Sonya Alvarez’s Trader Joe’s obsession once prompted her to look into buying a franchise. Alas, the Monrovia, Calif.-based chain is privately owned. Although the 27-year-old research manager at WNYC doesn’t get to go every day, she does go every week. For the past year, she and her friend, 35-year-old iron worker Matt Vandenhengel have been taking her blue Mini Cooper from their homes in Queens to the Trader Joe’s in Hewlett on Long Island every Saturday. They have also been known to hit the Merrick location in the same day if the Hewlett one lacks an item they had hoped to buy.

On a recent Saturday, Alvarez’s stroll down the aisles elicits a running commentary. “Here the aloe vera juice is $7.99, and in Fort Lauderdale, where my stepmother lives, it’s $4.99 for a quarter of the amount…. The chocolate and dark chocolate-covered cashews are so good—we went to Florida with them.… The olive oil is excellent. My mother said it’s cheap, but I don’t shop anywhere else, so I wouldn’t know…. Matt”—who was on a ski trip that Saturday—“always gets the [herbal cold remedy] Airborne here. It’s $5.99 here, but $8.99 elsewhere…. I love how the Italian stuff says ‘Trader Giotto’s’ on it and how the vitamins say, ‘Trader Darwin’s.’ And this soap”—she says, pointing to the Oatmeal Exfoliant Ginger Almond Soap—“is called ‘Trader Jacques.’ I think that’s so funny.”

Her shopping partner Vandenhengel loves the cookies at Trader Joe’s in particular. His habit of buying five or six boxes of cookies a week and sharing them with his co-workers has earned him the nickname “The Cookie Monster” at work. “If I we have a little coffee break, I’ll pull out the cookies and some people will come running, but some people are more stoic, so I’ll go around and say, ‘Cookie?’ ‘Cookie?’ Even the stoic guys want them but they’ll never ask for them.” His weekly fix consists of the cinnamon kitty cats, the chocolate kitty cats, the shortbread butter cookies with a chocolate center and the shortbread cookies with the fruit center, and every once in a while he’ll buy the Joe-Joe’s, which, like Oreos, have cream-filled centers. He also takes orders from his coworkers, regularly mails a TJ’s care package to an ex-girlfriend who now lives upstate, and bought 12 liqueur cakes and eight tubs of cookies there to give as Christmas gifts.

Alavarez, who got him hooked on Trader Joe’s, has been to stores in Suffolk County, Fairfield, CT, Westport, CT, San Francisco and Boston, in addition to the Hewlett and Merrick locations. “I have said to my friends, ‘We should do a trip across the country and go to all the Trader Joe’s,’” she says, and then exclaims with sudden inspiration: “Trader Joe’s should do a tour!”

If the wood-paneled grocer is interested in creating a cross-country tour, 45-year-old freelance broadcaster and self-described “serious foodie” Dan Hirschi could be hired to run it. Hirschi regularly shopped there when he lived in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, and he shopped at TJ’s in LA and Las Vegas after he moved to Utah. Even when he lived in East Tennessee and discovered the South didn’t have a single location, he went to Trader Joe’s whenever he was on any trip that took him remotely close to one. All told, he has been to 20 Trader Joe’s stores across the country including three in New York, one in New Jersey, three in Virginia, one in Maryland, two in Ohio, two in Indiana, one in Nevada and seven in California.

Not all states allow groceries to sell alcohol, so Hirschi, who liked to buy cases of wine at Trader Joe’s, boned up on his state liquor laws. “If I went to D.C., I had to shop in Virginia instead of Maryland, and if I went to Indianapolis, I would go to Trader Joe’s on Saturday, not Sunday.”

Although he and his wife like New York groceries such as Murray’s Cheese Shop and the Park Slope Co-op, they still drive as much as an hour and a half from their Park Slope home to the Westfield, NJ, Trader Joe’s to stock up on organic cereal, pomegranate blueberry juice, Belgian chocolates, aloe vera juice, meringues, chocolate-covered orange jelly sticks, yogurt-covered dried cherries, triple ginger cookies, Thai shrimp gyoza, organic sugar and wine.

Like Hirschi, many New York transplants won’t let a relocation alter their grocery shopping habits. When 27-year-old nurse Amy Brady moved here from Boston a year and a half ago, she and her roommate loaded a case of Trader Joe’s licorice, a case of wine and a case of her favorite spicy refried beans into their moving truck to prepare for their separation from the store. Maureen Naff, a 32-year-old product manager in academic publishing who admittedly cooks just once every two weeks, says, “Whatever is in my freezer is 90% Trader Joe’s. I get all my frozen vegetables and all my frozen fish there.” And Jewel Lee, a 24-year-old who does freelance textile research and development, receives a box, shipped express for her frozen French onion soup, from her family in Los Angeles filled with Trader Joe’s goods every couple of months.

The reason Tracey Shumpert asks her mother to spend two hours roundtrip chauffeuring the 30-year-old paralegal back to Manhattan from West Milford, NJ, to make sure Shumpert has a decent supply of ginger, mango, pistachio fruit and nut mix may give another Union Square grocer cause for concern. “At Trader Joe’s, I can afford to buy all the things I’d love to buy at Whole Foods, but it’s just too expensive,” says Shumpert. “You really can afford to indulge at Trader Joe’s.”

Considering what many New Yorkers have been willing to do to shop at what Van Dun calls “the greatest grocery store ever,” it’s no surprise that many plan to incorporate the new Union Square store into their regular grocery habits. “I would definitely make the extra train transfer to get to Trader Joe’s,” she says.

Actually, a train transfer sounds pretty reasonable.


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