22 thoughts on “The Good and Bad of Trader Joe’s”

  1. I am hopelessly clueless. What is the big deal with Trader Joe’s? Is it not just another grocery store?

    Someone fill me in, please.

  2. I’m with you, Michael. I think this is like people being so excited about Target. (Unofficial: “Walmart for people who think they’re too good for Walmart.”)

    I’m going to throttle the next person who tells me that “what Charlottesville really needs is an Olive Garden.” Then why don’t you move to any other city in the entire country, where they have one?

  3. About half my family lives in Charlottesville and I enjoy keeping tabs on things via your site here.

    I can appreciate the Target/Walmart and the OG comments. We live in a rural area and have the same issues with transplants who want to make here look like wherever they came from. I guess it’s a human thing.

    However, as a shopper at TJ’s and numerous other grocery stores, I don’t think the comparisons are quite apt and I feel compelled to offer something from the other side… TJ’s offers a lot of high quality products at lower than average prices, and they offer quite a few organic products, again at very reasonable prices. And, they have many things not readily available elsewhere. Indeed, they have their share of quirky things and undoubtedly are not for everyone, but what a boon if you need to conserve money and want to eat healthy and interesting. I’ve lived in many parts of the country and everywhere I went, TJ’s made a higher standard of eating possible, even when I was a poor student.

  4. I guess Michael and I will see when it opens here, Susan. :) I’ve never been to the place, and know virtually nothing about it, other than that everything (?) they sell is a house brand, and it’s said to be cheap.

  5. I always shopped TJ before going to the grocery story when I lived in L.A. They had things like good quality pesto, when pesto wasn’t cool. The ingredients have always been pronouncable — one of my long-term litmus tests for food buying. The prices were guaranteed to be lower than the grocery store’s and the quality better. Depending on the offerings, a TJ may mean I’ll be able to substitute TJ for the grocery store and supplement with produce from C’ville Market.

    My only ambivalence is that it will be located in the county and I try to keep as many of my purchase dollars (and their attendant tax revenues) within the city limits.

  6. Barbara,

    Pesto has always been “cool”!

    I like Trader Joe’s too, although I’ve only patronized the stores when visiting family in Cali.

  7. Waldo, my sentiments exactly: never been there, house brands, relatively cheap. That’s all I know and don’t get what the big fuss is, hence my initial question. :-)

    It seems like there is something “special” that TJ afficianados swear by at TJ. Guess we’ll see.

  8. I used to wonder what the deal with Trader Joe’s was until I started shopping in one. They have very good stuff at surprisingly reasonable prices. At they one I shopped in, they also had very helpful, knowledgable employees, which are hard to find anywhere these days. Drive to Short Pump sometime and give it a try, and I would bet you would suddenly be anxious for one to open here too.

  9. They carry products that have little to no preservatives (which is why they have mostly house brands) and use quality and often organic ingredients. The reason it is such a process to get to a new city is that they will only put stores within a couple hundred miles of a distribution center (a 1 day truck drive). To get that kind of quality food, you usually have to go to a Whole Foods or Foods of All Nations, and pay double what you would in a standard grocery store. However, you will find that TJ’s will likely beat out all grocery stores on price, as well. Anyone I have ever known who lived near one wouldn’t shop anywhere else. I understand the skepticism, but you will be sorry if you don’t try them out!

  10. In theory I should be really happy about TJ’s finally coming to Charlottesville. I grew up south of Pasadena, and two of the earlier LA-area Trader Joe’s were in the next neighborhood over and on my route to high school. When Pierre Cardin made an abortive early venture into wines in the late 70s and ended up selling their remaining stock to Trader Joe’s (whose early fame was precisely from getting ahold of “remainders” like that), my parents bought a case that lived in my bedroom closet until depleted. (I was off at college most of that time so my storage area was fair game.) Only a few years after Nixon went to China, there was TJ’s importing huge cans of honey from the P.R.C., labelled with a 19th-century woodcut of the Great Wall.

    TJ’s eventually followed me to San Diego, to my father’s place in Santa Barbara, and to Tucson, where my hikes in the Santa Catalinas were generally fueled by TJ Force Primeval energy bars. TJ’s has been as much a part of the fabric of my family’s life as anything I can think of.

    So it’s odd to find myself suspecting that I will rarely shop at their 29/Hydraulic store. It will be too big — 12.5K square feet is pipsqueak by Whole Foods standards, but the TJs of my youth were about the size of Integral Yoga. It will, I guess, have roughly the crowds and the vibe of the current Whole Foods on 29, which it drives me bat-crazy to set foot in. Finally, these days it’s just not that hard to find healthy reasonably priced food at any number of outlets. Heck, I get my sprouted-grain Alvarado St. Bakery bread at funky old Great Valu in Crozet and my organic Greek yogurt at Kroger. And when it comes down to it, a lot of Trader Joe’s tastier house brand frozen and pre-packaged meals are also richly caloric and higher in fat than is good for anyone without a Ferrari metabolism.

    But I’ll be pleased if my skepticism deriving from over-familiarity turns out to be as unfounded as the skepticism of unfamiliarity.

  11. Some of the TJ house brand stuff is quite obviously made by other companies and rebranded for TJ.

    That said, they have peanut-free (allergy x-contamination) sunflower seeds, something I can’t buy locally. And I love their brown jasmine rice, which cooks up in 30 minutes. I also buy the GF mac&cheese to keep on hand for quick crappy lunches.

    Frozen food is hit or miss–some of it is pretty processed, some is great. I was vegetarian when I lived in DC, but my husband frequently bought frozen fish from TJ’s and was happy with it. We bought a lot of frozen green beans, frozen mushrooms, and frozen asparagus way back when.

    I really like their roasted red pepper & eggplant spread, which is just ajvar. (I miss having X-Yuga here in town with giant jars of ajvar.) The marinated mushrooms and sweet pickles are a mainstay for me.

    From visiting many TJ’s all over the country, I’m convinced part of their public image involves the worst parking lot traffic flow imaginable. Seriously, there’s no other excuse other than it’s part of the corporate branding.

    If TJ’s comes here, I’ll shop there–especially if it’s on a bus route. Until then, I’ll occasionally make a brief detour in Silver Spring or Centreville on our trips to/from NJ. And yeah, I sometimes hit up Short Pump if I’m visiting Richmond for other things.

    It won’t really affect how often I shop elsewhere in town. I’ve had my Trader Joe’s staples for a decade or more. It will just mean that I won’t have to fill my trunk with a 3mo stockpile in another city or state. (If anything, I might hit up Rebecca’s or IY more often due to the tinier stockpile running empty more frequently. If I run out of GF pasta, I might decide I’d rather hit up one of the smaller stores rather than brave the TJ parking lot.)

  12. Everybody’s house brands are made by somebody else.

    For what it’s worth, everybody’s rented store space has parking designed by someone else. Bad parking lot design is pretty much a given with suburban sprawl.

  13. David Sewell, the vibe of the Cville Whole Foods changed a lot after the Great Recession. People living on portfolios did not want to have to eat them too. So it was not as bat-inducing there after that. I’ve been to WF in other towns that bugged me for other reasons though since then.

  14. Ah, Waldo, so you have a new experience to look forward to.:) I agree with much of the above, both yay and nay. It is bizarre how bad the parking/traffic is wherever they are, but then they don’t create that they just move into it. Where we are, TJ’s is 10 miles away and the nearest WF is 50 miles (I go once a year) and there’s nothing remotely like Integral Yoga. Things I want like raw unsalted almonds, organic unsalted butter, uncured bacon, etc. either can’t be found or they cost literally 2 to 3 times what they do at TJ’s. Today’s find was a corned beef brisket that is not only uncured but has about 1/10 the sodium per serving as others. Ya just never know.

  15. TJs is the best there is at what they do which is not being a full service grocery store. They excel at nuts and dried fruits, comparatively healthy snacks, interesting cookies and a wide array of interesting and tasty frozen foods. They have a terrific and well curated wine selection and some good beer. They have good cheese (the falls somewhere between a regular grocery store and Feat or Whole Foods for quality but at grocery store prices). That have a limited selection of poultry (which is good) and beef and fish (which I’m not the biggest fan of all the time). You’re not going to do well looking to TJs for fresh produce.

    Their house brands are often repackaged things made by other companies. But they are almost always significantly less expensive than those same products in their name brand packaging. And TJs insists on the same ingredients in those products as they do in things specific to their store. That includes (according to their website) no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, genetically modified ingredients, MSG or added Trans Fats.

    The combination of unique products, price and ingredient rules make it a pretty good place to get things if you find things you like. They have a much more limited selection of things than a grocery store; on the order of 1/10th as many items as a regular grocery store has.

  16. I think this is the enivable outcome of living in the midst of expanding wine county merged with a top ranked college town and the growth of the military intelligence complex on it’s northern border.

    Mix all that with the horse set, trust funders, and Hedge/fund managers and it’s only going to get foodier-

    Which isn’t all bad if you pay attetnion and don’t get caught up in the hype.

  17. I had always assumed the olive garden comments were completely in jest.

    Besides, we have Ragazzi’s, which is just like a one-off Olive Garden…..

  18. I have similarly always assumed that comments in support of the Meadowcreek Parkway were in jest. I can’t imagine someone seriously being for either of those things.

  19. I’m interested to see how the arrival of Trader Joe’s will impact the prices at Whole Foods.

  20. I’m interested in seeing how dumpster diving in the area is impacted.

  21. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are often very close to each other in suburban strip malls. i think they bring each other customers, rather than having to compete for customers.

    I know that I often stop at TJ’s in Short Pump on my way home from Richmond for the staples we need for our son’s allergy-limited diet, and then swing by the Whole Foods a quarter mile away to get the more expensive version of something that was out of stock at TJ’s.

  22. Whole Food and Trader Joe’s don’t, in my experience, compete across that wide a range of products. A regular grocery store carries something on the order of 50,000 products; Trader Joe’s carries on the order of 5-7,000 products (though, 12,500 sq. feet is quite a bit larger than most TJs so perhaps they’ll carry more than average). Whole Foods is a full service grocery store, TJs isn’t.

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