Trader Joe's Unplugged

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Trader Joe's Unplugged

  • Rachel Brownlee

    As a freelance writer with a background in horticulture and sustainable agriculture, Rachel's intrest in food has, over time, become her primary artistic medium. An advocate of exploring the freedoms...

Photo courtesy of BlogAsheville 

We all do it. And we all have wondered if filling the cart at Trader Joe’s involves participating in something dirty? Why, you risk asking, is this block of sharp cheddar $3.49? Why? How? Who is getting ripped off to give me this seemingly incredible savings? Who got whacked, threatened or woke up to a severed horse head between the sheets? So far, not me, you think as you reach for the goat milk gouda, flip it over and sneak a half smile at the marked price. 

You may wonder just enough about your possible indiscretions to do some research. Here you will find surprisingly little information.Trader Joe’s is known for its silence when it comes to sharing their strategies with those on the outside. So secretive in fact, TJ’s headquarters in Monrovia, CA is barely marked. This is part of it. They have a solid business structure and are not looking for copycats. 

Here are a few facts thanks in part to an excellent article by Emily Co published by POPSUGAR:

According to Fortune, most grocery stores stock their shelves with approximately 50,000 items. Trader Joe’s by comparison stocks closer to 4,000. This is genius, since most of these items are sold under their brand name (making them more profit as we shop). This lack in choice actually helps TJ’s consumers buy MORE. It simplifies things and makes shopping more efficient for the shopper. 

Suppliers are anonymous. Big companies for example only, like Organic Vally, can provide TJ’s with a discounted product of the same quality as its brand name without jeopardizing their full price accounts. These companies benefit lowing their prices for TJ’s and selling under the TJ's label because they are guaranteed a high turnaround. Everybody wins.

No distributers. TJ’s buys directly from suppliers whereas most grocery chains purchase from distributers who charge for this service. This is a big cost saver for TJ’s and TJ’s customers. 

Other cost cutting tactics include simplistic checkout equipment (no conveyors delivering your goods to your checkout attendant and barley enough room to bag your groceries), bells instead of loud speakers for management assistance, and very little marketing, which costs a lot. All these cost saving efforts allow TJ's to offer significant price cuts to consumers. 

I know little about the life of TJ's employees, and some research alludes to contracts keeping employee’s tight lipped, but I do know many transfer from state to state and stay with the company for years. Some are lifers. 

Savings yes, but here are the cons: The label secrecy makes it difficult to know which companies are manufacturing your product, and thus, it is difficult to hold these companies accountable for their practices. 

Also, due to space saving tactics, it really sucks shopping when TJ’s is crowded. Really sucks. 

Some products are so inexpensive, you just put them in your cart, and this can lead to choices that do not line up with intentional eating. Cowboy Bark. Bad idea. 

Until you discover all the goodies TJ’s has to offer (this takes some time) here is my fast track advice:

Do pillage the cheese section. The goat milk gouda, blues, asiago, cave aged cheddar and Parmesan are winners. The whole milk ricotta is very nice, great on top of fresh baked cornbread drizzled with honey. And I always keep a pack of whole milk feta around to sprinkle in omelets or over a sautée of vegetables.

Do buy the frozen Naan and organic marinara sauce to make last minute toaster oven pizzas with some of the cheese you stocked up on. Throw some chiffonade spinach or basil on there and you’re set. Don’t do TJ’s prepackaged frozen pizzas, they're not as good as the Naan version.

Don’t get your coffee beans at TJ’s, but Do get your organic half and half there. With so many incredible bean roasters here in town (Mountain Air, Dynamite Coffee, Thousand Faces, Counter Culture) spend a little extra on a much more enjoyable cup. 

Do get the TJ’s organic whole milk plain yogurt and butter. 

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Do stock up on nuts, nut butters, dried fruit and seeds. Killer deals.

Don’t waste your time on TJ’s face wash or TJ’s no-oil face moisturizer. Bad. Breakouts loom. 

Do grab TJ’s Midsummer Night’s Moisturizing Cream in a pump bottle. Unscented. Great after sun. 

Do buy your hand soap from TJ’s with the exception of the antibacterial Fresh Linen variety that is stickier than sap when it drips and dries down the side of the pump bottle. And don't bother with the dish soap which doesn’t make suds regardless of how much you squeeze into your dish water. 

Do explore the wine section. This is entirely up to specific preferences in wine, but the Vinho Verde is great for summer and the TJ’s growers reserve Zin is a decent budget bottle. 

Don’t, absolutely don’t get TJ’s brand beers (namley Simpler Times and Name Tag for 3.99/6pk). Beer City USA for a reason. Leave that shit on the shelf and slurp the good stuff.  

Do grab a jar or two of bruschetta to have on hand with some TJ’s fresh mozzarella and ciabatta. Broil for a quick appetizer. 

Do get organic coconut oil, olive oil and organic condiments. 

Do grab greeting cards for .99 cents each. They are adorable. 

Do buy the organic blue corn chips and double roasted salsa. 

Don’t tell yourself you are getting the tub of dark chocolate peanut butter cups to “share.” Get the small package of foil wrapped P.B cups by the checkout instead for .99 cents.  

Do stock up on frozen fruit for smoothies and the frozen organic peas, corn and asparagus to have on hand. 

Do try the raisin rosemary crisps with good cheese. 

Lastly, Do take advantage of the baking supplies: unbleached flour (pretty sure this is King Arthur Brand), aluminum-free baking soda and powder, coconut flour, and chocolate baking chunks. But splurge on local honey elsewhere...way headier for many reasons. 

There are cheap pitfalls at TJ’s and unbeatable steals. The key is not to loose your head, this town is full of other incredible grocery stores: Whole Foods, French Broad CoOp, EarthFare and the best tailgate markets around. 

Eat. Drink. Repeat.