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Michele Marchetti: Five Reasons Why Trader Joe's An Unrivaled Shopping Experience

by on December 28, 2011 12:16 AM

Giddy is how my husband described my mood the morning after Christmas.

“I can tell by the way you’re walking,” he said mockingly.

I was headed to the Trader Joe’s in Santa Maria, Calif. I haven’t been inside one since 2006, when we left New York City for State College. The five long years without it, combined with the two gift certificates in my pocket and the knowledge that State College would soon be getting a store of its own, explained the lift in my step.

This was my son’s Harry Potter wand and my daughter’s tap shoes rolled into one glorious Christmas present to myself. The wrapping paper: a Trader Joe’s reusable bag, decorated with California surfboards.

The bag and the gift certificates came from my husband’s grandmother, a fellow foodie and seasoned TJ’s shopper. All week I had been sampling the TJ’s products in her kitchen and under the tree: almond butter with flax seeds (better than it sounds), fig butter, and Oreo style cookies with pieces of candy canes in the filling. Technically, the cookies were my husband’s present, but remembering who ate the vast majority of the Trader Joe Pumpkin Halloween cookies, he immediately passed ownership to me.

Trader Joe’s is a food lover’s playground. While many people, including my husband’s grandmother, shop at TJ’s for milk, eggs and other everyday items, calling it a grocery store sells it short. You have to go grocery shopping. You go to Trader Joe’s for fun.

My sister-in-law, who lives in the Trader Joe’s-less state of Colorado, was equally excited about her trip. She purchased a few bottles of Boatswain Chocolate Stout , Grade B maple syrup (the employees informed her that it was the best grade for making hot toddies), and Trader Joe’s private label peanut butter dog treats.

While the products vary from store to store, the Santa Maria, Calif. store provided a sneak preview of our State College store. One regrettable exception: Our Trader Joe’s is reportedly coming without wine and the store’s famous Two Buck Chuck. The store is scheduled to open sometime in 2012.

Even so, we’re excited. After the much-hyped announcement of its arrival followed by news of its now delayed opening, our collective stomachs are growling.

Below, five reasons to justify the giddiness.

It’s an adventure.  At the Trader Joe’s I visited, two free samples are passed out daily: one during breakfast and another for lunch and dinner. On the morning I visited, we were greeted with pecan pie and Hawaiian coffee. From the free food to the excellent customer service — three different employees asked if I needed help — the store is intent on satisfying and surprising you. First-time shoppers get shout-outs at the cash register. Rather than flowers or polka dots, a box of TJ tissues comes with the witty message: “I’M THERE WHEN YOU’RE SAD. Love, Tissue.”

Stress-free shopping. The first thing you notice when you walk through the door of Trader Joe’s isn’t a product or a sign; it’s ample open space. “It’s like the lobby of a grand hotel,” my mother-in-law remarked. The relaxed vibe carries through every element of the store. Rather than loud speakers with disgruntled employees barking orders to other disgruntled employees, TJs uses an unobtrusive bell system: one bell means more cashiers are needed, two bells is a call for customer service and three means alert a manager.

The wide aisles accommodate the erratic shopping cart driving of TJ’s youngest shoppers and promote positive customer behavior (jockeying for position in front of the cheese station isn’t necessary).  The only collision I witnessed was my own; while scraping the last bit of pecan pie, I nearly took down an elderly woman.

Variety: At the Santa Maria location I could have purchased 18 different types of tortillas, four different kinds of naan, beet and purple carrot juice, Thai lime and chili cashews, cookie butter, and giant chocolate peppermint cupcakes.

Half the fun is seeing how you can combine those random food purchases once you’re home. The Toscano cheese soaked in syrah pairs perfectly with the fig jam — spread on crackers, it’s a meal.

You can also count on an impressive selection of food essentials, which are surprisingly affordable. When you’re spending 19 cents on a banana or $1.79 for a jar of tomato basil sauce, you don’t feel bad about blasting your food budget on $6 roasted pepitas. 

The Employees. As I was counting tortillas, an employee on his way to make the lunchtime sample of quesadillas asked me where I was from, then started chatting with me about Trader Joe’s culture. Managers stock shelves. Employees wear what they want. (The man I was talking to was wearing paint-splattered jeans, a skull cap and a nose ring.) And everyone appears happy, even on the day after Christmas. So happy this particular store has to hire just one or two new employees a year, he said. On his first interview, the store didn’t ask a single question about his prior retail or food experience. More pertinent, he said, were his hobbies and “how he spent time with family.” 

Currently, Mr. Skull Cap handles the beer and the cheeky artwork that adorns the signs throughout the store. “Do you ever get to combine those?” I asked.

“On Thursdays,” he said with a grin. “I’m totally serious.” Thursday, he tells me, is the day the employees get to sample the wine and beer.

Quality food. While people shop at Trader Joe’s for the experience as much as the food, I’ve seldom been disappointed with the end product. The pies and breads are made fresh daily. The meat glistens. And everyone, it seems, has a favorite TJ’s item. My husband’s grandmother, who is one of the best cooks I know, vouches for the fish (“Even the chefs buy it.”), the piecrust (this coming from a woman who typically makes her own) and many of the frozen meals, including the roasted veggie enchiladas and fried rice.

I wanted to buy it all, but settled on a few select items, which an employee packed in my Trader Joe’s reusable shopping bag along with a second bag — a present from the manager.



Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of StateCollege.com. Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MMStateCollege or contact her at mitchmarchetti@gmail.com
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