trading up.

14 11 2010

as a carless mainer, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that i’d never been to a trader joe’s before monday.  i’d heard rumors about them. passed them on the highway on the odd bus trip into more populous and lucky territories. i’d theorized about what might be inside their walls, but the only information i had to go on was that they sold natural foods and that their employees wore hawaiian shirts. i pictured it like whole foods, but with more tiki torches and styrofoam palm trees. i’d heard rumors that it was cheaper, but cheaper is a relative term when it comes to natural foods. they don’t call it whole paycheck for nothing.

the rumblings started back in march, and the excitement built steadily as portland prepared for our trader joe’s cherry to pop. as it turns out, as a city we were so collectively turned on by the prospect of low cost hawaiian shirt clad health foods that there was a need for at least one cop stationed outside of the parking lot to direct traffic for the first week or so. seeing as that i don’t care for crowds or waiting in lines, i’d been pretty much keeping away, but monday night after yoga, a half empty parking lot presented itself to me. here is what i learned on my fact finding mission:

1. trader joe’s is about 90% trader joe’s brand food. almost all of which has really hot packaging, and all of which is reasonably priced.

2. the powers of basic math and logical reasoning would tell us that the remaining 10% of traders joe’s goods are other brands like kashi, morningstar farms, larabar, and some other healthy crap that wouldn’t surprise you.

3. trader joe’s is small and totally not fancy. whole foods seems like a ludicrous display of excess and puffery compared to the stripped down beigeness and industrial shelving of TJs. it’s not pretty in there.

other than that, i’m still in the beta testing phase. i bought approximately $20 worth of trader joe’s brand eatables, and have been slowly picking my way through over the week. so far everything is super tasty (veggie corn dogs!), although i was appropriately warned by a more trader joe’s savvy friend on the west coast that cooking instructions tend to be a more or a ballpark or a starting point than actual followable instructions. i also learned that peppermint jojos (their seasonal version of oreos with real candy cane peices) are pretty much the best idea ever. so far, i would say that my impression is favorable. atlthough for my next trick, i’d like to actually try to do my grocery shopping there. is this the week? any other trader joe’s recommendations?

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22 responses

14 11 2010
liz

oh, trader joe’s — let me count the ways! first of all, the weak link there is the produce, which is occasionally great, usually just okay. many people don’t like tj’s because they can’t get everything they need and have to go to another store. i am amazed how much of what i need can be obtained at tj’s, but also i don’t mind at all going somewhere else for a few other things.

for me there are two categories: things i’m buying anyway and can get there cheap; and things i can only get at tj’s (example: those candy cane jojos). as far as necessities, they have the cheapest, best coffee beans, canned beans, pasta, bread, tea, milk, soy milk, rice, cereal, soy creamer, vitamins, vanilla extract (i got carded buying this), tofu, nuts, peanut butter, jam, etc. i usually buy natural or organic versions of many of these things (but almost always the hannaford store brand). i’ve done price comparisons for almost all of it, and tj’s is just plain CHEAP.

then there are the delicious tj’s specialties: ginger almond granola; masala veggie burgers (buy some frozen garlic naan to put these on); cheese and chili tamales (so bad for you, SO delicious); various german cakes and cookies that appear around christmastime; sushi (their sushi tastes weirdly sweet, but it’s super cheap and strangely intoxicating); brownies with sea salt; flaxseed tortilla chips; masala cooking sauce…

i have to force myself to stop now.

two things, though: first, a negative — sometimes you will fall in love with a trader joe’s product that mysteriously disappears one day and NEVER COMES BACK. it has something to do with the way they buy and label, and how they limit the number of products they carry. if an item isn’t popular enough after a certain length of time, it’s gone.

and a positive — it is very easy and not embarrassing to use an ebt (food stamp) card there. that is not the case at whole foods.

17 11 2010
bessmarvin

i totally did the masala burgers on the naan. AWESOME! good to know about the cheap staples, i’m really looking forward to exploring their product lines and finding new and exciting things to incorporate into my dinners. i know that a lot of people complain that it’s a lot of frozen/prepackaged stuff, but i’m a busy lady, and i do tend to abuse the convenience foods a little. i’m super digging on the fried rice, and the mushroom fettuccini.

14 11 2010
littleeyedesigns

Oh hell yes. Boyfriend and I spent $20 stocking up on Naan, Samosas, Joe’s version of ‘Tasty Bites’, jasmine rice, etc. for three nights of Indian food cooked at home that would’ve otherwise cost us $120 to eat out. Not exactly super savings, but if you have an Indian food problem like we do, I highly recommend their frozen (cheap!) naan and their slightly less impressive but still delicious samosas.

Also noticed everything seems to be $2.50 or thereabouts at TJ’s. It’s a conspiracy…

17 11 2010
bessmarvin

very impressed with the indian food selection. we bought the masala veggie burgers and wrapped them in the garlic naan as instructed by liz. it was pretty kick ass. i also bought some frozen veggie fried rice and added a bunch of scrambled eggs and veggies (and butter). good stuff! what is a “tasty bite”?

14 11 2010
The Dealer

Very excited to see this post just now. I became familiar with Trader Joe’s when I lived in Woburn, and would always split my grocery trips between Market Basket (for perishables) and Trader Joe’s (for produce, bread, frozen stuff, etc.) I now shop mainly at Hannaford and am pleased with the consistency of prices (except for a recent increase on all things dairy) Thursday was my first attempt to try Trader Joe’s but on my afternoon visit each checkout had at least 20 people in line and it was practically impossible to even walk around the store, so I left right away. This morning I went back, on a mission for just a couple items, and was surprised to find that the staples I buy each week were slightly cheaper than my typical Hannaford purchases. A few examples:
bagged spinach $1.99 at TJ and $2.99+ at Hannaford
sesame bages $2.29 at TJ and $2.79 at Hannaford

HOWEVER…I was very disappointed with a limited yogurt selection, and the one thing I went in for, butter, was $4.29! Also, the bagels were very dry and not pre-cut. I’d rather pay the .50 for pre-cut chewiness.

On the plus side, their cheese selection is terrific and they sell a prosecco for $5.99 which I’m excited to compare to my $4.79 Andre.

So…I think for now I’ll stick to Hannaford, but am glad to know I can stop by Trader Joe’s again when my jar of Trader Joe’s Whole Grain Dijon Mustard runs out. That stuff is tasty and cheap at $1.79.

18 11 2010
bessmarvin

yeah, i waited until after dark on a weekday before i was willing to venture in. i do not enjoy crowds at all. i do however enjoy bagged salad! so cheap! i did buy some bagels on my second trip, and they were tasty and chewy, but definitely could have benefitted from being pre-cut. also, you just said the magic word (PROSECCO). or perhaps (CHEAP PROSECCO). i’m really excited to try their beer, and am already fully satisfied with the $2 buck chuck shiraz. i don’t think i could do all my groceries there, but i’ll try to hit it every other week for frozen foods and staples. hopefully the lines will die down over time now that portland is rocking like 3 grocery stores.

14 11 2010
InfamousQBert

ugh, VERY jealous. TJs is STILL not in texas. though, we did just start seeing Aldi’s, which is the same company, so we have our fingers crossed that they’re coming.

18 11 2010
bessmarvin

i’ve NEVER seen an aldi, so i think there’s hope for you! although i do live in a town that traditionally loves a good fruity health food store. i may be broke and love zebra cakes, but a good portion of this town is rich, liberal, and uber health conscious.

14 11 2010
Kate

Go on a weekday after seven. We went for the second time this afternoon, and I didn’t think we’d make it out alive.

18 11 2010
bessmarvin

is there a place in town where i can buy a machete?

14 11 2010
blackgirlinmaine

Kate, you are the second person I know who says to go after 7pm. My hubby and I went Friday at almost lunchtime, good gravy the way folks were flocking in, I would have thought the food was free. That parking lot was madness, people take TJ’s very seriously. I admit the stuff I have tried so far is tasty but my waist does not need most of these goodies. 😉

14 11 2010
Carrie

I love Trader Joe’s. There is only one in DC at the moment and it was near my old job. When I switched jobs I lost my regular TJ’s shopping opportunities. So sad! I highly recommend buying wine at TJ’s. You can get decent wine there for much cheaper than other places. Other things I love – the pecan praline granola, the frozen gyoza, and the chocolate covered sunflower seeds. In things that are actually good for you – Trader Joe’s is my preferred source of staples like rice, cous cous, quinoa, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, etc… Enjoy exploring!

18 11 2010
bessmarvin

the overwhelming majority are telling me that the TJs staples are good an dirt cheap. i’m definitely intrigued by their pasta section, although disheartened by the general lack of couponage. i’m curious about their beer which i haven’t tried yet, but was pleasantly surprised with the two buck chuck (shiraz flavor). i can only imagine that their non $2 wine is even better.

15 11 2010
uke mochi

I’ve had 50/50 luck with the products I’ve gotten from there. Some have been good–like a nice treat of puff pastry with almond cream, inexpensive Kona or their pork gyoza and other items have been regrettable like their Joe-O’s(spaghetti o’s which had to be dressed up way beyond what was put in the can), packaged parm cheese(which because of the cryovacing takes on this very weird alcohol/fermentation flavor and molded before it’s expiration date), and dried Garlic/Basil pasta that was very gummy. I think it’s a great place to buy frozen things and snacks but if you’re actually looking to cook and make things from scratch, then you’ll travel somewhere else.

18 11 2010
bessmarvin

i LOVE that you tried the joe-o’s! i was super tempted to get them, but then chickened out. the can seemed really big for some reason. glad to know that my instincts didn’t steer me wrong- although are they grosser than standard issue spaghetti-os? because i love that shit. you’re right though, so far my best luck has been in the freezer section stuffing down things that i wouldn’t normally buy. um vegetable nests? although price and convenience wise, i could be teetering on the brink of disaster.

19 11 2010
uke mochi

Yea, I was pretty turned off by the Joe-O’s… though, I have to be honest I haven’t had a can of spaghetti o’s in over a decade, so maybe I just don’t like that stuff any more. I did, however, take your advice and have a box of peppermint Jo-jo’s in the pantry waiting to be eating along side of their Kona coffee.

15 11 2010
sweetersalt

I have taken to a weekly TJ’s visit since it opened. Tips include:

1.) Don’t go on a Sunday with someone prone to crankiness. I made this mistake this weekend when I brought along my cantankerous fiancee Ross who moped around and complained the entire time. The only thing that shut him up was the promise of a box of Peppermint Joe Joes (delicious). He does not have the shopper’s fighting spirit like I do.
2.) The produce section isn’t great. They didn’t have a single cabbage last weekend. Really? I may stick to Hannaford for my fruits and veggies.
3.) Not everything is natural, and the ingredients lists can be confusing. If you are hung up on all-natural, stick to the organic stuff.
4.) The Greek Yogurt is DELICIOUS and is way cheaper than any where else.
5.) Peanut flour. Buy it – it’s next to the flour. I mix it into yogurt with jam for PB&J yogurt. It’s awesome in smoothies. It’s got all the protein of peanut butter with way less fat. AMAZEBALLS.

18 11 2010
bessmarvin

shockingly, i ended up actually waiting in the car for 15 minutes while my generally cantankerous boyfriend (especially about food shopping) perused the aisles FOREVER. i’ve never seen him buy so much random and unnecessary shit. i was also entirely NOT IMPRESSED with their produce. what the hell kind of grocery store doesn’t have cucumbers? i tried some pomegranate flavored “greek style yogurt” which is likely not what you are describing. unless you like your yogurt slimy and weird. i do happen to be highly influenced by the word amazeballs, although my smoothie making skills are fairly remedial. can i make it work? i hate bananas.

16 11 2010
mara

Those Peppermint JoJos are the best part of Christmas.

18 11 2010
bessmarvin

i’m gonna have to buy like 17 boxes to last me through the year. i should start shoveling out the underground jojo bunker before the ground freezes.

17 11 2010
Evelyn

My first time was this Sunday. Wrong day – the lot was a nightmare. But once in, wowie..for $22 I got: 12 oz ground coffee, dijon mustard, big bag of popcorn, 6-pack of beer, bottle of wine, 2 packages of hummus, loaf of tuscan bread. Husband was impressed and so was I.

19 11 2010
bessmarvin

wow. that is a good haul! coffee, beer, wine a a few actual food items to boot! i’m fully loving on my two buck chuck shiraz. most cheap wine eats my stomach lining, so i’m impressed both by the tastiness as well as the fact that my digestive system is not presently burning like the sun.

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