I’m not much of a joiner. After high school, I was a member of Columbia House, and that ended with dissatisfaction and letters demanding payment for “Easy Listening Hits of 1984”—which I swear I never ordered.
I’m especially dubious of the cult-like phenomena that can sprout up around a company or a product; think Saturn cars, Apple computers, or even Nutella. If you like it, then drive it, use it, or eat it. Does one really need a support group with newsletters and t-shirts?
So, the fanatical devotion that Trader Joe’s garners left me cold, and extremely skeptical.When I went to the Chapel Hill location on opening day, I was disappointed. I was expecting Whole Foods with 2 dollar wine; lots of produce, gourmet items, and an esoteric collection of meat in a comprehensive department. It wasn’t like that. I visited infrequently, but still didn’t contract the Trader Joe’s virus.
I’m ever on the lookout for dried fruits and nuts to add to my always present, always changing bag of trail mix. Recently I was at Trader Joe’s and picked up a bag of dried baby pineapple.
I hated it. I’m sure there were fans of it somewhere, but I was not one, not even a little bit.
So one Sunday afternoon I headed to Chapel Hill, and Trader Joe’s, to return it.
Once inside I went over to customer service with the pineapple, and within seconds walked away with a credit for the full price. There was no paperwork, questions, or judge-y looks; nothing. The manager-person just wrote a number on a slip of paper and handed it over.And that’s how they handle all returns—no muss, no fuss, no exceptions. It’s only one of a few pretty great store policies.
They will give you a sample of basically anything. Just ask a crew member, they’ll open it up, and give you a taste. They don’t sell any products containing high fructose corn syrup or genetically modified foods. They are almost always offering samples. Last time I was there it was delicious cauliflower ravioli and hot spiced apple cider that tasted exactly of apple pie.
But there are two factors at Joe’s that finally made me a fan. And the intersection of those two? There lies culinary nirvana.90 percent of their products are private label. And in addition to breakfast cereal, canned soup, noodles, and jelly, they have items that are hard or impossible to find even in expensive purveyors of gourmet foodstuffs.
The frozen food they carry is the kind of things you dream about when you’re crazy hungry and know you won’t be able to eat for hours. They’ve got the ethnic thing down, with Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, and more. Tons of different fish and pasta dinners. They have mac & cheese with buckets of variations, even breaded deep-fried bites.
Their sweets are the devil. They have enough yummy looking candies, cakes, and cookies, to throw me into an irretrievable diabetic coma. Dark chocolate salted caramels, tons of different candy bars, desserts like Japanese mocha ice cream, French macarons, and cookie butter cheesecake, lemme say that again; Cookie.Butter.Cheesecake.But the huge Trader Joe’s lure is the prices.
Eggs, 99 cents a dozen. Sour cream, a buck a tub. Fresh oyster mushrooms for $1.99. Ravioli is two portions for 3 or 4 dollars. Even non-food items are cheap. I paid 3 bucks for a ginormous jug of lavender-scented hand soap. The Kid calls the store ‘the love child of Earth Fare and Aldi’s’.
But when gourmet and budget meet is the temptation that finally preceded my fall. I got a jar of Middle Eastern style preserved lemons for $2.99. And a tube of umami, which is a mixture of tomato paste, mushrooms, anchovy, to up the umami factor in anything you cook, is the unbelievable price of $1.99. I’ve used another brand (now impossible to find in the US) that sold for $12.99.
So, put a fork in me, ‘cause I’m done. I am a true Joe’s believer. They’ve got me.
But I promise, you will never find me attending a Trader Joe’s fan club meeting.I’d rather give Columbia House another go.
Thanks for your time.