Starting tomorrow, November 9, 2012, residents of central Pennsylvania will no longer have to drive over 100 miles to find their closest Trader Joe’s. Depending where in Pennsyltucky you live, the closest to the North (Rochester, NY), South (Pikesville, MD), East (Wayne, PA) and West (Pittsburgh, PA) have not been easily accesible for weekly shopping.
Longtime local residents or new to the vegetarian scene may not have ever shopped at nor even heard of Trader Joe’s. My introduction to the brand was about a decade ago when a displaced California resident with whom I worked lamented the fact that she couldn’t understand how we survived without Trader Joe’s. You rarely miss what you don’t have nor ever experienced so I thought she was being pretty dramatic about a grocery store.
To this day, I think I have only shopped at 3 or 4 and have found that there is an art to shopping at Trader Joe’s. Let me share some secrets to getting the most out of your first visits, so you’re not pulling your hair out looking for something like the ever-absent baking soda.
The couple of times I visited the NYC location in Union Square, I found it so small and crowded that the line to check-out snaked through the aisles of the store. I found we had to dodge a lot of people just to look at what was on the store’s shelves and just “shop!” The 100 or so folks in line were not just there for opening day, each visit was a regular shopping day. It is not just the NYC stores, we have found it to be so in almost any Trader Joe’s at any time of day.
Lines can be so long, that Trader Joe’s will have employees on hand to hold up giant “end of line” signs. Then, when you get closer to the cashiers, there’s a person watching for each of the perhaps 20 cashiers hold up their numbered paddle (like a ping pong paddle) to signal they’re ready for a customer. Unlike most grocery stores in the world, the cashiers have no conveyor belt. They pull out a shelf to set stuff on; a very small shelf.
Here is the best take-away tip – Smart shoppers come in pairs; one to roam and shop, and the other to stand in line the whole time and shop what they walk past.
If you have to shop alone, the best strategy is to shop the middle first. In most stores, this is where you’ll find frozen goodies like frozen pizza, bags of pasta and the accompanying pasta sauce, etc. Then hop on to the end of the check out line, where you’ll walk alongside the vegetables, fruits, breads, and shtuff for the duration of your stay. It is almost guaranteed that the line will be long enough for you to have ample time standing next to each of these refrigerated sections (unless you are in the 10 items or less line).
So, until this new store settles in and becomes less of a novelty be aware of the possibility of long lines. I know those of us who have watched it’s construction and lamented it’s delay from over a year ago (Say it Ain’t so Trader Joe) won’t let that stop us from jumping into the fray.
The next helpful tip – Veggie shoppers can look for the 2 green symbols on Trader Joe’s product labels.Trader Joe’s has identified products free of all animal products and/or by-products including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, honey, gelatin, lanolin and confectioner’s glaze with the “V” (for Vegan). Check out the Vegan list. They also have a Vegetarian list that identify a products in which no ingredients or sub-ingredients are animal derived from meat, poultry or fish. These products may contain eggs or dairy. Those products will be marked with the lighter green trifoliate symbol.
Many of the products are private label; by eliminating the middleman. Trader Joe’s aims to keep prices low on quality products, which means lots of on-the-shelf turnover, and many typical items missing from the store. You are sure to love discovering new products, not breaking the bank on unusual frozen foods and imported foods but if you go with a grocery list of typical household items for the week, you’re sure to be disappointed.
Do note – The fruits-and-veggies section at Trader Joe’s is unique in that you can’t just buy one tomato. The store selects four or five and packages them together – not ideal for shopping for a single meal, but perfect when planning for a week.
Everyone is going to have items that they favor. I have gone through about a dozen online resources so this is a combined list of favorites and best buys.
Favorite Vegan products:
• Soft-Baked Snickerdoodles
• Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies
• Vegetable Panang Curry with Jasmine Rice
• True Thai Vegetable Pad Thai
• Thai Vegetable Gyoza
• Falafel Wrap
• Chickenless Crispy Tenders
• Chickenless Nuggets
• Turkey-less Stuffed Roast with Gravy
• Cherry Chocolate Chip Soy Creamy
Vegetarian best buys:
• The Chocolate – From Valrhona and Toblerone bars to Belgian and Swiss bonbons, Trader Joe’s chocolate comes from all over the world at down-to-earth prices. The Valrhona bars that sell for up to $4.99 elsewhere can be had at Trader Joe’s for just $2.99. And Trader Joe’s house-brand bars, none of which contain any artificial flavors or preservatives, are even cheaper. Trader Joe’s chocolate chips ($2.29 for a 12-ounce bag) are a particularly good buy: In a taste test of 12 brands on foodie site seriouseats.com, they bested Ghirardelli and Hershey’s — at more than a dollar less per bag.
• Fresh Flowers and Plants – The flowers at Trader Joe’s are high quality and the prices often better than even the wholesale prices she gets at local flower markets. Potted plants such as rosebushes, bromeliads, and herb gardens at Trader Joe’s typically sell for at least 20 percent below what they go for elsewhere, including nurseries.
• Cheese – Trader Joe’s stocks about 60 cheeses at any one time, and with a fairly compact display space, the turnover is fast, keeping it super-fresh.
• Nuts and Trail Mixes – Variety alone makes this category impressive. Trader Joe’s stocks 20 different types of trail mix, including peanut butter cup, mango and cashews, raspberry and chocolate, wasabi, and even espresso bean. And the prices are right, too — 12-ounce bags of Trader Joe’s trail mix cost $3.99 to $4.99, in some cases more than a dollar below supermarket prices. When it comes to nuts, Trader Joe’s carries five different varieties of almonds alone.
• Toilet Paper – Trader Joe’s 100 percent recycled toilet paper scored a “green” rating on the Natural Resources Defense Council tissue guide in 2009, based on the percentage of post-consumer fiber used (80 percent) and the chlorine-free bleaching process used to make it. And while Charmin and Cottonelle (both of which the NRDC slapped an “Avoid” label on) typically sell for $8.99 for 12 rolls, Trader Joe’s rolls sell for less than half that ($3.99 for 12). Take that, Mr. Whipple!
• Maple Syrup – This may be the sweetest bargain in the store, with Trader Joe’s Grade A Medium Amber maple syrup from Canada costing just $5.49 for 12 ounces. Time Out Chicago rated this the best-tasting maple syrup in a blind taste test, beating, among others, Whole Foods’ store label syrup, which cost 60 percent more.