Sunday, August 5, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Good but not God

My Trader Joe's haul, sans the frozen falafel I forgot to put in this picture

The Capital Region's first Trader Joe's opened on Friday. From the reaction, you'd think it was a one-time-only visit by Jesus himself.

The hysteria must, of course, be all caused by outsiders and transplants to the area. I was curious to go there, true, but mostly because I wanted to know what the big damn deal was, why transplants to the area talked about this like it was the greatest thing that's ever happened to them, and why they actually make hour-and-a-half-plus road trips to the next nearest Trader Joe's to stock up on their wares. It's sort of like the reason why I stopped for lunch at an In 'n' Out the first time I went somewhere that had one -- I wanted to see what this thing was that people were talking about like it was the greatest thing ever. (In the case of In 'n' Out, it was totally overrated -- it was a fast-food burger, no better than any other, except made a little bit less appetizing because they print Bible verses on their packaging. I'll take my lunch dogma-free, thanks.)

So I went to the new Trader Joe's today, wanting to see what the fuss was about and sort of expecting to be underwhelmed, and two days later, it was still crowded. Strike 1 came when I was barely in the door: Why do they only have large shopping carts, no smaller ones like the nice, short, easy-to-maneuver ones at Hannaford? It doesn't affect the quality of their products or anything, but it does affect the shopping experience, 'cause it's less easy to shop with big, bulky carts (or those hopeless awkward little baskets with the handles). I decided to shun both options and load up my reusable shopping bags instead.

I have to say, hell really is other people. I totally understand people standing in the aisles, taking a long time to examine all of the offerings -- we've never had a Trader Joe's around here, and 80-plus-percent of their offerings are house-brand items of types we haven't always seen, so it requires some browsing to get familiar with their offerings. But do you seriously have to stand in front of something, then stay there ten minutes talking about something unrelated while blocking those shelves? Or stand thisclose to me while I'm looking at something, shoving yourself in between me and the shelf so you can look, too? But this is saying something about the people Trader Joe's attracted this weekend, not the store itself, so I digress.

Once I found my way through the crowd and started to get an idea of what and where things were, observations started to emerge:
  • Why are the organic bananas labeled "X cents each," but they're wrapped together in a bundle with tape, implying that the whole bunch is one unit and therefore one "each"? (We asked a store clerk to verify that this wasn't true, and it wasn't -- the price was per banana, not per tape-wrapped bunch.)
  • Why are there no "kiddie cereals"? Every offering they had was a grown-up, health-food kind. Surely, if they can make so many other products, they could figure out a tasty, all-natural knockoff of Lucky Charms or Cookie Crisp or Life. I like the healthy kinds, but y'know, sometimes, I want the sugary, kiddie kinds.
  • The variety of frozen foods was, indeed, impressive. They're also fairly expensive, but not much more so than similar offerings elsewhere, for the most part, though samosas at $3.69 for a box of six seemed outrageous. I know you can get them way cheaper at the Asian Supermarket.
  • It's so refreshing to be able to shop from a whole section of breads! There were all different kinds, scones, plain ol' sandwich breads, naan, everything, and no corn syrup! It's usually a struggle to find one loaf of bread that's not jammed full of artificial crap. Here, they're all good. I bought a loaf that was comparable to most high-priced loaves you'd find in a store, and it was both free of artificial junk and only $2.49, a total steal. The Trader Joe's philosophy is great, I have to say -- it's nice to know that everything you're buying is HFCS-free or all-natural or organic, ethical food without the junk fillers.
  • You can't do all of your shopping here -- they just don't have everything you'll need. There's almost nothing in the way of personal care items, and certain other things you'd find in a grocery store are either absent entirely or won't be present in the brand or variety or size you want. (Today, for instance, our grocery list included gelatin, which was nowhere to be had, not even the Jell-o type, and Scotch tape.)
  • Speaking of things they don't have, there's no deli counter. In fact, there are few options for things to put on a sandwich -- just some pre-packaged deli meats, two types of gourmet-type chicken salad and one packaged "egg white salad."
  • The milk and egg prices seemed really high. But y'know, after we made the required stop at Hannaford later on to get what Trader Joe's didn't have, I compared prices, and they weren't as bad as I'd thought. A half-gallon of 1 percent milk at Trader Joe's was $1.99; it was only $1.71 at Hannaford. But then again, Trader Joe's is "happy" milk; when you compare the price to, say, Battenkill Valley Creamery milk, local, "happy" milk, that's $2.69 at Hannaford. And eggs were $1.99 a dozen at Trader Joe's and only $1.78 at Hannaford -- but again, if you bought the cheapest "happy" eggs at Hannaford (I'm honestly not sure which type was the most accurate comparison here... cage-free? hormone-free? organic? I don't know the lingo), they were $2.79. So really, yes, you're paying more for milk and eggs at Trader Joe's, but not much more, only 20 cents or so, for a better-quality product. I could live with that. (I didn't buy either today, though, 'cause I didn't need them.)

I went up to the checkout, bracing myself for a really high bill, 'cause I'd picked up a whole bunch of stuff (though it was all practical, things I can eat for dinner and not snack foods -- and no "cookie butter," 'cause even if they hadn't been out of it, I've been trying to figure out a good use for it since I spotted the jars of Biscoff spread at Hannaford a year or so ago and still haven't justified buying some). And I was irked again, 'cause the layout of their checkout lanes is really awkward -- there are no conveyor belts or counter space, so you can't unload your bags or basket, which makes checking out slower and more cumbersome for the checkers, and they have this odd layout where you can't figure out what side of the counter the line is on, and it looked like they were stealing everyone's carts and running them behind the checkers and unloading them... it all seemed really oddly planned and awkward.

But y'know, the bill wasn't actually all that high; for the amount of meals I plan to get out of what I bought, it was pretty reasonable. And the food is pretty good, what we've eaten so far -- we had a frozen pizza for dinner that was tasty, and some cookies (my fiancé didn't avoid the junk food like I did), and the bread I got is pretty good.

My overall opinion? Trader Joe's is not everything its fans say, but that's because its most devoted fans treat it like it's a religious experience or something, and come on, it's not the second coming: It's a grocery store. In fact, it's a grocery store with a quite limited selection of the things you're likely to need, but on the flip side, what it does have is of good quality at a price that's pretty darned reasonable for that level of ethical standards.

The biggest complaint I have, actually, is that it's not closer to home: I like this place enough that I might actually consider shopping here every week, then making a quick stop on the way home for what Trader Joe's doesn't have, like we did today, except that I can't stand the thought of driving all the way to Albany every single week to get groceries, making a special trip all the way down there and back, when I have a good grocery store with everything I need in one stop right near my house. As it is, I'm bemoaning the fact that I don't already go down there every Sunday or Monday, and I'm wondering if, if nothing else, I can convince my fiancé to stop and pick me up a loaf of bread every week on his way home from work Monday night; that sounds like quite an imposition, but on the other hand, I'm just so excited to find good-quality, good-tasting, no-HFCS bread that's reasonably priced, too.


  1. I think it's not everything fans say, because in this state we can't have a wine aisle. I love me some Trader Ho's for the wine selection as much as the reasonably priced organics (and in Walnut Creek anyway, killer bakery)

  2. Hey big sis, my mommy and I want to know if we can steal your recipe for the amazing wedding caramel goodness so we can make them for Christmas?

    1. Hey, I should totally blog that, shouldn't I? (Yeah, probably.)

  3. Hm...I actually think their prices are really good. Their Udi's GF bread is the least expensive of any grocery store in the Cap Region. And I've been many times and didn't notice the wrapped up bananas- maybe the stopped that? They are the lowest price of any grocery store around too actually.

    In my opinion though it is pretty much a waste to open a TJ in a state that has the dumbest alcohol laws. If TJ can't sell wine, I really don't see the point of having a store at all as that is the major draw. No two buck chuck??!!

    1. I don't drink wine, so that means nothing to me. It's interesting what a crapshoot it can be there for groceries, though... some things are more expensive, but some things are better quality and/or cheaper. (In fact, I've been making special trips there primarily to buy bread, 'cause they have good-quality bread at a reasonable price, which is unheard of at the grocery store.)