Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Smackdown at Trader Joe's!

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to the Chicagoland area for my sweet cousin Allison's wedding (Hi, Ally!).  A wonderful time was had by all, and somewhere in the midst of all the nuptial events, I managed to squeeze in a trip to Trader Joe's, that popular paradise-themed specialty grocery that has yet to grace Dallas with its presence.  

In case you've been living on another foodie planet, Trader Joe's is known for its unique selection of international products, colorful island decor and last but not least, bargain-basement prices.  (You've heard of Two-Buck Chuck, right?  They invented it.)  Here's the blurb from the website:

"Just what is this thing we call Trader Joe’s? Well, we’re a grocery store, sure, but really so much more. Our shelves are stocked full of delicious foods and beverages from the basics like milk, bread and butter to more exotic fare like imported cheeses, organic produce and hand-tossed pizza from Italy. We taste every product before we decide to sell it, and we guarantee you’ll like it.  You might expect indulgences like these to come with unbecoming prices. But at Trader Joe’s, we’re as much about value as we are about great food...So you can afford to be adventurous without breaking the bank."

Contraband Photo 1

Thing is, though, Trader Joe's only has locations on the West Coast, East Coast and a few states in between - no Texas.  So when I noticed an outpost near our hotel in Northbrook, IL, I motored on over in the rented Subaru to take a look.  And that's where things got dicey...

Excited as all get-out, I speed-walked into the store with camera in hand, ready to document every inch of the place for DallasEats.  Snapping away, I'd only made it about three yards into the store before a hula-shirted fellow sporting a wide, toothy grin approached me and asked why I was taking pictures.  "I'm a blogger from Dallas," I replied (thinking the eager tourist routine was the best tack to take).  "We don't have Trader Joe's, and I'm so psyched to finally visit one!"

Contraband Photo 2

He took a deep breath (still smiling) and then informed me, "The thing is, we don't allow cameras."  I listened, wondering if this was the sort of rule that was strictly enforced, selectively enforced, or just stated out loud and then pretty much ignored.  At that point, however, I also noticed that he had positioned himself strategically between me and the rest of the store.  And he was a good six inches taller than me; no way I could take him.  He continued - kindly but firmly, "I'm going to have to ask you to put the camera away."  (Did I imagine the tiny beads of sweat forming at his hairline?  The quick clench of his jaw?)  Then, only after watching me secure the offending device in the side pocket of my handbag, did he allow me to proceed with my (now seriously impeded) fact-finding mission.  And I swear, I wasn't out of eyeshot of an employee for the rest of my visit.  Coincidence?  I think not.  

That being said, however, everyone was very nice and even under many watchful eyes, I was able to enjoy the experience.  Plus, how can you stay mad at a guy in a multi-colored floral print camp shirt?  Here are my top Trader Joe's observations:

1.  The place was overflowing with snacks, both traditional and unusual.  Wasabi Tempura Seaweed crisps and Lightly Salted Crunchy Green Beans were just a couple of the more adventurous offerings.  (Personally, I'm of the opinion that most snacks of this ilk are purchased for shock value - so people will ask "WHAT are you eating?" when they see you eating it.  You know, like Wasabi Peas ten years ago.)

2.  GREAT prices on meal/energy bars.  Luna bars and CLIF bars were both 99-cents a pop. Lara Bars were $1.29. Also, good prices on protein shakes and powders.

3.  The wine selection was as wide and low-priced as I'd heard it would be. I was especially impressed with the up-and-coming varieties:

Zarafa Pinotage from South Africa ($4.99)
Espiral Vinho Verde ($3.99)
Abrazo del Toro Cariñena from Spain ($5.99)


Layer Cake Shiraz (love this one!) for $14.99 – not bad.
Santa Rita Chardonnay for $6.49 – a stock up price!

...But great wine prices can also be found right here in the Metroplex at lots of different places (Albertson's is one of my fave bargain wine stops - always something great on sale!).

I'm totally going to show off my new Trader Joe's reusable shopping tote around town.  Like the foodie equivalent of a really sweet concert t-shirt.

4.  Overall impressions:  The store was small, with less wow-factor than I expected.  I can't say whether all Trader Joe's are as small as the one in Northbrook, though.  In selection and ambiance, it was sort of like the food and wine sections of World Market combined with Newflower Market.  I’d go if I lived near one, but I’m not quite as bummed about not having one in Dallas anymore.


Eddie G said...

Bummer. But that bag is cool :)

Momcat said...

It's that 'we don't have it here' mystique - like White Castle hamburgers or Stroh's beer or whatever. The legend tends to grow in the minds of folks who 'remember' how awesome or wonderful or amazing...

Now that TJ's parent company (Aldi) is coming to Dallas, maybe we will also get these 'famous' convenience stores.

elizabeth said...

I have to say I totally miss Trader Joe's! The prices are great and I loved the 1-2 serving items. I got hooked when I was in Boston...the one I went to was tiny and you took an escalator underground. :) And I have an obsession a la #1: chocolate covered edamame!

I'm done with my TJ rant. I'm now onto Newflower!

luniz said...

totally overrated imo. Sprout's + CM beats the bejesus out of TJ's. The only thing TJ's has going for it other than a good wine selection is a lot of prepared food, which holds no interest for me whatsoever. I don't consider it a "foodie" place at all...it's a "convenience" place.

Anonymous said...

I wish we had all food shopping experiences in our area. Though, I am very thankful for Central Market. My friend from Georgia asked when they would get one in Atlanta. The lady at the deli counter said, "Never".

Karen said...

We just moved here from San Diego and I am devastated that there isn't a TJ's here. I LOVE Central Market, Eatzi's and all the other places that are here but not in San Diego. BUT TJ's is just different...and the prices can't be beat. What's the scoop? Anyone know why they aren't here?

Classy&Sassy said...

Karen, Welcome to Dallas! I'm not sure why there's no Trader Joe's here, except for just that they haven't expanded in our direction yet. Have you been to World Market? If you like TJ's, you'll love WM!

Michael said...

I love Trader Joe's! I once asked why they don't open a store in Dallas and was told, "too much competition".
Can you just imagine how successful TJ's would be if THEY had opened on Henderson Avenue instead of, Newflower.

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Anonymous said...

I'm sad to find this so late... but I shopped at Trader Joes in California for probably 15 years before moving to Texas; it was our favorite (and only) grocery store we frequented. Moving to Dallas has been rough because there is nothing like Trader Joes. Our first trip to Whole Foods left a Hole in our bank account and the groceries cost us 2x what they would have cost at TJs. Whole Foods is Healthy for the Wealthy. TJs just makes good sense and would put the hurt on Whole Foods.

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Anonymous said...

Sorry, I never do anything because of the hype.

I never even knew what Trader Joe's was until one day I wondered in to get a bottle of water and grab a box of chocolate truffles on the way out. And after that I was HOOKED, I start getting all my fruits, spices, meat, bead, EVERYTHING from their.

1. I have lost lots of weight.

2. I eat so much Healthier.

3. After tasting their food, I can't stand looking at Mcdonalds or Jack in The Box anymore.

You are missing out if you don't shop trader joes. I moved to Dallas for my job, and I go to St Louis to get my groceries. I love Dallas but I can not stay here permanently because I miss my Trader Joes being down the street. And that is the only reason I can't stay in Dallas very long.

pinlady said...

Sprouts and wholefoods is a half a step better than Albertsons. The food is way over priced, it's a very limited selection of Organic food and the organic food does not taste organic.

Trader Joes food is rich in taste, very good quality and the only person you're hurting by not shopping there is yourself.

Miss out if you want to, but they got me hooked. Ever since I've been eating there I have lost 20 pounds and my acne cleared up.

My Aunt said the same thing you all are saying, it's just hype. Slowly but surely she start tasting my food and now she's hooked.