What foods to buy and what to skip at Trader Joe
If you ever want to start a conversation at a party, try asking this question: What are the best and worst deals at Trader Joe’s? It’s only slightly less controversial than health care reform.
Americans (and I include myself) are crazy about Trader Joe’s. There are Facebook pages, books about shopping there, even fan-run websites. What inspires this passion? Jovanna Brooks, founder of traderjoesfan.com and traderjoesguide.com, says, “The reason that there are so many really die-hard Trader Joe’s fans is because you can get incredibly unique items. It’s adventure shopping all the time because there are things that are constantly new. At the same time, people get upset when products get discontinued, but that’s part of the fun.”
The company was started in Pasadena, California in 1958 by Joe Coulombe, as a small chain of convenience stores. Coulombe reportedly sold Trader Joe's in 1979 to the Albrechts, a German family which owns Aldi, an international chain of discount supermarkets. There are now 340 Trader Joe's in some 28 states but despite the expansion, the store has maintained its “I’m-your-neighborhood-grocer” quirkiness.
Shoppers love the cheery, helpful checkout people in Hawaiian shirts, the wide array of new foods and the low-cost, private-label products that are often created by well-known brands. While Trader Joe’s doesn’t like to name names (and did not return calls for this story), ardent shoppers and industry insiders say that you can find brand products, such as Amy’s prepared dishes or Callebaut chocolate, repackaged there under the Trader Joe’s label at a much lower cost.
As Beth Kowitt wrote in a recent article for Fortune, “Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s”: “Those Trader Joe’s pita chips? Made by Stacy’s, a division of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay. On the East Coast much of its yogurt is supplied by Danone’s Stonyfield Farm. And finicky foodies probably don’t like to think about how Trader Joe’s scale enables the chain to sell a pound of organic lemons for $2.”
Leaving aside the food politics, my question is: Are Trader Joe’s prices always better? I’ve been a fan for years and shopped stores from California to Connecticut. Even though prices often vary from place to place and can change day by day, as the editor of EatingWell, I think I generally know what to look for there. But I’ve often been surprised. So I decided to see what other people thought.
In addition to talking with Brooks, I asked EatingWell’s Facebook fans to tell us what they thought are the best and worst deals at the store, and we got a slew of comments. Then, armed with a list and a calculator, I went to see how prices and perceptions match up. (For all my shopping comparisons, I checked prices on similar items in stores and on the websites of large chains, such as Stop & Shop, Safeway and Wegmans).
WHAT TO SKIP
Pass on the Produce
A pet peeve many people mention is the lack of fresh, local produce. “To be honest, the produce is not the best,” says Brooks. “It definitely leaves a lot to be desired.” I confess that I like to buy fresh and local whenever I can and Trader Joe’s cellophane-wrapped peppers and other produce don’t often inspire me.
To keep an open mind, I went to a Trader Joe’s and picked up a bundle of unwrapped asparagus. In this Connecticut store, rather anemic-looking spears were selling for $4.39 a pound, whereas the larger market down the street featured healthier-looking asparagus at $3.79 a pound or less.
Not every deal in the produce section is a dud; you just have to find the right items. Trader Joe’s is known for buying in bulk, and produce that ships well seems to fare better here. Hass avocados were bundled in a bag of four for $3.29. That seemed worth it, especially when a nearby supermarket was selling four for $5. Granted, the Trader Joe’s avocados were small and hard but after I let them ripen for a day, they were delicious. I found similarly good deals and quality on sturdy produce like clementines and bananas too.
Skip the Meat
One common comment we heard from our Facebook fans: “Best deal - milk, eggs and yogurt. Worst deal - prepackaged meats.” Brooks agrees: “You would think the meat would be fresh, but it’s just not the best and they don’t have an in-store butcher.”
I went shopping for my favorite Black Angus rib-eye steak. It was almost $2 a pound more at Trader Joe’s. Boneless leg of lamb from New Zealand was $6.49 a pound at TJ's versus $4.99 elsewhere, and ground beef was $2.49 a pound versus $2.99. One exception is the organic meats: Trader Joe’s has made a push toward more organic ingredients and, at $6.99 a pound, organic, boneless, skinless chicken breasts are a go-to food for me, especially when it’s not always easy to find chicken that’s both organic and skinless.
Hit or Miss: Bakery and Prepared Foods
Brooks considers deli items like sushi, ready-made sandwiches and salads, and the baked goods and breads as hit or miss. These items vary from store to store depending on local suppliers, so keep that in mind as you shop.
Watch Out for the Treats
“You’re in there, you’re saving money, you’re getting good deals—and then they have some things you can’t say “no” to, like chocolate-covered almonds, gourmet cookies and Belgian chocolates, and some of those things can really add up,” says Brooks. “But in some cases those are also better deals than elsewhere,” so make sure to compare prices before you impulse-buy.
WHAT TO BUY
Everyone loves Trader Joe’s cheese selection and with good reason. They have cheeses that are both
insanely good and insanely well priced. One Brooks says to look for: “Comté. An up-and-coming cheese that’s like a Gruyère.” I agree. And I can’t pass up a good deal on cheese. In fact, I have a stockpile of goat cheese because I can’t resist the giant 10-ounce log of Vermont Butter & Cheese Chèvre for just $4.99 (versus a 4-ounce log for $3.99, which I found at several other food stores and online).
Load Up on Staples
If you shop the center of the store, it’s hard not to find great deals in most every aisle, especially on staples like Trader Giotto’s Extra-Virgin Olive Oil for $5.49 a liter—more than $3 cheaper than I could find at other stores. Trader Joe’s-labeled almonds at $4.69 were nearly half as much as they cost elsewhere. Nature’s Path Flax-Plus Granola cereal: $2.89 a box, versus $3.99. And my favorite, a bag of true wild rice—not mixed with long grain—for $4.99 a pound, versus $11 a pound and up at other stores.
Befriend the Freezer
As for the freezer: my sister swears by Trader Joe’s frozen wild sockeye smoked salmon ($17.99 a pound, versus $27.96 a pound for smoked Atlantic salmon at other stores) and jumbo frozen wild scallops ($11.99 a pound, versus $15.99). The people we polled named all sorts of frozen appetizers and entrees as their favorite go-to meals. As Brooks says, “The nice thing is a lot of their stuff is frozen or shelf-stable—you just whip it out of the freezer or your pantry and you have a party.” Good deals include frozen rice, international foods like naan (an Indian bread), and frozen fruit, such as mango chunks. As for frozen meals, some top-sellers Brooks points to include Mandarin Orange Chicken, Penne Arrabiata and Tarte d’Alsace—a thin pizza topped with Gruyère cheese, creamy caramelized onions and ham.
Browse Beyond Food
I could go on and on about the flowers ($9.99 for a dozen roses) and Phalaenopsis orchid plants are usually $3 to $4 less than you can find them at Home Depot (the next best place I’ve shopped for them), especially at West Coast locations. I also love the Trader Joe’s brand lavender body oil and soaps, and the grapefruit-scented shampoo smells lovely and its packaging is attractive.
Lastly, one of the things I do love is that Trader Joe’s is making a concerted effort to do the right thing. In 2001, the company decided not to use any genetically-modified foods in its private label products and in 2007 made a commitment to eliminate added trans fats from all private label products (along with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives). Trader Joe’s branded eggs are all cage free and by 2012, the company promises that all of its seafood will be sustainably-sourced.
But what I think is the real beauty of Trader Joe’s is that it’s a place that inspires conversation.