X–Cultural Exchange: Trader Joe’s

The more I go back and forth between the US and France, the more I have an appreciation of the little things that make each place unique. While you can find most things anywhere these days, this trip home I couldn’t help but think of all the things I would show my French friends if I were showing them around the US. And strangely enough I can’t tell you how often Trader Joe’s has come up as a topic of conversation during my travels, so I figured I’d introduce it to the international standard.

Lesson 1: Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s may just be a grocery store, but it tops my list of places I miss about the US and love to visit when I’m home. It’s also one of those places that still feels unique to the US, and you can’t find elsewhere in the world. I’m sure one day that will change too, but for now I love having simple things to look forward to on my return visits. While you can’t find Trader Joe’s everywhere in the US, there are 300+ locations around the country. Believe it or not it started in the 1950s!

Perhaps the most defining qualities of Trader Joe’s are the Hawaiian shirts the employees [crew] wear (however, on my last visit, it appears that sweat and t-shirts have replaced this bit of insignia). Who says a grocery store needs to take themselves seriously? A bit of fun is always welcome.

Then there is the “2 Buck Chuck” – aka cheap wine. While very affordable wine is something I’ve become quite accustomed to in France, back in the homeland it’s harder to find. Trader Joe’s has always had a fairly good, affordable selection (even if it’s more than $2 these days). However, the catch is to not visit a Trader Joe’s in a state such as Maryland where any kind of alcohol can only be sold in official liquor stores. Be warned.

While many people may not realize it, every sign in the Trader Joe’s stores is hand-painted. The only reason I know this is because one of my instructors in a print making class I once took was the lead sign painter in the local Baltimore store. There are regularly promotions and new inventory which keep that position busy. I also just like the idea of having a touch of handmade, while also supporting local artists. (They also strive to support local food suppliers as much as possible too).

When it comes to what to buy, for me Trader Joe’s is a snacker’s paradise. It is not uncommon that you’ll overhear a conversation such as “Have you tried Trader Joe’s yogurt covered holiday pretzels?” This word of mouth buzz is seriously dangerous, because this particular snack blew me away. Several years ago my boss got me hooked on the chocolate covered edamame. It’s an unlikely combo, but I have yet to find someone I have not won over with this snack. (I even brought a container back to France with me, with the idea of sharing, of course!). Finally, the ginger cookies are my other weakness. Ginger – they have to be good for you, I figure. Oh, and less we not forget the sample table where no doubt there is something yummy to taste test.

The other thing that sets Trader Joe’s apart, beyond it’s hull like interior where you may see a palm tree or two, is that it’s kid friendly. Their snacks tend to be healthier than most (amazing dried fruit section too) with less sugar, so it’s less likely that your child may throw a tantrum in the store. Instead, they can keep busy looking for the hidden stuffed animal in the story. In the past I remember it being a parrot, but in the Alexandria store, it was a dog. It’s a fun game which helps occupy kids, and now that I think of it, I’m a bit disappointed that I’ve never participated myself. But I think only the kids are the one who get a prize if they find him.

In short: Trader Joe’s is awesome.

There are certain things about a culture that you’d never think to ask. I’ve learned the best things about France in the most unexpected ways. X-Cultural Exchange – as in cross-cultural – is a semi-regular column that takes a mundane, yet humorous spin at learning about different cultures.

18 comments

  • So happy you explained Trader Joe’s! I’m from the US, but I live in France and use my Trader Joe’s bags at that grocery store every week. I really miss it.

  • Love me some TJ’s! But did you know it has a big Euro connection?

    “Few customers realize the chain is owned by Germany’s ultra-private Albrecht family, the people behind the Aldi Nord supermarket empire. (A different branch of the family controls Aldi Süd, parent of the U.S. Aldi grocery chain.) Famous in Germany for not talking to the press, the Albrechts have passed their tightlipped ways on to their U.S. business: Trader Joe’s and its CEO, Dan Bane, declined repeated requests to speak to Fortune, and the company has never participated in a major story about its business operations.”

    http://money.cnn.com/2010/08/20/news/companies/inside_trader_joes_full_version.fortune/index.htm

  • Funny you should mention that, Marisa. Actually at the HIVE when we were sitting out in front of Betahaus (see post below) one of the girls pulled out a container of Trader Joe’s nuts she had purchased at the local Aldi. Anyway, we all of course shared our favorites :)… Thanks to you can’t wait to try the coconut milk “ice cream” :)

    A

  • That’s so funny! I had no idea that Aldi sold TJ’s-branded products. Very interesting! And good to know the next time I’m in Germany and missing my favorite TJ’s products :)

  • Someone once told me that if you ask anyone at Trader Joe’s if you can taste something, they will open the package and give you a taste. Just like in France! (Ok, just kidding on that part…)

    Am not sure if it’s true, but they said the staff likes when people ask because they get to finish the rest. Personally, I love the mochi ice cream rounds. And the California dried apricots.

  • I am always hearing such awesome feedback about Trader Joe’s, but this has been by far the most informative. Thank you for sharing! I have not visited the store yet, but am now more intrigued to do so.

  • My favorite thing about TJs healthy ‘convenience’ food. I was in LA in April and discovered a new favorite product: pre-cooked pouches of brown rice. You just zap it for 60 seconds and ta-da! I’m taking the big suitcase next time I go home!

    As a Californian expat living in Munich it is agony knowing that the Aldi brothers own TJs! I’ve been hoping against hope that they will do some reverse exporting…

    Anne, do you happen to know if the gals at Hive got the nuts in a Berlin Aldi? I haven’t seen anything like that in Munich.

    Great cultural exchange!

  • I love trader Joe’s. They also carry great coffee, good reasonably priced cheeses and bread. So if I can’t always go to France I can pretend a little.

  • Guess what? They have a Trader Joe’s now in Hamburg! I’m so excited! My cousin made us pumpkin pancakes and I was like “this tastes like Trader Joe’s” and low and behold it was. Woot!

  • @Eleanor, yes, she got the nuts at an Aldi in Berlin.

    @Maryse, totally agree, TJ’s is the best way to bring a bit of faux French living in a fun and affordable way :)

    @Kristi – thanks for the tidbit about Hamburg!

    Anne

  • @ Ann – great post and cultural lesson here! Thanks for featuring Trader Joe’s. I will definitely miss it when in Berlin, but not before I smuggle some soft chocolate chip cookies, and hummus for my friends in Berlin. When they were in US they fell in love with TJ’s hummus!!! And I will try the chocolate covered edamame one of these days ;)

    @ David – next time I’m at Trader Joe’s I will ask to sample the chocolae covered edamame mentioned by Ann. Will let you know if I’m successful :) Thanks for the tip!

  • So, I love this post! Before moving from DC to NYC, I bought a case of 2 Buck Chuck, since they don’t sell wine in the grocery stores here [only beer]. Turns out they have stand-alone TJ’s wine stores! Love it. ; )

  • Everyone loves TJs! And you don’t have to be an expat to miss it. My sister lived in Memphis where there was no TJs so everytime she came back to California she would stock up (I must admit, being her younger sister I loved to torture her by telling her my TJ buys whenever we talked). I also know a french couple who were staying here and TJs was the only store they could navigate because it was the closest to home.

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