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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Trader Joe's Experience

I have had my initiation, folks. I'm a Trader Joe's virgin no longer. And what an initiation it was!

I've heard about Trader Joe's for years, but there's never been one close to anywhere I happened to be. The store started out in the Los Angeles area back in 1958 when a guy named Joe Coulombe opened a local chain of “Pronto Market” convenience stores. Fearing that up and coming competitors like 7-Eleven were going to eat his lunch, he decided to head in a new direction, a direction purported to be inspired by a Caribbean vacation. So in 1967, he opened his first Trader Joe's in Pasadena, California, complete with tropical island décor and employees clad in Hawaiian shirts. The idea is that, like an island trader, Trader Joe's searches markets the world over to bring unique merchandise to your hometown. And that's pretty much the way it is.

Entering Trader Joe's leads to a shopping experience unlike any other. Now, I have to say that my first time at Trader Joe's was at a brand new store that just opened in a completely new market. I was there the second weekend the place was up and running and they were still completely swamped. You practically had to take a number to get into the store and the overwhelmed local staff was being assisted by employees imported from other locations as far as a hundred miles away. One fellow shopper, squeezing past me in the milling herd, smiled and said, “Looks like the novelty hasn't worn off yet.” And have I ever mentioned that I hate crowds? The only exception is when the crowds are lining up with money in their hands to see something in which I'm involved.

Surprisingly, in this instance I didn't care. The atmosphere was more like a big, convivial party than a jostling throng. Trader Joe's is famous for its friendly employees and that was certainly the case here. These poor schmucks were being bombarded from all sides. They were constantly trying to restock even as hordes trampled them to strip the shelves they were struggling to maintain. They were continually being summoned by clanging bells – Trader Joe's has a code; one bell means open another register, two bells means somebody has a question at check-out, three bells summons a manager – and still they kept sincere smiles on their faces as they adroitly answered myriad questions. In an age where rudeness is almost de rigueur among store clerks, there was not an unpleasant or surly one in the bunch. I don't know where Trader Joe's finds these people, but I wish they would share their source with McDonald's and a few other places that come to mind.

Of course, the original “Trader Joe” Coulombe has long since departed the scene, selling out his interest in the company in 1979, but the stores themselves continue to trend in the direction he established. They sell a limited quantity of unique, extremely high quality products at exceptionally low prices. This floors me because the Albrecht family now owns Trader Joe's; the same Albrecht family responsible for Aldi. Talk about polar opposites! Aldi and Trader Joe's are the nadir and the pinnacle. Aldi scrapes the bottom of the barrel and Trader Joe's skims the cream of the crop. Go figure.

<Scraping SFX as the soapbox is dragged out from under the porch> When it comes to food, quality is everything. Far too many people regard food as a necessary evil, something they simply have to have in order to function and survive. It goes in one end and comes out the other and if it accidentally happens to taste good in between, okay. They buy the cheapest, subsistence-level crap they can lay their hands on to fill a basic biological need. Why buy “expensive” durum wheat pasta at two dollars a box when the glorified dried wallpaper paste sold at ten boxes for a dollar is “just as as good?” Why buy real sweet cream butter when you can get by with practically plastic margarine? I'm sorry. I can't do that to my body. I'll drive an old used car and I'll wear clothes from the Salvation Army thrift store, but I refuse to cheap up on food.

And that's the beauty of Trader Joe's. They have astonishing food at equally astonishing prices. I'll tell you up front, Trader Joe's is not the place you'll go to do your regular weekly shopping. They don't carry the 50,000 items most chain grocery stores stock. They limit their inventory to about 4,000 carefully sourced and selected items. But within that selection, you won't find better quality at better prices anywhere. Trader Joe's even gives my old standby, Whole Foods, serious competition.

CBS Money Watch did a couple of stories on what to buy and what not to buy at Trader Joe's. (Read them here: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57191657/6-things-to-buy-at-trader-joes/?tag=mwuser and http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505144_162-57191651/4-things-not-to-buy-at-trader-joes/?tag=mwuser.) I've seen the same type of information in other sources, as well. Everybody pretty much agrees that Trader Joe's can be hit or miss on fresh produce. Except bananas. The bananas are phenomenal and cheap. Nineteen cents apiece the day I went there. I found some great prosciutto di Parma, the real thing complete with DOP seal, for an incredible price. And, as the CBS article averred, Trader Joe's has some fantastic deals on maple syrup, both A and B grades. I'm a big fan of Kerrygold Irish Butter, but not at the usual price. I snapped up some at Trader Joe's. They were also passing out samples of a delicious tomato bisque, and I, the guy who bakes all his own breads, actually sprung for a loaf of Tuscan bread that, although commercially baked, was really quite good. I made panini with it, using the prosciutto and some wonderful raw milk emmentaler cheese that I purchased.

In fact, the general consensus is that nobody can touch Trader Joe's in two areas; wine and cheese. I'll certainly endorse that. The cheese section was unbelievable. I've not seen the like outside of a regular dedicated cheesemonger's shop. The selection is huge and the prices are beyond reasonable. I bought the aforementioned emmentaler along with some havarti, some brie, and a nice Wisconsin mild cheddar all for far less than I would have paid at a “regular” grocery store or even at a big-box discount place. All were superb. They had some Grana Padano and some Parmigiano-Reggiano, too, also very reasonably priced. I didn't need any that day, but I know where I'm going when I do.

Now, the CBS report didn't much care for Trader Joe's trademark “Two-Buck Chuck” wine. I didn't buy any, so I can't comment. I was much too busy scarfing up bottles of Montepulciano and Barolo and other Italian wines at prices I've never seen anywhere else. At $6.99 a bottle, I got a great bargain on a beautiful Villa Alena Moscato d'Asti and my wife thoroughly enjoyed the private label Honey Moon Viognier California white she picked up for next to nothing. Trader Joe's wine selection and wine prices are indeed unsurpassed.

As is the case with Trader Joe's everywhere, this new store's décor is a mix of exotic and local. There's the ubiquitous tropical kitsch, but the murals on the walls depicting local landmarks and scenes make the place feel like a real down-home neighborhood grocery store. Add to that the unfailingly friendly staff and the whole vibe that you're embarking on some sort of a culinary treasure hunt and it's easy to see why Trader Joe's has developed such a passionate cult following. And, believe me, I'm now a card-carrying member of that cult. Except, unlike so many chain stores, there's no card to carry in order to get fantastic deals. A philosophy stated on Trader Joe's website says: “ 'Sale' is a four-letter word to us. We have low prices, every day. No coupons, no membership cards, no discounts. You won't find any glitzy promotions or couponing wars at our stores. If it makes you feel any better, think of it as all our items are on sale, day in and day out.”

Trader Joe's began foraying out from California back in the '90s and is expanding into more new markets these days, so if you don't already have one in your neighborhood, take heart, one may be on the way. If you do have a Trader Joe's in your area and you haven't taken advantage of it, shame on you! The store “near” me is about forty miles away, but I'm still going to be a regular. I'm a very picky shopper, and from now on I'll definitely pick Trader Joe's.





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