Back when they first opened stores in Atlanta some 12 years ago, I wasn’t one of the early ones in line, excited to check out this California-based newfangled place with cedarplank walls and tasting stations, where the bell ringing checkout people dressed in Hawaiian shirts. I suppose I like Jimmy Buffet and carefree island living, but this is land-locked Atlanta and let’s just get our groceries and get on with it. The cynic in me wondered what were these employees hiding behind their energized smiles, easy breezy floral shirts and hyper happy approach to selling food? And exactly why were they trying to involve me? They reminded me of what I thought Disney World was like, where everyone is waving and happy, and the always blooming flowers never need water. Where the promise that the magic will sprinkle over me too is real, if I can only believe. Like Santa and the Tooth Fairy.
I generally like to keep a low profile when buying groceries and get in and out quickly and unnoticed. Yet the only thing these people full of company culture and tasty samples wanted was to share the love. Friends did too, and when they learned I still hadn’t gone, they couldn’t process why I’d rob myself of this experience any longer.
I kept running into people who had been drinking this island-spiked Kool-Aid and who were transformed; they’d seen a revolutionary shopping experience, and they were all in. I insisted on being contrary and instead stayed away. It was like when the movie Dances with Wolves came out and everyone immediately ran out to see it and then gushed over the film. I couldn’t bring myself to sign up for the 3-hour and 56-minute epic that everyone insisted I see, despite the extended time to enjoy looking at Kevin Costner. He won me over in Field of Dreams the year before, but beyond the crazy popularity of this way too long film, I didn’t want to deal with potential disappointment seeing him in a lesser role.
I did go into this store a few times and felt a little out of place, as I didn’t feel shiny and happy and wasn’t going to allow any joy to wash over me. The experience was lost on me and it seemed I shouldn’t be there. Hell bent on discovering this place solo through my own lens, I picked up only the bare essentials each time working from my list, which meant skipping the sample stations and the quippy descriptions next to various signature products. I wanted to save money and come away with good food but was resistant to leaning into the experience despite the hold this place had on everyone — restaurant foodies, fast foodies, even non-foodies, and serious home cooks too.
After a few more visits that left me both over- and under-whelmed, I went back to my usual nearby stores, a fabulous but freezing super stocked world farmers market and the consistent customer-focused Florida based grocery chain where shopping is a pleasure. I cooked a lot – then and now — and was averse to buying packaged food experiences to stow in my freezer, even though with all the talk, these were beginning to sound like actual players. Maybe I worried by stocking these items, I’d get lazy with my cooking from scratch and move toward the easy freezer to microwave dinner dance so many choose. Not sure who I was trying to impress, other than myself.
More months passed, and more chatter about these great prepared foods, organic produce, breads and flowers, yada yada, so I returned to try again. I saw surprisingly affordable gorgeous cut flower bouquets, tiny pots with healthy shoots and buds about to bloom, and enormous eucalyptus stems — the rare flat leaf variety you only find at a florist, and once I reached for a bunch to take home, it seems I, too, was smitten.
The breads came next and a chocolate Brooklyn babka was calling my name. It wasn’t their last babka, but it was my first. You just can’t beat a babka, can you? Next up along the produce aisle were the hard to find haricot vert, the skinny tender perfect green beans. Prebagged with dozens neatly stacked inside, these beans were a gorgeous healthy green, with pointy tips intact. I found plenty of loose organic produce, too, and other packaged items, which unlike that from other stores looked surprisingly fresh. Moving along, I started filling my cart as I mentally tabulated future menus. There was peppered turkey bacon to try and other interesting meats, with no shortage of affordable organic options.
I rounded the corner through dairy (btw thrice I’ve bought 2% organic milk here to find it “not quite right,” so don’t recommend) and onto the frozen foods, and the noise of the bells, chatter and cartoon-like signage began to sink into the background, and the foods came into focus. I began taking the advice of hand-scrawled tags taped to shelf edges, which gave a personal rating of the inventory, like liquor stores do in their wine aisles. I passed gorgeous butternut squash ravioli and arugula parmigiano reggiano ravioli in the refrigerated section, which I’ve bought repeatedly. Get them and enjoy with a green salad and glass of wine and someone to share.
A friend raved about the organic coffee and like a kid in a candy store, I stood on tiptoes reaching for this and scores of other things I couldn’t wait to bring home and try. I liked the can graphics and could almost smell the grounds; imagining my next pot of coffee made me incredibly happy. There were shampoos, too, and minimal ingredient soaps, which I also grabbed. It was like you were on a game show and they told you to fill your cart with whichever items you want in 45 minutes, with a challenge that you couldn’t exceed $200. This is easier here than you may think as just once in all my years of going have I exceeded $200, despite an impressive effort.
The frozen section was filled with those I don’t have time to cook and this is actually tasty boxed and bagged entrees. Mandarin orange chicken, that dark meat-only sweet and sour dish that you don’t really love, but your kids adore, takes just 25 minutes to make, including your own rice you cook separately. Lemongrass sticks, chicken chile verde burritos and chicken cilantro mini wontons (yes, we eat too much chicken) all are lined up flirting with you to take them home. And you do.
Probably la crème de la crème of freezer items for me are three things. 1) Trader Giotti’s (seriously folks, imported from Italy) generous personal sized cheese pizza, with sliced tomatoes and, get this, it’s gluten free! Believe me, I adore traditional gluten pizzas, but this stands apart from their other pies. Lovely cornmeal dusts the bottom of the crust and the tomatoes taste like summer; it’s simply amazing. Didn’t see it last time I went, though, and praying they haven’t discontinued this, as they have several items I adored. 2) Chocolate Croissants. These, folks, are Christmas morning breakfast worthy but enjoy them anytime. You sit them out the night before, they rise a little and then you bake them the next morning. Seriously good. Not over-chocolatey, no harsh bitter dark chocolate taste, either. Just perfection, plain and simple. 3) Lamb Vindaloo. You’ve had vindaloo and love it in restaurants. And you may be one of those rare birds that love lamb, like me. Often lamb dishes require that you edit the meat, spend loads of time cutting the fat away only to discover that you’re left with little meat to eat. This dish is spiced perfectly and has loads of big chunks of pre-edited lamb that is succulent and ever so perfect. Get it and savor it. And for god’s sake if you don’t like lamb, you really need to, for this dish alone will convert you.
Next up, loads of nuts – raw, roasted or salted — were gorgeous and easy enough, and further down the aisle, good quality store brand crackers and cereal challenged me with more decisions to make. There was a good sized wine section including the famous two buck chuck variety, but I never have explored their wines except once when I bought a $5 bottle. Suffice it to say, you get what you pay for. Learn the wines or skip ‘em.
In the store’s back corner they were giving out coffee cake samples – made from a box! – which were divine as is their boxed gingerbread. Seriously, don’t bother trying to replicate the gingerbread from scratch. Make it and get their lemon curd and some cream cheese and go to town. And there was free coffee with cream, with which to swallow it down. No pressure to buy. Just bask in the love.
Fast forward to just the other day when I had time to kill and needed a little birthday gift for a dear family friend. Just inside the door there it was, a $2.99 baby daffodil plant with one beautiful open and fragrant bloom and others on the way, perfect to go with the card I already had. Of course, since I was there I had to pick up a few things. Another chocolate babka (it had been a while since I’d eaten one or watched a Seinfeld for that matter), more peppered turkey bacon, bagged organic apples (nary a dent!), bagged oranges and enormous croissants made with half a dozen ingredients, if that.
As I left with a cart carrying double bagged perfectly packed brown grocery bags, the cashier I’d seen for years sent me off with a “Take care, love” goodbye and off I went, carrying and sharing the love until I return to Trader Joe’s next time.
Why review a place that’s been here for so many years? I think I’m reviewing myself more, looking around and realizing it’s time to participate. Sharing our lenses on life and food and love is far more delicious that living inside ourselves. Because at the end of the day we all want the same things, don’t we? Like my friends have for years, these days I often trade Trader Joe’s stories and give and get new ideas on wonderful foods to choose. Would love to hear your favorites, too, so feel free to leave a comment. With love, S.