Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The wildly popular west coast chain Trader Joe's finally opened its St. Paul branch on Lexington Pkwy in June, and if my three visits are a fair representation, St. Paulites love the place. I've found a wine I love (not three buck Chuck), a couple great food buys, lots of fun store brands and a disappointment at the produce section.
Friends who spent time in California rued the loss of their favorite market when they moved back to the boring old Midwest, but often had trouble explaining the attraction. Three buck Chuck, erratic product selection, and the now-familiar Caribbean motif of the stores were a part of the picture, but for the uninitiated, I didn't get it. I looked into the stores' history.
The Caribbean motif was a simple matter of establishing differentiation from other convenience markets. The stores tried a little bit of everything: cheese, butcher, a variety of wines; but not all the stores at once. Later, that element of constant change became a signature marketing method. Trader Joe's was about surprises. A few decades ago the chain was acquired by a brother of the German billionaire family that runs Aldi.
I was familiar with Aldi's stores from my time as a student in Germany, and thought the place unremarkable. I discovered an Aldi here a few years ago. I've spent a good amount of time in dark little ethnic markets around the Twin Cities, but was stunned at Aldi's stark dollar store feel and inventory: no mayonaise - salad spread, no brand names, no ketchup. Just milk, bread, eggs, and the cheapest packaged foods. Trader Joe's could scarcely be a greater contrast -- their colorful stores are fun and kid friendly. Trader Joe's definitely courts a different demographic, but the two markets share more than a common parent. Both offer a strictly limited variety of brand names. Trader Joe's has become a brand name in its own right, you might find your favorite cereal, but everything else bears the Trader Joe moniker.
I like to cook, so when evaluating a grocery store, I give careful attention to the raw foods: produce, meat, dairy areas -- manufactured foods are secondary. Unfortunately for me, Trader Joe's is the converse. The Trader Joe's brand frozen fill-in-the-blank or Trader Joe's spicy yummy mix is what they've built their customer loyalty on. Their produce is not only limited, it is heavily packaged. Green peppers, garlic, and nearly everything else comes pre-packaged forcing a purchase of a set quantity, and freshness suffers. Their produce and meat prices disappointed me. Nearly everything else was reasonable.
Another bright spot was the convenience of an attached wine shop. I discovered an inexpensive (actually downright cheap), but fun Portugese wine, Vinho Verde. It seems everyone I run into has a Trader Joe's product they love -- a spiced almond mix or frozen Mexican dinner. So far, I've only found the wine.
The usual questions:
What is Trader Joe's good at? Atmosphere, and Trader Joe's branded products, generally decent prices.
What is Trader Joe's not so good at? Produce. On produce, selection, price, and freshness all were lacking. Shop here first and pick up the foods needing refrigeration elsewhere later.
What to get at Trader Joe's? Find your Trader Joe's brand treasures. Ask your friends and pick up a bottle of Vinho Verde (Green wine). It's slightly effervescent, but very fun.
How do I get there? Trader Joe's is at 484 Lexington Parkway N in St. Paul. Head North from Lexington & Grand. When you get there, don't look for outside parking, there is substantial parking under the store, just follow the arrows and animals.