Trader Joe’s Locations
- 3808 W Swann Ave., Tampa. (813) 872-6846.
- 2742 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 824-0907.
Some say Trader Joe’s genius is predicting the turns Americans’ ever-more-adventuresome palates will take. I say they are leading the way, the pied piper of preserved lemons and frozen paneer tikka masala. TJ’s opened in 2014 in South Tampa and in 2015 in St. Petersburg, to much fervor.
What’s it like?
Where a normal grocery store might have 50,000 items on the shelves, TJ’s has only about 4,000, most of them store brand. They may only have four kinds of peanut butter, but every one of them brings something wondrous to a PBJ. Staff “product developers” rack up the frequent-flier miles, nibbling their way through street foods from Saigon to Bangladesh on R&D missions, tweaking and refining flavors to bring them to the American market.
How are you fixed for dark chocolate-covered ginger? Or dark chocolate-covered edamame? Dark chocolate espresso beans? Okay, I’ve made my point. Some of the greatest TJ’s finds are utterly unnecessary indulgences (cheap but fresh flowers, dark chocolate peanut butter cups — did I mention those?). They have new products all the time (all said to contain no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, MSG, trans fats or GMOs) and products are frequently decommissioned, so don’t get wedded to anything.
You know that moment in dating where you find out something you wish you didn’t know? Maybe it’s in his/her medicine cabinet (come on, you’ve got to look), or a comment they made to or about a server, or an offhand remark about capital punishment or 1980s pop. The upshot is, “Well, I guess this isn’t perfect, but is it salvageable?” I’ve been there with TJ’s. I fell out of love with Two Buck Chuck, have systematically turned against every pasta sauce, still chafe at how underripe the stone fruit invariably is. And yet. I can’t kick TJ’s to the curb, it’s a part of me, we are meant for each other. Pro tip: Keep a tiny notebook so you can actually record TJ’s triumphs and defeats so you don’t stand there saying, “I know I’ve bought the Cranberry Coconut Snacking Crackers. Did I like them?” (The answer is no, they are terrible.) And while there’s decent frozen fish, the chicken, beef and pork offerings don’t tend to be great.
This is TJ’s wheelhouse. In 2011, two moms in New York got into a slapping fight over a package of Trader Joe’s brand frozen vegan pad Thai with tofu. I wouldn’t beat anyone up for them, but the Punjab choley and chicken tikka masala are quite solid. A lot of the products are heavy on the puns, but so be it: Inner Peas (dehydrated snap pea chips), This Fig Walks into a Bar (Newton-like fig bars). The identities of the companies that produce the products are a closely held secret, and relationships with vendors are often exclusive, so you won’t see this stuff anywhere else.
This is not where to buy toilet paper or laundry detergent. The best things TJ’s has to offer are prepared snack foods, both savory and sweet (I no longer refer to the holiday in December as Christmas, it’s Trader Joe’s Candy Cane Joe Joes Sandwich Cookie season), emergency frozen dinners of various ethnic varieties and cheap but serviceable wine. Do you want to win at life? Then buy the frozen chocolate croissants and let them thaw overnight, bake them and pass them off as your own (or don’t if you’re all honest and such). Or, sandwich the triple ginger cookies with the Dutch speculoos cookie butter for a little DIY magic.
Employees, mostly shaggy-looking 20-somethings who look like Jeff Albertson, the comic book guy in The Simpsons, frequently have the gift of gab and dress in goofy Hawaiian shirts with name tags. They high-five. They have dental plans and make good money. They dole out stickers to kids and will cheerily give you a refund if you’re dissatisfied with a purchase. Market Force did a study that showed that Trader Joe’s consistently ranks at the top for customer satisfaction (followed by Publix and Whole Foods). Why? It’s direct, face-to-face interaction. Captains spend their time walking the floor; everyone chats. I once brought back a tub of Belgian chocolate pudding (it’s off the hook) because someone had taken a big finger swipe out of it. The staff was irate on my behalf.
Statement from the store
“To give our customers the best food and beverage values that they can find anywhere and to provide them with the information required to make informed buying decisions …. (with) customer satisfaction delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, fun, individual pride and company spirit.”
Milk: $3.69 per half gallon
Boneless skinless chicken breast: $4.49 per pound
Avocados: $1.39 each
People will travel 1,000 miles to visit a Trader Joe’s. They will camp out overnight to be the first customer in the door of a new store. TJ’s fans are zealots, but even the zealot-iest knows that the parking lot is a nightmare, with spots too few and too small, carts zinging around gunning for side panels and TJ’s employees waving their arms like FAA ground crew on the runway. It’s the price you pay for an imperfect love.