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What's so great about Trader Joe's? You might have to see it to understand. But once you do …

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. It wasn't even the Trader Joe's paneer tikka masala or the heat-and-eat falafel, but I still get it. TJ's brings out passions.

There are the haters, sure, but toss out the chipotle-flavored hummus or the meatloaf muffins as a conversational gambit and some folks get a zealot's glintiness.

What's so great about Trader Joe's?

Forget Two Buck Chuck. It's a red herring, a canard even. The Charles Shaw pinot grigio isn't even two bucks anymore, and if you drink it with dinner every night for a month (which I have), you're done with it. Finito. Trader Joe's magic isn't cheapness. It's weirdness.

Employees, mostly shaggy-looking twentysomethings with the gift of gab, 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.

But what's to be dissatisfied about? 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 zesty to a PBJ. Staff "product developers" rack up the frequent flyer 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. 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 lemongrass and harissa.

Where was I? Sorry, I got thinking about the Thai lime-and-chile cashews. Those dang cashews.

I have an illustrative story. Sitting in the stands on a bitterly rainy winter day in Cary, N.C., for the NCAA men's soccer finals, I saw them: People in front of us were eating Oreo-like sandwich cookies, minty and dipped in chocolate, out of a Trader Joe's box. One of TJ's finest achievements. All of a sudden I didn't care whether UVa won. I didn't care about the rain, or the fact that I couldn't feel my fingers, or that we had a plane to catch. I had to have those cookies. We drove, defying traffic laws and nearly those of gravity, dumping out dirty laundry to fill a suitcase with TJ's chips and cookies and dips and treats.

Florida is nice. It has lovely wading birds and no state income tax. But until recently, there have been blots. Naples, now Sarasota — come on TJ's, keep going. Mama needs her cashews.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

10 reasons to love TJ's

The Daily Meal has a section of its site called "Best and Worst Products at Trader Joe's" and there are whole websites devoted to TJ's house brand items (all said to contain no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, MSG, trans fats or GMOs). Here are 10 worth a drive to Sarasota:

. Triple ginger snaps cookies

. Frozen chocolate croissants

. Punjab choley

(Indian tomatoey chickpeas)

. Chocolate espresso beans

. Handmade flour tortillas

. Lime-and-chile cashews

. Speculoos cookie butter (a Dutch-style spread)

. Dark chocolate caramel with black sea salt bar

. Spicy

hummus

. Chicken

tikka masala

What's so great about Trader Joe's? You might have to see it to understand. But once you do … 09/07/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 7, 2012 10:24pm]

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