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We don't have to love chains so much — or dismiss them out of hand

When Trader Joe’s comes into an area, residents celebrate — but why? asks columnist Dan DeWitt.

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When Trader Joe’s comes into an area, residents celebrate — but why? asks columnist Dan DeWitt.

Trader Joe's so-called Two Buck Chuck is not, as you might have heard, a perfectly serviceable table wine at an incredible price.

It's vile stuff, one of the few wines my wife and I have ever poured down the drain.

Nor were we wowed by Trader Joe's interior, with lots of bare, blond wood paneling reminiscent of a 1970s-era health food store.

As far as produce goes, you'll find a better selection, and lower prices, at Walmart.

So why the fuss? Why is the announcement that a store is coming to, first, Tampa and more recently, St. Petersburg treated as a cause for community celebration? Why is its impending arrival taken as a sign that our metro area itself has arrived?

It shouldn't be, obviously. Just as it's not really such a big deal that an Olive Garden or Bonefish Grill might — I repeat, might — be coming to one of the planned shopping centers on State Road 50 west of Mariner Boulevard.

Look, I'm not necessarily anti-chain. I'm just against lusting after them.

Remember, any new chain outlet isn't really new at all, just one of many others — about 400 others, in the case of Traders Joe's. And please try to get some perspective on the consumerist assumption that quality of life is determined by how many places we have to eat and shop, including places that offer nothing special besides the consumption of, for example, all the squishy bread sticks you can eat.

Chains start with a leg up on independent enterprises (disclosure: my wife co-owns one of them) that really can bring something new to our community. Not the least of these advantages are national marketing campaigns. And if we buy into these with breathless, speculative chatter, we give chains an insurmountable, unfair advantage.

Still, competition among chains is intense. The ones that succeed generally do something well, and the ones, such as Trader Joe's, that create a loud, lasting buzz must do some things really well.

Which is why— even though my wife and I were unimpressed by our first trip to the Gainesville store in August — I returned there on a visit to town Saturday. I wanted to try to judge it for what it is.

The place was slammed, I remarked to the clerk as I checked out. Not really, she said. Apparently a fair number of people still go to Gators football games because, she told me, there would be twice as many people crowding the aisles once the game was over.

And every one of these customers would likely be able to find a helpful worker. There were a couple of dozen of them on the floor, including a woman handling a sample of Trader Joe's mushroom-truffle flatbread and a wine guy who talked me into a pinot noir that looked to be far superior to my previous selection from the store and, at $12.99, still a bargain.

So was the block of nutty Parmesan cheese, three-fourths of a pound for $5, and the two refrigerated Trader Joe's entrees that we bought to sample the next day — even if it turned out that they didn't quite live up to the chain's reputation for super-flavorful house brands.

My verdict? If a Trader Joe's were convenient, I'd shop there. I'd be glad it's around.

I thought something similar about another chain recently, after eating a pasty bowl of linguine at a local mom-and-pop Italian restaurant. I told my wife we would have been better off at Carrabba's.

Not Olive Garden, mind you, but probably Carrabba's.

We don't have to love chains so much — or dismiss them out of hand 11/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 2:19pm]
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