10 Things You Didn't Know About... Trader Joe's

What's not to love about Trader Joe's? The staff all wear Hawaiian shirts, the store is chock full of unique things to eat and drink and there always seems to be some really good deals. Try shopping at any of the region's 16 Trader Joe's and you'll see its large following of shoppers. Consumer Reports magazine ranked it the second best supermarket chain in the country after Wegmans. And we all know how I feel about Wegmans these days. So here are some things you didn't know about Trader Joe's:

1. In a former life Trader Joe's competed with 7-Eleven. Instead of the unique neighborhood grocery store that it is now, Trader Joe's, which went by Prontos, was more of a convenience store. But in the late 1960s the small chain, which was only in Southern California, was converted to the neighborhood grocery store we know and love.

2. Trader Joe's is 50 years old, started in Pasadena, Calif., by a guy named Joe Coulombe, a Stanford University MBA who has since handed over reins of the company to other smart people.

3. The store carries 2,000 unique grocery items, with at least 80 percent of them exclusive to Trader Joe's. The rest comes from all over the world, except China. The company decided to stop carrying anything made in China two years ago because of customer concerns, according to a company spokesperson.

4. Each Trader Joe's store has its own in-house artist, many of whom have formal training in art and design. So that means the artwork on the signs and other displays is exclusive to each store.

5. Every Trader Joe's has a plastic lobster somewhere in its midst. There's no explanation for it and no one has admitted to starting the trend but each store gets one. And that bell that you hear from time to time is the signal that a food demonstration is about to begin.

Correction: Boy, you readers are good. Thanks to those of you who pointed out my bell mistake. It's true that if you hear a single bell ring in a Trader Joe's store, it means that more cashiers are needed, two bells means a cashier needs a price check, a balloon to be blown up or an item needs to be put back on the shelf and three rings means that a manager is needed.

6. Any product on the shelf can be sampled. Employees are allowed to open up any jar or box to let customers try them. No can do on wine, though.

7. Trader Joe's has its own fan club. The Trader Joe's Fan Club, launched by a faithful customer in 2006, has about 9,000 members who can get 550 recipes and 680 product reviews from its Web site.

8. Speaking of Trader Joe's fans, two of its biggest put together a cookbook called "Cooking With All Things Trader Joe's" that was released earlier this year. Literally every ingredient in every recipe can be purchased at the small grocery store.

9. The company is owned by a family trust set up by Theo Albrecht, the German billionaire who started the grocery store chain Aldi, a store I reviewed over the summer.

10. Trader Joe's total sales reached $6.5 billion in 2007, according to Supermarket News.

Which stores would you like to know more about? E-mail me at shoptoit@washingtonpost.com with some suggestions.

By Tania Anderson |  November 13, 2008; 12:00 AM ET 10 Things You Didn't Know About... , General Interest , Grocery Deals
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Trader Joe's is wonderful - i've been able to most of my family shopping there, saving a lot of money and time and feeding them quite well. But just a small clarification - while the bell may mean a food demo is about to begin in some stores, in most, the bells are typically rung at the front by the people on the registers to indicate that the cashier needs a manager's help or as an indication that the lines are too long and other employees need to get on their register.

Trader Joe's is a wonderful place to work as well - they really treat their employees, bot the full timers and the part timers, really really well.

Posted by: mdsails | November 13, 2008 8:14 AM

I love the store, but you forgot to mention the Trader Joes Effect, in which they discontinue the item you love and can't get anywhere else.

Posted by: sarahabc | November 13, 2008 10:20 AM

I love stopping in at TJs after my Sat am Weight Watcher meeting. There was an employee who used to take me through the store, showing me WW-friendly items. I even brought in my slide to calculate points. She was great - I discovered lots of things that I wouldn't have found on my own. I've also stopped there on my way home from work and enjoyed the demo food so much that I bought the ingredients and that's what became that night's dinner.

They are all friendly and helpful. It's nice to wander through the store with the mini cup of coffee and a taste from the demo or maybe the wine dept.

The one frustration, though, is when they are out of an item, which seems to happen frequently with my favorite purchases.

Posted by: ldf1 | November 13, 2008 10:47 AM

Is it any surprise that Trader Joe's and Wegman's are rated among the best grocery stores? Attentive and happy staff? Check! Good prices? Check! Interesting product mix including unusual or hard to find items at a good price? Check! High quality prepared and semi-prepared meals? Check!

My daughter always goes back to school on her visits home with a cooler filled with various frozen entrees that you really can't get anywhere else. Our family is especially partial to the beef and chicken products...the pollo asado cooks in 10 minutes on the grill and is great for fajitas and the tri-tip roast is also very good. They have the best price that I have found on things like maple syrup, kalamata olives, spices and cheese.

Posted by: skipper7 | November 13, 2008 11:14 AM

Trader Joe's rules!

I do most of my basic grocery shopping at Trader Joe's and buy their organic skim milk, whole grain whole wheat bread, baking ingredients, soups, whole grain whole wheat pasta, and various sauces.

Posted by: LittleRed1 | November 13, 2008 11:48 AM

I love Trader Joe's, but here in New York City it seems to operate a bit differently. First, due to state law, the wine store is in a separate building, two doors down from the grocery. Second, on the bell issue, they have a whole system of one ring means manager to a register, two rings is a delivery order going out, and I'm not sure what three bells means.

The biggest drawback to Trader Joe's NYC is that there's only one store and it's located in retail space on the ground floor of a big university dormitory. Between college kids and regular shoppers, it's always a madhouse! I've spent 10 minutes on line waiting to check out, in both the grocery and the (cheapest in the city) wine store.

Posted by: northgs | November 13, 2008 11:59 AM

"The store carries 2,000 unique grocery items, with at least 80 percent of them exclusive to Trader Joe's."

If 20 percent of the items are sold at other stores, they're not unique, are they?

That said, I find Trader Joe's products as good or better than any other store's products, prices at least as good, and service to be outstanding, and I inevitably find interesting things whether I'm prepared to buy them or not.

What I didn't know was that you could sample anything. I know what "anything" means, just as I know what "unique" means, but does that mean I can sample the prosciutto or smoked salmon, try their various milk or fruit? If so, then Trader Joe's just stepped up in my estimation to to the level of reading books at Borders.


Posted by: Dungarees | November 13, 2008 12:06 PM

The thing I'd like explained about Trader Joe's is what percentage of the products are repackaged national brands.

For example, I swear that the Trader Joe's cheeseless pizza with artichoke and roasted red peppers is a repackaged Amy's pizza. Same with a lot of their products.

How do they manage to arrange this?

Posted by: ghokee | November 13, 2008 2:11 PM

ghokee, a lot of products are done that way. They are usually made by the same manufacturer and just packaged differently, with slight differences in ingredients. Its not just food, its cars, electronics and clothes. I used to work for a retailer, some of the factories that made the cheap clothes for our stores, also made clothes for Liz Claiborne and Calvin Klein.

BTW, love love love Trader Joe's. I wish it was more convenient, but when I do go, I usually stock up. My fav is their Carrot Ginger soup. Yummmmmy.

Posted by: jakeepoo | November 13, 2008 3:37 PM

I am a part-time crew member at TJ's. This is what the bells mean;
1 bell -more cashiers (aka all hands on deck)
2 bells -assistance is needed at the register (price check, cracked eggs, etc}
3 bells -something needs to be done on the register that requires a special keymaster, like a refund or a removal of an item the customer has decided they don't want.

Posted by: lilylivard | November 13, 2008 4:53 PM

"a Stanford University MBA who has since handed over reigns of the company to other smart people."

You mean "reins".

Posted by: tegularius | November 18, 2008 10:11 AM

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