Friday, October 16, 2009

Trader Joe's? The Jury is Out

I'm new to the wonders of Trader Joe's. I've heard such great things about it: the low prices, the large selection of organic and whole grain foods, the unique products. It seems like everyone I know raves about it. So, now that one opened just 10 minutes from my daughter's nursery school, I thought I'd better check it out.

I went for the first time last week and left empty-handed and a little let down and confused. I was unaware that most of the products they sell are their own brand. I suppose there must be a way to make such a variety of products and still have them all meet high quality standards, but it still doesn't make much sense to me. I always thought better products (food and otherwise) are made by companies that specialize in something. Now, I haven't actually eaten any of their products yet, so I really can't say if they break this rule. But that issue aside, there several other issues I have with TJ's.

I was a bit saddened by the focus on processed foods. It seems like at least 50% of the store is their store brand of stuff in a box - frozen meals, cereals, canned products, refrigerated prepared foods. I found it troubling to be in a store like that, especially when it has the reputation of being a healthy food store. Healthy food is whole food, not processed foods. I suppose there isn't a grocery store on the planet that doesn't have lots of processed foods (even most health food stores do), but I was expecting to get great deals on real foods, like grains, beans, spices, baking supplies, etc. (incidentally, some of those things can be found at TJ's, but they are less prominent than the processed stuff).

I thought TJ's was a mostly organic store, and although they do have quite a variety of organic foods, you have to be careful to look for the organic symbol. Many times, I thought I was spotting a great deal, only to notice upon closer inspection that the product wasn't organic, hence the low price. I was a bit thrown to see so much conventional produce, in particular.

There are also some environmental concerns that I have with TJ's. Although they certainly do some things right (using paper shopping bags instead of plastic, for example), their products (even in produce) are clearly not locally-focused. That means that buying produce from them, or any other potentially local product (dairy, meat, bread, eggs, honey) is not supporting your local farmers, and it is adding to your carbon footprint by transporting foods that could be sourced locally.

So, I obviously had some negative first impressions about TJ's. But in the week that followed, I thought about it again and reconsidered some things. I do buy some processed foods: bread, cereal, canned tomatoes and dry pasta, to name a few. So, I may as well save some money at TJ's and buy that stuff there, if it's good, and if it's truly a savings. I also don't buy everything locally: I try to buy nearly all local produce, and as much as possible I buy local meats, eggs, honey and dairy. But I can't buy local grain, flour, sugar or nuts, to name a few. So, I may as well save some money and buy that stuff there, too. Finally, although I buy nearly all organic products, I would consider buying some non-organic products at TJ's because their products are GMO-free, and that is a major concern for me in most conventional products.

I went back to TJ's today, and I did buy a few things, and at very good prices:
- Organic boneless chicken breasts @ $6.99/lb. - I have yet to find local boneless chicken breasts, and this is an excellent price
- Whole wheat organic spaghetti @ $1.29 for 16 oz. - that's $0.70 less than the spaghetti I usually buy, when it's on sale
- Organic whole wheat min-pitas @ $1.79 for 8 - I've never seen these anywhere else
- Whole wheat pizza dough (non-organic) @ $0.99 - I still would like to start making my own pizza dough, but for now (with the little one only 3 months old), I'll forgive myself
- Whole wheat small flour tortillas (non-organic) @ $2.29 for 10 - I haven't seen this size whole wheat non-GMO tortillas anywhere else
- Whole wheat large flour tortillas (non-organic) @ $2.69 for 10 - not sure this is such a great deal. If it were organic, it would be a great deal. At least it's non-GMO.
- Organic light brown sugar @ $2.99 for 24 oz. - this is a real bargain - the same amount would normally go for more than $5. Only problem is that it's not fair trade.
- I also thought about buying their dried unsulphured mango, but then I saw that the first ingredient is sugar, so I nixed that.

I have some guilt about buying all this stuff. None of it is ideal, but it's hard to argue with the prices given that they required only small compromises. Still, what good are ideals if you're willing to compromise them for a bargain? I don't know ... I have figured this one out yet.

Ultimately, I think what made TJ's a less than life-altering experience for me is the hype. I went in expecting a revolutionary shopping experience, and I came away feeling like all I saw was a different business model for the same old, same old.

1 comment:

Marcia said...

I love Trader Joe's and shop there quite often. I started shopping there during the grocery strike of Southern California several years ago.

On branding: Trader Joe's does stock other brands. Often, they will stock a different brand of, say, organic yogurt. If it becomes really popular, they then start selling it under their own logo, but it's actually the same product. (I found that happened with my favorite yogurt.) I wouldn't worry about the "quality" of their brands...they basically look for high quality foods, buy it direct from the producer, and put their own name on it.

They do have a fair bit of processed food, but no more than other stores. And for the most part, if you read the ingredients (at least in the few items that I buy), there's real food in there. I am hard-pressed to find food coloring and preservatives. They are basically selling what people buy. Our original TJ's was a "mini", which means it was *mostly* processed food.

Now our 3 TJ's are the normal. They sell a lot of staples, and their eggs are actually local to me. I regularly buy brown rice, whole wheat pasta, olives, polenta, milk, eggs, yogurt, blue cheese, whole grain bread, frozen edamame, green beans, and peas, bananas, maple syrup...

I belong to a CSA, so I don't buy a lot of produce there. I don't eat a lot of processed foods, but when I do, I find the occasional frozen meal to be of higher quality and at a better price than elsewhere.

For my grain staples though, their prices truly cannot be beat at any store around here.