Volume 75, Number 44 | March 22 -28 2006

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

The line on Monday to get into Trader Joe’s on E. 14th St. The wait was about 5 to 10 minutes.

Long lines, Hawaiian shirts; it’s Trader Joe’s mania

By Ellen Keohane

There wasn’t a velvet rope, but there was a security guard outside Trader Joe’s on Monday afternoon.

Three days after its grand opening on St. Patrick’s Day, the specialty grocery store at 142 E. 14th St. attracted more shoppers than it could handle. So 30 people had to wait outside before a Trader Joe’s employee allowed them to enter. “Are you serious — this line’s for a grocery store?” one woman hissed before joining the queue.

Inside, Trader Joe’s aisles were packed with shoppers. Employees dodged carts and baskets as they tried to restock the rapidly emptying shelves. The line for the cash registers looped around the entire store, all the way to the bread section. There, a cheerful employee dressed in a Trader Joe’s signature Hawaiian-print shirt held up a sign indicating “End of Line.”

The long-awaited Union Square store is the first Trader Joe’s to open in New York City. The store is in the New York University-owned Palladium residence hall near Third Ave. The Trader Joe’s supermarket chain, which started in 1958 in the Los Angeles area, sells a variety of hard-to-find imported and gourmet foods as well as organic, kosher, vegetarian and dairy-free items. There are now more than 250 Trader Joe’s grocery stories in 19 states across the United States.

The store itself has a fun, nautical-themed décor. Employees are called “crew members” while the manager is the “captain” and the assistant manager is the “first mate.” The bread aisle, in honor of its New York location, is called “Breadway,” while the cereal section has been dubbed “Avenue C…ereal.”

When possible, Trader Joe’s buys in bulk, direct from manufacturers, so its prices are typically a little lower than other specialty stores. The chain also offers unique products under its own private label, including a variety of trail mix, beverages, sauces, dietary supplements, frozen foods, olive oil, cookies and cereal. Many Trader Joe’s products have cute names like “Low Fat Cats Cookies for People” and “Joe’s O’s” cereal, and most are free of preservatives as well as artificial ingredients and colors.

But Trader Joe’s is best known for its Charles Shaw wines. Nicknamed “Two-Buck Chuck” in California, where it sells for $1.99, Charles Shaw is a little more expensive on the East Coast. Depending on the location, the wine sells for up to $3.39.

New Yorkers will have to wait a little longer to sample “Two- (or Three) Buck Chuck,” however, as the Trader Joe’s wine shop adjacent to the supermarket has yet to open. (In order to comply with New York liquor laws, the wine shop must have a separate entrance from the grocery store.) According to Trader Joe’s spokesperson Alison Mochizuki, the wine shop should hopefully open “very soon.”

As Monday’s crowd indicated, Trader Joe’s has its share of fans. Waiting on line for the register, a couple asked the stranger in front of them to snap a photo of them in front of their overflowing shopping cart. The man obliged as the couple grinned from ear to ear.

Vida Mulec, 25, an international affairs graduate student at New School University, exited the store, pleased with her purchases. It’s cheaper than the nearby Whole Foods Market, she said. “I got a dozen eggs for 99 cents,” she gushed.

Other first-time Trader Joe’s shoppers were less impressed with the store. “It’s not that cheap, but if it’s organic, you pay a special price for that,” Alex Brunavs said. Brunavs, a 64-year-old retiree, read about the opening of Trader Joe’s in the newspaper. “I heard it comes from California,” he said.

Elizabeth Margulies, 36, a museum educator, traveled from Brooklyn to stock up on specialty items for an upcoming party. Her friends at work had been excited about the store’s opening, so Margulies decided to check it out on her day off. It was her first trip to Trader Joe’s. “I’m not convinced yet,” she said. “The jury’s still out on how much of a discount you can get.”

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