Volume 80, Number 27 | December 2 - 8, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Notebook

True confessions of a Trader Joe’s shopaholic

By Michele Herman

In the spring of 2006, when my cost-conscious Manhattan mom cohort learned that Trader Joe’s — the national chain known for high-quality food at rock-bottom prices — would finally establish a Manhattan beachhead, we were primed. One friend plastered herself against the front window to monitor the store’s progress like one of those stuffed animals with suction cups on its paws. On opening morning, another mom arrived at P.S. 3 with Trader Joe’s malted milk balls already in hand. Here, take one, she said, practically pushing them into our mouths, as over the moon as a new dad with a box of cigars.

I fell hard myself. Among recent life-altering borough improvements, I rank the arrival of Trader Joe’s right up there with the new cantilevered segment of the Riverside Park bike path and the parent coordinators in the public schools — the departing chancellor’s one, indisputably great contribution to the system.

This is not to say it’s been easy — shopping at the mini-Manhattan version of a normal Trader Joe’s can be something of a hero’s journey, complete with the call to adventure, the supreme ordeal of the line, and the triumphant crosstown return across 14th St. with the elixir (32 ounces of maple syrup for the price of 16 at the Greenmarket!) strapped onto my bike.

I know I’ve fallen smack dab into a demographic and I know I’m straight out of the book “Stuff White People Like.” But really — what’s not to applaud about a store full of fresh and affordable good food (but not scary upper-echelon-foodie good, like that new store on Hudson St. that specializes in salt)? What’s wrong with a store where, even when the line follows the entire periphery of the store and spills onto E. 14th St., the staff never grows surly? Who wouldn’t want to pay the same amount but get twice as much vanilla extract, holistic dog food, grape tomatoes, Irish breakfast tea, eggs?

I could go on. For quite a while. The dirt-cheap salsa autentico tastes almost as fresh as my favorite, Tortilla Flat’s; the citrus shampoo makes my kids smell like a grapefruit orchard; the hummus comes in almost as many varieties as white paint at Janovic Plaza. The cheap cartons of M.S.G.-free chicken broth. The big ziploc bags of brown sugar that never hardens; the milk that stays fresh for a week; the bran cereal a third the price of All-Bran; the Hanukkah gelt.

Not everyone shares my ardor. My husband, for one, isn’t buying. I think he’s jealous. The more demented I grow about Trader Joe’s the more he defends Western Beef, which he used to spend half his time maligning. He started to notice the Trader Joe’s bills on our shared credit-card account. Of course, I explained. What you never saw was the even greater amounts of cash I used to dispense to other local merchants — a 20 here to the drug store, a 20 there to various health-food stores with their various loss leaders, an occasional 10 to Gourmet Garage and D’Ag’s.

Actually, I’m lying. It’s what we addicts do to protect our habit. I do buy more at Trader Joe’s, all kinds of goodies I would never consider anywhere else. Why? Because they’re under one roof and they’re cheap and good and I have a good warm feeling because I always run into an old friend or two. So I bring home apple-cured bacon, brickle-like grahams that make Nabisco’s seem like particle board, palmiers, candied ginger, sorbet, frozen bake-yourself mini-croissants, brioche, sweet-crunchy-salty trail mix, chocolate. My old life had room for two kinds of nut staples: walnuts and peanuts. Now I keep toasted almond slices, shelled pistachios and mixed nuts so fancy they have no peanuts at all in the freezer alongside the spare bag of chocolate chips and the extra pound of butter. And, though we tend to eschew prepackaged dinners, I do sneak the coconut curry Thai chicken sticks and the pleasingly slippery pot stickers into our regular menu rotation.

Anyway, my husband talks out of both sides of his mouth. I see him there on the sofa when 10 p.m. rolls around. When a commercial comes on NY1, he moseys to the kitchen. We both know he’s hoping to find a nice puffy bag of thick, ridged potato chips, or white cheddar corn puffs, or at the very least some restaurant-style tortilla chips. There’s an unasked question on his lips, the same hopeful one the kids ask regularly: “Going to Trader Joe’s soon?” And let’s not kid ourselves — on the day I make the trek, they love me better.

Not all the products (as he is quick to point out) are first rate. The peanut butter is weirdly runny. At the bottom of the cheddar twists there can be an alarming amount of oil; the cereals are too sweet. But Trader Joe’s keeps prices low and excitement high by instantly discontinuing anything that doesn’t pull its weight in sales to make way for new products. I understand — it’s the same system I developed at Christmas and birthday time when the kids were young: Before anything new came in, something old had to go out.

The policy is adhered to without mercy, providing a fine lesson in the Buddhist art of nonattachment. Goodbye chocolate-hazelnut spread that was cheaper and slightly more pleasingly filberty than Nutella! Goodbye sun-dried tomato pesto, Parisian twist Danish, pierogis, pack of eight colored candles for $1.50!

In the four years I’ve been braving traffic to get to the E. 14th St. Trader Joe’s, I harbored one dream: a bigger store on the West Side. Last summer it arrived with no fanfare whatsoever, in half the former Barnes & Noble space on Sixth Ave. and W. 21st St. It’s much like a Trader Joe’s in Anywhere But Manhattan, U.S.A.: big, roomy, deep, with an enormous panhandle in the back just for the dairy cases.

At the East Village store, by the time I got to the checkout, the other people on line felt like the guys in my platoon. I knew the faces and piercings of all the employees. Now a funny thing has happened. I zip to the Chelsea store midday midweek when there’s no line. It’s so big that it’s possible not to touch a single customer. The staff hover on the horizon like figures in a Brueghel painting. It’s almost too easy, and I no longer feel heroic on the ride home. It’s also impersonal and a little suburban. But I can live with that.

The thing that worries me is the butter. The price has gone up from $2.49 to $3.29 a pound, and the sticks have suddenly become short and squat like European butter. I’m waiting for an e-mail reply to my query, which I know will come, because Trader Joe’s is the kind of company that sends chummy e-mails. At least so far.

There are few things I love more than Trader Joe’s chewy bocconcini, but one of them is the hope the company gives me for that elusive third way. Usually, you have to pay a price to get a bargain. At the Burlington Coat Factory on the next block, you have to sift through a hundred of last season’s crappy, unloved acrylic remainders. H&M is cheap, but that’s in part because the fabric is so thin and someone is no doubt getting exploited.

Five years into its Manhattan run, Trader Joe’s is still occupying the perfect niche between the little hippie-dippy California convenience chain it once was and the mega-corporate, upscale sell-out I hope it will never become. The company wins and the consumer wins. I have only one remaining wish: that it find its way into neighborhoods in far more desperate need than mine for good, fresh food.

 

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