14 Tasty Secrets of Trader Joe’s Employees

Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

With over 450 stores in the U.S., Trader Joe’s has become the preeminent destination for affordable groceries, quirky food flavors, and friendly customer service. But the grocery chain, based in Monrovia, California, is notoriously tight-lipped. Owned by a reclusive German family, Trader Joe’s has a strict no-media rule, and employees are warned against publicly sharing details of their job. Despite this hurdle, we've gathered some details on what it’s like to work there, from what really goes on in the break room to how much employees earn. So pour a glass of Two Buck Chuck, grab a few Triple Ginger Snap Cookies, and enjoy these tasty secrets.

1. THEY FEEL LIKE THEY WORK ON A SHIP.

If you’ve ever been inside a Trader Joe’s, you’ve probably noticed the store’s nautical theme. In the ‘60s, entrepreneur Joe Coulombe established the first Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, California, and the store continues its original tiki vibe today. Besides wearing Hawaiian shirts and leis, employees have maritime job titles such as Crew Member (they work the cash registers, stock shelves, unload deliveries, and clean the store), Merchant, Mate, and Captain. And instead of using intercoms to communicate with one another, employees ring nautical bells. “One ring means we need more cashiers up front, two rings means a crew member on a register needs assistance with something (i.e. carry out, clean up, etc.), three bells mean a manager is needed,” a Trader Joe’s Crew Member reveals in a Reddit AMA.

2. THE DAIRY SECTION IS THEIR NEMESIS.

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According to Natalie Royal, a Nashville-based songwriter and artist who worked as a Crew Member from May 2013 to May 2014, the dairy section’s frosty temperature can be difficult to deal with. “My least favorite shifts were the ones that required me to spend time stocking the milk, butter, and cream,” she says. But customers can easily cheer up employees who are stuck "working in the box," Trader Joe’s lingo for the refrigerated dairy section. “The next time you see an employee peering out behind the rows of yogurt cups, give them a thumbs up. Maybe it will warm their soul enough to help them forget they are stuck in a frigid box,” Royal says.

3. THEY HIDE STUFFED ANIMALS AROUND THE STORE.

To entertain kids and add a splash of whimsy to the shopping experience, employees at Trader Joe’s stores often hide a stuffed animal or plastic toy somewhere in the aisles. “It’s really just for kids to run around and find the missing animal, and they get a treat,” a Mate who works at a Washington Trader Joe’s writes in a Reddit AMA. “Kids seem to love it and parents go along with it too.” So next time you’re shopping, look out for a stuffed animal (lobsters, bears, and dogs are common), and you might earn yourself a free lollipop.

4. THEIR SALARIES AND BENEFITS ARE SURPRISINGLY GOOD.

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Most grocery store workers don't earn much. But Trader Joe’s employees enjoy high salaries, impressive benefits, and frequent opportunities for promotion. While most Crew Members make $10 to $24 per hour, Captains (store managers) earn more than $100,000 per year. After three months of work, employees receive health insurance (medical, dental, and vision) and a retirement plan in which Trader Joe’s contributes 10% of an employee’s annual salary. Every six months, employees who excel in customer service, teamwork, and productivity receive raises, and the company fills all open Merchant and Captain jobs by promoting current Crew Members and Mates, respectively.

5. THEY’RE PROBABLY RIPPED.

Most grocery store jobs involve some degree of physical work, such as lifting boxes and unloading shipments. But unlike employees at many other grocery stores, Trader Joe’s Crew Members perform a wide variety of physical tasks rather than specializing in one area. “I was probably in the best shape of my life when I worked at Trader Joe’s,” Royal says. “I was shocked to find how sore I was for about the first two plus weeks of working there. After slinging watermelons and stacking cans day after day, I ended up with guns of steel.”

6. THEY GET 10% OFF THEIR OWN GROCERIES.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Although they’re surrounded by food all day, Trader Joe’s employees still need to shop for their own groceries. Fortunately, their 10% employee discount saves them some money on their grocery bill. “Albeit pretty small, I was able to shave off a good chunk of my grocery bill every week,” Royal says. Since state alcohol laws vary, depending on where they live and work, alcohol may or may not be included in the discount.

7. THEY’RE HAPPY TO OFFER YOU TASTE TESTS (BUT DON’T BE GREEDY).

“I love when customers ask to try products!,” the anonymous Trader Joe’s Mate says. “We’re not gonna grill up a steak for you, but something that you can open up and taste, yeah go for it.” Employees get to eat whatever food is left over from the package or box, and any extra food is donated or thrown out. While most customers don’t abuse the store’s generous sampling policy, a few people do take advantage of it. “I’ve only experienced two or three occasions where a customer tried to take advantage of this and wanted us to open literally 10+ products,” the Trader Joe’s Crew Member says. “Management had to step in and kindly inform them that one or two products is fine but we have to draw the line somewhere.”

8. THEY MEET CUSTOMERS WHO TRAVEL FAR AND WIDE.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Living in a town or city that doesn’t have a Trader Joe’s can be tough. To express their desire for the grocery chain to open a new location near them, some zealous customers create Facebook pages and sign petitions. (There's also a request form on the Trader Joe's website.) According to the anonymous Mate, Trader Joe’s is expanding rapidly, but not every city will get to enjoy a nearby store. “People drive 2 hours or so to come to my store to shop and spend upwards of $500,” he says. “There is nothing I can do on my end sadly. If you go to the website and complain/beg/ask politely, you may some day get that store you want.”

9. THEY REALLY ARE GENUINELY OUTGOING AND POSITIVE.

Trader Joe’s employees have a reputation for being super-friendly, and it isn’t usually an act. Whether a Crew Member personally escorts you to a hard-to-find product or strikes up a conversation about your favorite foods in the checkout line, employees are simply nice. “Everyone’s friendly. They’re genuine people too,” an anonymous employee tells Thrillest. “It’s not people who’ve been told they have to act nice. It’s people who genuinely care about how the customer’s feeling.” Caring employees create a supportive, communal environment that’s different than typical grocery stores. “My fellow Crew Members truly were the best,” Royal says. “I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty optimistic gal, but for the most part, I was just a dime dozen at Trader Joe’s."

10. THE BREAK ROOM KEEPS THEM WELL-FED.

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Trader Joe’s customers enjoy visiting the store’s sample station for food and coffee, and employees enjoy their own grub in the break room. “We are always cooking things up,” a Trader Joe’s employee tells Forbes. “When we get new foods in, we try them out. We eat and drink throughout the day here.” Because employees are constantly tasting new products and familiarizing themselves with older ones, they can recommend certain products to customers and speak genuinely about the flavors, textures, and overall tastiness of the food. And just like customers, Crew Members also definitely hit up the sample station. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many teeny tiny cups of coffee I chugged or samples I inhaled in a given shift,” Royal says.

11. THEY BLAST MUSIC WHEN THE STORE IS CLOSED.

Shift times vary, so some employees work during the day and others work at night. Royal, who typically worked with the night crew, started work at 2 p.m. and wrapped up around 10:30 p.m. “After closing the store to the public, we would blast music over the loudspeakers and ‘face’ the store,” Royal says, referring to the process of pulling the products to the front of the shelves and making the store look full and inviting. “With all of the late night heavy lifting, I found it extremely difficult to sleep. I think I figured out pretty quickly that my biological clock functions the best on a nine to five schedule, and that is a very rare, very coveted shift at Trader Joe’s.”

12. THE HOLIDAYS ARE PARTICULARLY TOUGH ON THEIR WAISTLINES.

Although most people indulge in sweets in the months between Halloween and Christmas, the winter holidays are particularly challenging for Trader Joe’s employees who are watching their waistlines. Each winter, the grocery chain sells a plethora of sugary seasonal items such as candy cane cookies, peppermint bark, and gingerbread men. And employees are around the treats all day, fielding questions from customers about the pumpkin ice cream and offering samples of eggnog. “The entire cookies and candy aisle turns into a holy relic of wonderment and me trying to not get fat,” the Mate says.

13. THEY LOVE BRIGHTENING A CUSTOMER’S DAY.

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“If a customer was having an ‘off’ day or if I just felt like going above and beyond for an awesome (usually polite) person, I was given the complete freedom to dazzle them how I saw fit,” Royal says. “Depending on the situation, I’d usually give them a bar of chocolate on the house or toss in a cute greeting card at the last second, and this resulted in some extremely rewarding experiences.” Once Royal gave a pint of ice cream (plastic spoon included) to a girl who had just been broken up with, and another time she threw in an extra frozen chicken tikka masala to a man preparing for an important job interview. “And on another occasion, I gifted a bouquet of sunflowers to a teary-eyed woman who I later found out had just lost her husband,” Royal says.

14. THEY TRAVEL THE WORLD TO FIND THE BEST FOOD.

Trader Joe’s employs a few buyers to travel the world looking for the best spanakopita, pork gyoza, and calzones, among other ethnic items. These product developers fly around the globe, visiting restaurants and food producers, all in the name of culinary research. Because Trader Joe’s typically stocks one or two types of a product rather than a dozen or more options, the chain ensures that the products it does stock are of the highest quality. After product developers find a supplier, such as an authentic Italian pizzeria, Trader Joe’s arranges for the supplier to make the pizza, freeze it, and package it with the Trader Joe’s label. Customers can then purchase the frozen pizza, heat it, and enjoy. Bon appetit!

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10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”