14 Tasty Secrets of Trader Joe’s Employees
By Suzanne Raga
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!