In a supermarket industry that thrives on selling you the same brands of chips, cereal, candy and soda wherever you shop, Trader Joe’s is the wacky outlier. It’s the only place where you can buy a jar of Cookie Butter to go along with your Horseradish Chips and Uncured Bacon Ganache Chocolate Bar—where employees go by maritime titles like “mate” and “captain,” wear Hawaiian shirts and cheerfully ring bells rather than use intercoms. The grocer's quirky, foodie-pleasing ways have garnered legions of fans, even in cities that don’t have a TJ’s. But it’s worth looking past the company’s carefree attitude to see just what makes this ship float.
1. The founder envisioned a market for “overeducated, underpaid” shoppers.
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No, Trader Joe is not an eccentric world traveler in a safari hat. He’s Joe Coulombe, a Stanford business school grad who made some savvy decisions back in the company’s early days. In an interview with Entrepreneur, Coulombe says he noticed a significant trend in the early ‘60s: salaries for college grads were falling. So he slashed prices on products throughout his stores, then known as Pronto Markets, and loaded up on something else his well-educated customer base could appreciate: booze. “We essentially married the health food store to the liquor store,” he said in the interview. Smart man, that Joe Coulombe.
2. Trader Joe's is now owned by a reclusive, mega-rich German family.
Coulombe renamed his stores “Trader Joe’s” in 1967, then sold the company to German billionaire Theo Albrecht in 1979. Albrecht, who died in 2010, owned (along with his brother, Karl) the discount chain Aldi, which is currently one of the fastest-growing supermarkets in the U.S. Both brothers were intensely private, which is understandable, really, considering that in 1971 Theo was kidnapped and held for ransom for 17 days (the family negotiated the release, and the kidnapper, a small-time crook, was nabbed shortly after). Trader Joe’s is currently owned by the Albrecht family trust.
3. Granola was their first store-brand product.
About 80 percent of Trader Joe’s products are its own kitschy brands, from Trader Jose salsa to Pilgrim Joe clam chowder. And it all started with granola, back in 1972.
4. National brands make their products.
It’s the secret Trader Joe’s would rather you not know: Well-known manufacturers make its products, then sell them under the company’s sub brands at a significant discount. Why? Because they want to be in Trader Joe’s, and they’re willing to play along to do so. TJ’s doesn’t publicize its vendor relationships, and manufacturers are sworn to secrecy, so enterprising food journalists have run taste tests to connect the dots. That white cheddar mac and cheese you love? It’s probably made by Annie's Homegrown.
5. They’re ruthlessly efficient.
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In addition to secretly contracting brand-name suppliers, Trader Joe’s does a few other things most supermarkets don’t. They don’t accept slotting fees, which manufacturers pay retailers in return for shelf real estate (ever wonder why Pepsi and Coke have the soda aisle locked down?), and which increase prices. They also cut out distributors, often receiving products directly from suppliers. And as you’ve likely noticed if you shop there, they don’t offer coupons or special discounts. Because everything’s already dirt-cheap.
6. They really do send buyers all over the world.
The company employs a small, elite band of senior buyers to scour the globe for new products. They’re like the SEAL Team 6 of specialty grocery. As one former buyer told Fortune magazine, going to industry trade shows is “for rookies.”
7. They’re not like Whole Foods—well, mostly.
Although Trader Joe’s doesn’t position itself as a health food store, it still adheres to guidelines that include no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives in any of its products, and no GMOs. Kind of like a certain higher-priced competitor, no?
8. You can try pretty much any product before you buy.
If you’re not sure about those chocolate-covered potato chips (though why wouldn’t you be?), ask a store employee for a sample. You can try pretty much anything before you buy, with the exception of foods that need to be prepared (pasta, cake mix, frozen meals), and liquor. Wine sampling, meanwhile, varies from state to state.
9. People in cities without a store absolutely PINE for one.
There aren’t many grocery stores that inspire mass campaigns to bring them to town. Residents of Memphis, Green Bay, Lancaster, Penn., and other cities have set up dedicated Facebook pages displaying their loyalty to the company and begging them to drop anchor. Commenters often recount the days, months and even years since they last stepped foot in a store.
10. They have a Canadian bootlegger.
Trader Joe’s doesn’t operate in Canada, but that doesn’t stop the good people of Vancouver from buying Trader Joe’s products. How’s that possible? A store called Pirate Joe’s, which isn’t affiliated with Trader Joe’s in any way, sells TJ’s goods that have been trucked up (read: bootlegged) from stores in Washington state. Owner Mike Hallatt, who holds the illustrious distinction of having been thrown out of multiple Trader Joe’s, employs a team of shoppers who buy products in bulk, then load them into a big white van headed north. It all sounds highly illegal, but when Trader Joe’s sued Hallatt, they lost.
11. Their New York City stores are madness, simply madness.
Michael Nagle // Getty
Go to the Union Square, Chelsea or Upper West Side locations during rush hour and you’ll likely find a line snaking through the entire store. There are sign-toting employees at the middle and end of the line, offering a semblance of order amidst the chaos. Experienced shoppers know how to save time by shopping while they’re in line, which is so New York.
12. Every store has a plastic lobster hiding in it.
Or so the company claims. See if you can find it—and try not to knock over any garlic pita chip displays in the process.
13. They’ve sold more than 800 million bottles of Two-Buck Chuck.
It’s more like Three-Buck Chuck these days, but that hasn’t slowed sales, which have gone gangbusters since Charles Shaw wine first arrived en-masse to Trader Joe’s shelves in 2002. The Bronco Wine Company, which makes the stuff and is owned by the Franzia family (sound familiar?), employs clever cost-saving measures much like Trader Joe’s. It grows grapes on inexpensive land in California’s San Joaquin Valley, ages the wine with oak chips instead of in barrels, and uses ultra-lightweight bottles and boxes for shipping. All in the name of getting Americans the cheap booze they crave.
14. They stopped selling pantyhose in 1978.
TJ’s clearly saw the writing on the wall decades ahead of time, considering sales of pantyhose have plummeted over the past 15 years. Or, as Trader Joe’s puts it: “The unencumbered freedom is glorious.”
15. Each store has its own artist.
16. They inspired a really catchy tribute song.
Apologies in advance for getting this stuck in your head.