The wizard behind the emerald curtain is eating a bag of stale no-name cheese puffs with a Trader Joe’s label glued to the front.
I used to be just like you. I used to look for Trader Joe’s on trips to the States. I’d scope out TJ’s locations before booking Airbnbs. I’d calculate the distance to the nearest Joe’s from the little league bleachers during tournaments and then volunteer to go on a team snack run. I was as big a sucker as any of you. Bigger, even.
But now that I’ve been a resident of the United States for six months, I am here to tell you that it’s all a lie.
The hype is the first thing luring us into these faux small-town markets. American bloggers continue to sing the praises of Trader Joe’s (without any sponsorship, no less!) and the mainstream media is also falling all over itself in praise of TJ‘s—even Canadian pubs get in on the action. Really, Chatelaine? Friends will come back from road trips with trunks full of cookie butter and Everything But The Bagel seasoning. Maybe you’ve seen the call-outs on Facebook: Is anyone making a trip to the States soon? I need Pumpkin Pancake mix and chili-lime almonds!
And so you wander in, ready to be delighted. Wood-framed displays house produce labeled with a hand-painted-style font. Narrow shelves are brimming with sauces and treats you’ve never seen before. People are grinning as they stroll down the freezer aisle. It entices you with its newness. But you don’t live near here, so you pick up some pre-packed lunches and a case of water for the baseball players, a random bag of chocolate-covered pretzels and a bottle of cheap wine for later. What a great store!
But it’s all a lie.
Trader Joe’s is nothing but an overpriced discount supermarket dressed up with pretentious marketing and staffed by nice bearded young men. Except it’s worse! It has all of the same processed store-brand food that every single other supermarket has and none of the selection of other national, regional or imported brands. The produce is pre-packed in plastic bags and will be wilted in your fridge by tomorrow. The bakery section is nothing short of pathetic; some sliced bread and dried out coffee cake laid out next to boxes of packaged cookies that are no better than Peek Freans, let’s be real.
The food is mediocre at best, processed up the wazoo and not even particularly well-priced. And I can never find what I need.
“Oh, don’t compare it to <insert any decent supermarket here, like Whole Food, Wegmans, Loblaws or Sobeys;,” people say. “It’s a different thing altogether! You’re not actually meant to do proper shopping here.” PZZZT. That’s the sound of my brain short-circuiting because I don’t actually have a use for a grocery store that doesn’t sell either the basic items I need to stock a pantry or a reliable selection of fresh produce and proteins to round out my shopping. I have never once been able to go to Trader Joe’s with a simple shopping list to cook dinner mostly-from-scratch for family and get everything I need. I have always needed to stop somewhere else on the way home.
But sure. If you are a single person and there is a TJ’s on your block of course you’re going to pop in to pick up frozen dumplings and cauliflower-crust pizza and cheese and crackers. And their store brand snacks are perfectly serviceable. But guess what? You can also get those things at other stores that don’t try to dress up as some sort of vague old time-y trading post to make you feel good about your frozen dinner.
Canadians, I promise you that there’s nothing you can get at Trader Joe’s that you can’t get with the President’s Choice label. Hell, the No Name stuff is probably just as good most of the time. Go to your nearest No Frills and stock up on fresh produce and Farmer’s Market brand baked goods. Revel in the international food section. Enjoy a wide variety of grains and pastas. Stock up on canned beans and chicken stock and frozen peas and all the super basic things that will be marked up at Trader Joes if you can even find them at all. It will be faster and cheaper and the neon-yellow glare of the walls will eventually fade from your mind’s eye whereas remnants of that regrettable jar of cookie butter is likely fused to your cell walls for life.
I wish I could say that I’ll never shop at Trader Joe’s again. But we all know it’s only a matter of time before I’ll be lured back through the sliding glass doors, thinking maybe I’ll find something really good this time. Maybe their frozen croissants really will change my life! And then you’ll find me venting on Twitter when I am disappointed yet again.