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Trader Joe’s means more than groceries

CadyMcGovernMugshotI’m not a fan of crowded grocery stores. So there’s only one thing could entice me to brave the madness of an event like the Feb. 28 opening day at Idaho’s first Trader Joe’s: marcona almonds.

But, of course, almonds aren’t the only reason to throw caution to the wind.

“Really, it’s coffee, tea and spices for me,” said Tessa Triolo, a Hewlett-Packard employee who rode her bike to the bustling grocer. “Coffee and cheese – oh, cheese.”

“I went to look at the Chuck for a friend of mine,” said Jim Smart, a retiree, of Trader Joe’s Two-Buck Chuck. He wasn’t sure which variety of Charles Shaw’s famously inexpensive wine his friend would want, so he ended up with a basketful of various foods. “I’m going to spend a big chunk of my pension fund.”

But why the hullabaloo about Trader Joe’s? It’s not like new grocery stores haven’t come to Boise recently – Whole Foods and Rosauers both come to mind – but there’s an air of giddy excitement to Trader Joe’s presence that other grocery stores don’t seem to muster. After all, there are no Facebook pages that have been calling for years to bring Whole Foods or Rosauers to Boise, while the “Bring Trader Joe’s to Boise!” page has more than 6,300 likes.

Kimo and other Trader Joe's employees hand out leis on opening day Feb. 28. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen.

Kimo and other Trader Joe’s employees hand out leis on opening day Feb. 28. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen.

Trader Joe’s selection of organic and non-GMO foods comes to mind, but you can find organic selections at nearly any grocery store these days.

There’s the famed two-buck Chuck (now more than $2), but you can find cheap wine at most grocery stores as well.

Maybe it’s the décor. The store has a tiki bar feel, and employees in Hawaiian shirts handed out leis on opening day. But if all it takes to gain a fanatical following is a little themed décor, you’d think other grocers would have caught on by now.

Trader Joe’s certainly has decent prices. When I lived briefly in California, I did most of my shopping there simply because it was cheaper than the other grocery stores I had access to. But price can’t be the No. 1 driver. After all, many people consider Trader Joe’s a destination.

“I travel for Trader Joe’s,” Triolo said. “I make a point of leaving enough suitcase space.”

Personally, I think it’s the variety of hard-to-find foods that puts Trader Joe’s above the competition. Sure, you’re not going to find Heinz ketchup or Philadelphia cream cheese at Trader Joe’s – necessities in my household – but it’s the only place I’ve ever seen edamame hummus, shrimp corn dogs, soy chorizo or, of course, marcona almonds.

And maybe Trader Joe’s symbolizes variety beyond its own walls. One of the most frustrating things about living in a state like Idaho is that in some of the rural areas, options are limited for where to shop, where to eat or where to repair your car.

Many Boiseans are people who spent much of their lives in places where they didn’t get to choose between any grocery stores, let alone more than five national brands and a variety of local markets. Maybe Trader Joe’s is simply a capstone of choice, a luxury that people in bigger states tend to take for granted.

Or maybe it’s the almonds.

About Cady McGovern