Before I had witnessed its majesty firsthand, I couldn’t understand the intense enthusiasm surrounding Trader Joe’s. What was it that made people speak with such passion and pride about their grocery store of all things? Then, I moved four short blocks from a TJ’s. And I saw the light. A bright atmosphere, extensive inventory, cleverly branded products and low prices — what wasn’t to love?
A few months into my born-again grocery-loving life, I settled into a beaten path whenever I visited the store. I’d go straight to the lower level to snag my frozen food faves and then take the escalator back upstairs, grabbing essentials like milk and OJ en route to “The Grand Finale,” or “checkout” for those not fluent in Joe lingo. Every once in a while, something new and unfamiliar would catch my eye and find its way into my basket. But for the most part, I was sticking to my mental checklist of tried-and-true standbys.
What was once a culinary wonderland had become a routine, and I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to shake up my basket with fresh, but vetted choices. So I decided to turn to the pros. Throughout a series of visits to all four of the chain’s Manhattan locations, I talked to 15 TJ’s crew members about their favorite products in the store. Here’s what I learned…
Canned Cold Brew
According to my cashier on the Upper West Side, these cans are great for beach days (and presumably other on-the-go trips). While she finds the bottled cold brew to be extremely strong, the French Vanilla flavor of the canned alternative goes down easy.
Just the Clusters Vanilla Almond Granola Cereal
In Chelsea, I asked two crew members in the cereal aisle to recommend their favorite cereal. Without hesitation, both pointed straight to Just the Clusters. One also recommended using almond milk in place of regular milk to take the almond flavor to the next level.
Fruit, Nut, and Protein Bars
Nothing But Fruit & Nuts
“We’re going date crazy at Trader Joe’s,” a Murray Hill crew member told me. “Everything’s got dates in it now.” When I asked about her personal favorite of all the date options, she recommended Nothing But Fruit & Nuts in the hazelnut cacao flavor. While these nutritious nuggets are currently out of stock (at least in Murray Hill), she told me to keep an eye out for their return.
Protein & Granola Bars
In Chelsea, I asked a crew member to help me navigate my way through the myriad bar options. He graciously stopped to take me through a full tutorial, beginning with his initial recommendation: the Builders Bar. These bars have a good deal of sugar (21 grams) but just as much protein (20 g). He also buys Luna bars, which have less sugar (9 g) and no GMOs, and he’s been hearing good things about Trader Joe’s own Nutty Seedy Fruity Bar. True to its name, it’s 88% nuts, seeds, and fruit. With a lean 6 grams of sugar, it still delivers 7 grams of protein and a good dose of fiber to boot. According to my new bar guru, your choice of bar depends on what you’re trying to do. If your goal is to have an on-the-go snack, rather than to build muscle, you may want to opt for a bar that’s lighter in both protein and sugar.
Oven-Baked Cheese Bites
My cashier on 72nd Street raved about these, but even after her explanation, I couldn’t understand just what they were. According to her, it was “a crunchy thing; it could be a cracker – but it’s all protein.” On a future visit to TJ’s, I had to pick up a bag and find out for myself. Indeed, these snacks, imported from Italy and branded under the “Trader Giotto’s” line, are 100% cheese, so they’re gluten-free even though they crunch like a cracker. I’m looking forward to trying these on a salad since they can pull double duty in place of both cheese and croutons.
Simply the Best Trek Mix
Near the dried fruits and nuts, I asked a crew member who was opening some boxes nearby for help in locating the object of my addiction: Simply Almonds, Cashews, and Chocolate Trek Mix. While I was at it, I asked her which of the trail mixes she’d recommend. She pointed out the aptly named Simply The Best Trek Mix: a standout for her due to the extra zing of tart cherries. In examining the ingredients, I saw that this mix was the same as my go-to but with three kinds of fruit in place of the chocolate. While I’ll never give up my semisweet chocolate chunks, I’m game to add some fruit to my diet and find out how “Simply the Best” earned its name.
During my visit to the Upper West Side, the demo station was offering samples of caramel ginger popcorn. While I tried to get the man behind the counter to name his favorite popcorn flavor, he remained diplomatic and impartial. “They’re all good,” he said. He did mention that the organic popcorn with olive oil seems to be the most popular. As for the dill pickle-flavored popcorn…“Some people like it,” he said, in a way that let me know he wasn’t one of those people.
Grass Fed Angus Beef
I didn’t know that New Zealand was known for its beef, but according to one of the Union Square crew members, this imported grass fed beef is “the very best thing we have here and the best value. $5.99 a pound – you can’t find a better price.”
Wine Country Chicken Salad
When I asked my cashier at the Murray Hill location about his favorite items in the store, he answered my question with a question: was I vegan or vegetarian? Once I told him that I ate everything, he proceeded to recommend three meats: the first two being frozen chicken strips and the Wine Country Chicken Salad. “It’s a little sweet, but I like it,” he said. “I can’t eat it all the time ‘cause it’s rich.” Though it wasn’t in my basket on that particular day, this chicken salad occupies a place in my regular rotation, so I can personally endorse this recommendation. He also recommended the…
Pastrami Style Smoked Atlantic Salmon
…which he said was quite peppery and flavorful. I was intrigued enough to pick up a package on my next visit and I’m happy to report that it made for a delicious breakfast with a bagel and schmear.
Appetizers and Entrees
Trader Giotto is back at it with this blend of Roma tomatoes, olive oil, basil, and garlic, all conveniently pre-diced and mixed for you. A crew member working near the wraps, salads, and sushi pointed this out to me and said it was “really nice on a nice hunk of bread.”
Parmesan Pastry Pups
In Chelsea, I asked the two women preparing corn dog samples about the best sample they’ve ever served. One of them proceeded to guide me to the freezer section and introduce me to these elevated pigs in a blanket. She still remembers the flaky dough of the puff pastry from when these mini dogs had their day at the demo station.
Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Butter & Sage
Another past sample that these crew members recall fondly is the sweet potato gnocchi. When I asked what kind of sauce one would pair with that, they informed me that a butter and sage sauce was literally in the bag with the frozen pasta. Silly me to think that Trader Joe would make my meal prep anything less than the easiest it could possibly be!
Humboldt Creamery Ice Cream
While chatting with my cashier on the Upper West Side, she called out this new organic ice cream that’s just $1.99 a pint. In her words, “Ben and Jerry cannot compete.”
I was in the cookie aisle when a TJ’s crew member came around asking, “Anybody in the vicinity need any type of help?” I said I could use his help deciding which cookie to buy. While he’d only sampled two of the flavors himself, he grabbed all five bags and said, “We can go ask somebody who’s way more experienced.” Once we arrived at the demo station, he couldn’t even finish his question before the crew members behind the counter started talking about the oatmeal cookies dubbed Druid Circles and how the walnut and raisin flavors complement each other so perfectly. Another crew member passing by chimed in. Her review? “Bomb.”
While checking out at Union Square, I asked my cashier if she had a favorite product in the store. “Well, I used to,” she said, “but then they ruined it for me.” It was an ominous beginning. Upon further questioning, I learned that her favorite product used to be cookie butter, but then… “they started making cookie butter this, cookie butter that…totally ruined it for me.” Despite this gripe with cookie butter’s over-saturation, she can’t give it up completely. One of her favorite products is still the Cookie Butter Sandwich Cookies. “I’m a cookie person,” she told me. She also likes the Milk Chocolate Macadamia Nut Lacey Cookies and the Vanilla Joe Joes (basically blonde Oreos).
Don’t forget a drink to pair it all with (if you’re lucky enough to live near a TJ’s wine shop)! I asked the crew member who was pouring samples to recommend her favorite wines in the store for under $10. For white, she went with the Vignobles Lacheteau Muscadet, a dry French white for $6.99. For red, she suggested the La Paca Garnacha, a dry but fruity Spanish wine at the same bargain price of $6.99. At these price tags, stocking up on a case of each is the only responsible thing to do!
Beyond delicious flavors and low prices, you’ll notice that the other recurring theme of a TJ’s visit is excellent customer service. When I asked, “Can I ask you a random question?” responses included “No question is too weird” and “Yeah, I love it.” If a crew member didn’t have an answer to a question, they found it. If I asked about a product, they offered me a sample and in one case, even stopped to have a snack break with me. I’d like to thank all the TJ’s crew members for their enthusiasm and assistance, and for helping me rekindle my love affair with the guy who looks out for my time, money, and stomach: Trader Joe.
— Head photo: flickr.