Grocery

15 Fun Trader Joe's Secrets You May Not Have Known

Grocery-store whisperer Katie Workman gives us the lay of the land.

June  3, 2019
Photo by Mike Mozart/Flickr Commons

It’s safe to say that shopping at Trader Joe’s for excellent products, addictive snacks, and interesting, quality meal solutions is far from a secret. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want the inside scoop on the popular grocery chain's bestselling items, hidden gems, and what really goes on behind the scenes.

I spoke with a Trader’s Joe’s manager in Danbury, Connecticut, who gave me the skinny on how to be an even savvier TJ’s shopper.

Here’s what I learned:

1. The team at Trader Joe’s is called the Crew.

(Which refers to the crew on a boat, tied into their nautical theme.) All Crew members know how to do all of the jobs at the store; they're not pigeon-holed into any particular department. This is so they can help each other and customers at any given time.

2. Want to try something? You can!

The staff at Trader Joe’s will open any package for you to try. The theory here is that they'd rather you know whether or not you like a product before buying it (rather than returning it). By the way: You can return anything, and they will take it back.

3. How do they decide what to make and carry?

Trader’s Joe’s has a team of culinary experts who travel the world looking for new products and recipe inspiration. They might bring back a new cheese from Europe and put it through the testing paces before deciding to stock it (hello Comté, hello fondue), or return from a trip to Asia with an idea for a packaged snack. Thai Lime and Chili Peanuts, we’re so glad you’re here.

4. Trader Joe’s carries a highly curated selection of items.

Many fewer than you will find at a traditional supermarket, in fact. Which means each one has gone through a lot to earn its spot on the shelves. Because they like to keep their stores at a certain size, products with slow sales are cycled out to make room for new innovations. More than 80 percent of items on sale at Trader Joe’s carry the store’s name, which means they were developed by TJ’s and meet their high standard for quality and value.

5. There’s a podcast.

Trader Joe’s launched a podcast last year, called Inside Trader Joe’s. Yes, it’s a marketing vehicle, but you will get some scoop on what products the in-the-know crew is loving, and the story behind “Two Buck Chuck” wine.

6. Certain products are only available during specific times of the year.

So keep your eyes peeled for seasonal items and stock up! The BBQ Rub and Seasoning with Coffee and Garlic is a popular summer product—try it on chicken skewers, flank steak, and slow-cooked pork roasts. Their seasonal South African Smoke Seasoning has quite a following, as well.

7. Ask the Crew for under-the-radar favorites.

They know what's up and what's new. My TJ's source said that he thinks one of the hidden gems is their nut-butter cups made with almond butter and dark chocolate. As for me? I’ll be spending some quality time with my new jar of Mushroom & Company Multipurpose Umami Seasoning Blend. First stop: adding it to baked sweet potato fries, ramen, and beef-mushroom burgers.

8. The price of bananas has been held at 19 cents each for 13 YEARS.

That’s five bananas for less than $1! If that’s not reason enough to make batches and batches of banana bread and banana pudding, then I don’t know what is.

9. The saffron is fairly affordable (for once).

You can buy a .02-ounce jar of Spanish saffron for $5.99. If you're a saffron fan, then you know that this is a pretty good price for the most expensive spice on the planet. So off you go, to cook up some couscous and, of course, paella.

10. Trader Joe’s was one of the first U.S. stores to take a strong stance on gluten-free items.

Now they carry hundreds of gluten-free products, with more being added all the time. Options include Gluten-Free Granola Cranberry Maple Nut Cereal, Soft Baked Snickerdoodles (yep, gluten-free!), Gluten-Free Pizza with Cauliflower Crust, and Organic Brown Rice & Quinoa Spaghetti.

11. Guess who makes those awesome signs?

If you’ve admired those cool chalk signs identifying featured items at the store, you might not have realized that they are created by crew members at the store. Each store has at least 2 artists working there, and while the sign creation isn’t their only job, it certainly is a part of why each store has such a lively, singular look. Crew members raise their hands and show their chops to be considered for these positions.

12. What’s up with the bells?

Instead of a loudspeaker (which doesn’t fit into the relaxed TJ’s vibe), the crew uses a nautical bell system to communicate. My source explains the system: One ring means “all hands on deck,” and that anyone who is able to break free should report to the front to help with a backlog at the registers. Two bells means someone needs assistance, or maybe a jar of salsa has hit the floor. Three bells means a manager, or "Mate," is needed.

13. The Crew really knows their stuff—here's why.

"Crew tastings" ensure that everyone working at TJ's has a broad knowledge of their products. The staff gathers in the back for these tastings, which are led by various members of the crew. If an employee wants to take a deep dive into kombucha or olive oil, for instance, they can learn how they’re made, harvested, used, etc. and then impart this information to their colleagues later.

14. This is the most frequent compliment Crew members get.

“The people are so friendly; it must be so much fun to work here.”

15. This is the most frequent complaint Crew members get.

“I can't believe you are out of stock of (fill in the blank); it’s my favorite TJ's product!” Which we understand doesn’t happen all that often, but that's because Trader Joe’s stores don’t carry much back inventory; they replenish with frequent deliveries instead.

How many of these did you know? Anything surprising you learned? Tell us in the comments below!

For more unsponsored grocery-store love letters, click here.

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Author of The Mom 100 Cookbook and themom100.com blog. A New Yorker, cook, and mom, I don't sit still very much.

61 Comments

Rita R. June 16, 2019
One day the cashier asked me about my day..it wasn't a good one. I actually told her that and shared that my cousin had cancer and I was on the way to her home to visit...About 1 minute later another cashier/employee, brought a bouquet of flowers to bring to my cousin. I almost cried...what compassion and great customer sensitivity (service). That alone has brought me back time and time again...Thank you...
 
Thomas G. June 16, 2019
Habanero pistachios & vegetarian shepherds pie ...I’ll never forget you 😢
 
jcnNorcal June 16, 2019
TJs is way overrated. You can count on stale bread, lousy potatoes, sad tasteless salads/sandwiches and when you do find something you really like, they discontinue it. I've had rancid peanuts, moldy apple pie (really, under the crust--blue mold, a day after purchase) salsa that was bubbling a week before the expiration date. Employees are friendly, and alcohol is cheap though.
 
Ann H. June 16, 2019
I have shopped at many Trader Joe's and have been responsible for getting three separate Trader Joe stores opening up in the Midwest because I moved out there. Quality has never been in question. Quantity?... Well, that's my biggest whine, but I know why. So I accept that problem in exchange for continued quality and value.

If you see this kind of sloppiness in quality, REPORT IT! And not just to the store manager. Report it to the Big Cheese! Don't sit on your ass and whine about it here! I'd be flaming mad if I saw this at my current Trader Joe's. All my friends and acquaintances I have met at Trader Joe's would have done the same thing.
 
jcnNorcal June 16, 2019
Wow, you have some issues that are beyond food 52 or my experience--I'm not a mental health professional, but even I can see you need some help in stability. If it's any consolation, yes, I am sitting on my ass typing this to you. You got me. Wow.
 
Ann H. June 16, 2019
Hahaha! You talk funny! You can criticize a health hazard but not report it? (I'm referring to the mold, of course.) I was hoping to hear from you that you did report it.
 
jcnNorcal June 16, 2019
Ok Ann H., I'll call my local police department and report mold next time. I'll tell them I am you.
 
Monica B. June 17, 2019
I know it isn't always convenient but I have had stuff go rancid a little too quickly after purchase (their stuff doesn't contain preservatives, which I love) and my local TJs always takes it back without a blink, even if i have already used a few slices of bread, for example. Spoiled meat was an issue for awhile too but it hasn't been a problem recently. I echo the point of providing feedback and complaining to the store. They are responsive and make the effort.
 
jcnNorcal June 17, 2019
The point I'm trying to make is that there is a CULT MIND about this silly company and you demonstrated it right here. I am just so done with all these "Trader Joe's is so awesome look at their next new products that are so wonderful" articles. Stupid dumb writers have to WRITE SOMETHING so they can pay their bills, so a good easy cheat is writing about the stupid Cult of Trader Joe's with all it's mindless loyal followers. Trader Joe's SUCKS!!!!!
 
jcnNorcal June 17, 2019
Also, I went to an Aldi's (TJs parent company) in Los Angeles and the tomatoes were so soft and close to rotting. The produce is NOT fresh, but clearly weeks old. Yes, they have some great bargains on other things, but it amounts to a bait and switch in the long run. IMO. I wish a decent writer would come up with an expose on the Aldi/TJs brand and call them out for what they are. Anyway, if you all want to keep your cheering on of TJs go for it!!! I'll continue to make my own hummus (theirs sucks!) and let you have it all.
 
Cathy W. June 16, 2019
I love Trader Joe's!!! I have to plan my trips there. I buy multiple jars of their Unrefined coconut oil to keep stocked up on it. No one else has been able to match this coconut oil! There were two times when I had to pre-order it. The second time I had to beg them to please hold for me because the 1st time they sold out again and I do not enjoy driving into Portland Maine to do my grocery shopping...or anything else for that matter....especially this time of year. However....when I go I am ready for a shopping extravaganza at TJ's! Yum! and they really are a great crew of people. You can tell they love their jobs!
 
Jana June 16, 2019
I never thought to ask the reason for the ringing of the TJ bells, a fun signature element of shopping there for near 30 years now! I’ll be listening differently from now on 🥰.
 
judyschwab June 16, 2019
Our local TJ just hired a student who graduated from our CBTC (Community Based Transition Center) Program, designed to help special ed students, 18-21, navigate life independently after high school. Trader Joe’s, awesome community partner!
 
cosmiccook June 16, 2019
A crew member at the Metairie (next to New Orleans) told me one-way TJ's keeps its cost down is they pay CASH for their products. Don't know if this is true but sounds pretty savvy. I love most of what they carry--except for the various packaged meats.
 
THEToughCookie June 16, 2019
I cook and bake by weight, so I buy produce by weight. There are no scales in TJ’s so I found myself doing bicep curls with eggplants to determine their weight. I was told in no uncertain terms that scales won’t be added anytime soon. I got lucky with the eggplants: half an ounce over what I actually needed.
 
Janet V. June 16, 2019
Thoroughly enjoyed the article re:Trader Joe's..found it to be ever so true.Originally from Long Island,it was a loss when we came to Miami twenty two years ago. The TJ at which we shop is in Kendall on US1, only set back is parking..however the parking crew is always helpful.Have enjoyed many products..tried the frozen Kung Pao..very good with no want for chicken...all fresh greens are excellent and within good price range.Please keep on ringing the bell for excellence.Thanks.
 
weisha June 16, 2019
On my recent trip to TJs I discovered they had DISCONTINUED a staple in our home - the Orange Muscat Vinegar. NOOOOOOOO!!!! And nothing offered as a "replacement." This is a crisis, people, and a blow to civilization!
 
Willow June 16, 2019
My favorite too. Even so we have no TJ nearby, I drive a couple of times a year 90 miles just to buy at TJ. I always stocked up on the vinegar. Bummer that it is discontinued.
 
Thomas G. June 16, 2019
Try the yuzu vinegar.. sounds like the orange muscat one was amaze but I’ve been through a bottle and a half of the yuzu vin 😋
 
Janet M. June 17, 2019
Didn't try the vinegar, but I have a list of favorites and a list of things recommended online every time I go--about the same distance and frequency as you!
 
Willow June 17, 2019
Thanks , trying next time I’m going.
 
Panfusine June 16, 2019
TJs now has an 'ahmazing' Ginger and lemon seltzer that is a dead ringer for ginger beer minus the sugar. the best for mixing drinks.
 
mary June 10, 2019
Where I live, Trader Joe's is a community! A clerk who became a friend once told me that she could write a book based on the conversations that happen during the check out process! Shopping at Trader Joe's is a fun experience and it seems as if the employees are treated well. But...I always get mad during the holidays after I find I've eaten an entire box of peppermint Jo Jos. You'd think I'd learn...but no...it's not the holidays until I've been "mad" at least twice! Thank you, Real Live Trader Joe of Pasadena, and thanks to the people of my local TJs...I love you people!
 
Patti June 9, 2019
We have a small closed Supermarket in Freehold,NJ that is screaming to be a Trader Joe’s. Everyone here wants it!!!!
 
Panfusine June 16, 2019
Get in Line.. the dream of having a TJ's open in Hillsborough NJ is a long standing gag that newcomers to our community first get initiated into!
 
beezus June 16, 2019
Good luck with that. We also had an IGA that closed and many emailed TJ's to take that over. That location would have drawn shoppers from at least 6 affluent towns in the area. Didn't happen. Nearest TJ's is 45 minutes away. :((
 
mizerychik June 9, 2019
Trader Joe's has by an overwhelming amount, the cheapest price for Gerolsteiner water. It's tastier than Pellegrino, and often out of stock because it's so good/cheap. I can't get many of the processed foods there because of my allergies, but the single/low ingredient basic foods are really good quality and value.

Their vitamins are also excellent, and have been favorably reviewed by Consumer Labs for years.
 
Shelley S. June 9, 2019
I love Trader Joe's too and shop there when I can though I can still never forgive them for discontinuing their fabulous duck breasts because some animal "rights" groups protested. If we all reacted to every special interest group there'd be no more beef, poultry, pork (poor piggies!) fish or processed food. What about the rights of people who love duck breasts. Be in the forefront of important ideas but be even handed and rational too. You can't react to every squeak.
 
Sharon June 11, 2019
Oh yeah, I was wondering whatever happened to those wonderful duck breasts that we enjoyed so much. Discontinued because of some animal rights group? I PROTEST! Don't the rest of us have rights, too? Please, TJ, bring them back!
 
Janet M. June 17, 2019
If there weren't a market for meat products, there wouldn't be a reason to keep those species going--just watch them get exterminated for taking up space and food on this planet. Would anyone keep chickens for fun?
 
abbyarnold June 9, 2019
Trader Joe is a real person! He is retired and lives in the same senior housing complex as my parents, in Pasadena, CA. My dad introduced me to him in the dining room one day. I felt like I was meeting the real Santa!
 
Diane June 10, 2019
That must have been a real treat! I heard that he has (had) a brother and his brother opened the Aldi chain of stores. Not sure if that's true or not.
 
DelicateFlowah June 16, 2019
He sold it to the Albrechts in 1979. They also started the Aldi stores in Europe.
 
Jaye B. June 17, 2019
I really did laugh out loud when I read your post!! And I immediately wondered if your dad mentioned if "Joe" has a great sense of humor.
 
Diane June 9, 2019
I always wondered what the nautical bells were for so thanks for explaining. I actually have those delicious almond chocolate cups in my fridge and the umami seasoning and they are both great. My favorite is the Everything Bagel Seasoning. Now that goes on Everything!!! I am disappointed that they discontinued carrying the cacao nibs as I would put them in many dishes. I really do love shopping in TJ's even though we have a small store in Danbury. And yes, The Crew is always friendly and helpful! Thanks for a great article.
 
cosmiccook June 16, 2019
Odd, our Trader Joes has them--I stock up on them and keep them in a vacu-sealed bag in the freezer. SO much cheaper than WF or a spice store.
 
LT June 9, 2019
We've been trying to move for years, but one stumbling block is that we are a few blocks from Boston's only Trader Joe's. I don't drive, but I walk there multiple times a week, and often carry two bags home easily. How could I live anywhere less convenient? I can also walk to a supermarket and farmer's market, bakeries, and an Eataly. If we moved away from this great, walkable neighborhood, what would we eat?
 
Roger D. June 9, 2019
Two stores in Cambridge (one right by Harvard), a new one in Somerville in Assembly Square (it's huge).
 
cosmiccook June 16, 2019
I thought Boston had more than one! I was staying near the hospitals while my sister had surgery in the area you're referring to. That area made me want to move to Boston (except for the cold). There is a Spanish Tapa's restaurant on the street where all the street-cars? line up. I forgot the name. I have to agree --one criterion for moving is there MUST be a Trader Joes within reasonable driving distance.
 
Roger D. June 16, 2019
There's a new one opening soon in the "Seaport District"
 
Roger D. June 16, 2019
Here's a link to the store locator
https://www.traderjoes.com/stores
 
Nan G. June 9, 2019
While I love the TJ Fearless Flyer, I wish there was a place online where all of the current TJ inventory was listed.
That would save me trying to plan my purchases only to be thwarted (constantly) by the "we are out of X or Y."
Even Ikea manages to tie their catalogue items to your local store's inventory totals.
Why not TJ?
 
Chris C. June 5, 2019
The turkey meatloaf is fabulous. I'd like it to have more sauce. If I can score that and the Greek salad I'm set n both reasonably priced. Always interesting items, like no other store. Consistently the shortest check out lines in the grocery business. A fact that lures me back. Not all stores have cold soda. More sweet potato items than anywhere. Hearty potato salad.