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.

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Teri
    Teri
  • Phaycox1414
    Phaycox1414
  • Cindy
    Cindy
  • Austinlinda
    Austinlinda
  • Kristin
    Kristin
Comment
Author of The Mom 100 Cookbook and themom100.com blog. A New Yorker, cook, and mom, I don't sit still very much.

86 Comments

Teri August 21, 2019
I first went to a TJ's in Seattle, 20+ yrs ago. Since then, I have written countless times via snail mail, at first, then emails....to get a store in the "Triple Cities" area of the Southern Tier of NY.
That would be Binghamton/Vestal/Johnson City. Route 434 in Vestal is a shopper's paradise with Binghamton University and all kinds of strip malls...and would be PERFECT for a TJ's! The nearest one is 90 min away and there is just no way many of us can do that.
Anyone have the magic bean to plant the seed??
 
Jan August 21, 2019
The company pays a lot of people to decide where new stores get built, and it's not where customers request it. It's based purely on demographics and they know who their customers are. If there aren't enough of us to make it pay for them to build a store, they won't. I drive an hour to TJ's although less often than I used to. I am always amazed that they are an ALDI owned company and to hear praises sung for Aldi. I think it must be better in the midwest. Here, our Aldi is like a Russian or E. German supermarket in the 70's, empty shelves. Unchilled produce, crappy mysterious chickens from unknown source. People leave with carts overflowing thinking they have saved money. Yeah. Eat less, eat better. That place scares me.
 
Phaycox1414 August 18, 2019
New Mexico is a different locale.. culture. People drive for 100 miles to shop the Santa Fe store.. providing ice would be a great boon for the “Nortenos”.,. We shop, but then we have to drive long distances to get our food home. Smile. Most of us keep ice chests in our cars...we can be remote. Could you, please, sell ice at your Santa Fe store? Muchos Gracias!
 
Cindy July 6, 2019
I’m wishing and hoping for Joes to carry their gluten free hamburger buns again. They were the BEST! I miss them so much. None better. Fingers crossed.
 
Roger D. July 7, 2019
I'm pretty sure that they're back. I'll check the next time at work.
 
Roger D. July 12, 2019
Yup, they're back.
 
Austinlinda July 6, 2019
Does anyone know if will ever be an online way to purchase from TJ’s?
 
Rita R. July 6, 2019
Online is nice but shopping at TJoe's is such a great experience because of how they run the store and the staff is so fun and helpful..I consider it a little "field trip" to shop there.
 
Kristin July 5, 2019
Given everything we know about the horrible banana industry, it’s pretty awful they think the fact their prices haven’t changed in 13 years is something to advertise. So no, don’t go and start making banana recipes because you can get ridiculously cheap bananas from a company that probably gets them from a farm where workers make next to nothing, K?
 
Mark M. July 5, 2019
TJ made my year. I visited the Philippines over 10 years ago and fell in love with ube ice cream made from a purple sweet yam, only to come home to Michigan and find how difficult it is to find in the States. To my amazement, it is now a featured product this summer! So happy! Also love the marcona almonds with rosemary, the cilantro hummus, the Mac ‘n cheese with hatch chiles, the flatbread tarte flambée (aka flammekueche), and I could go on and on. I do miss the Scottish dog licorice though - it had such an intense flavor!
 
OldGrayMare June 30, 2019
My staples: boxes of cooked, peeled beets (way less mess than making at home) and they last long time in frig (or not when paired with chevre and greens); the kalamata olive oil (greek friend says its the closest to the real stuff that won’t drain your 401k, and the delicious, delectable, delightful mini brie bites.....if those are ever dc’d you might as well just shoot me bec life won’t be worth living.
 
Jan June 30, 2019
Wrap fresh beets in foil and bake them. The peel comes right off in the foil and you won't have "mess." The boxes of cooked peeled beets they sell are from where? How old? lasting a "long time" is not something I look for in food! Just get canned ones, even less mess.

Personally I think anything worth doing is a little messy: certainly
real cooking is, good sex, gardening, raising kids, life.

I have seen cooked oatmeal and rice! for sale at TJ's and I always wondered who bought it.


 
Joan M. July 4, 2019
Hi, how long to bake, and what temp, please? For baseball size beets, say, or little smaller... . Thanks!!
 
Jan July 4, 2019
don't top or t ail the beets or pierce the skin in any way; wash well, wrap each individually in foil. a 350-400 degree oven, most will take 45 minutes. Test with sharp knife until it easily pierces. Store them in the foil in the fridge for a day or two. The peel will come right off. Most of the beets I bake are about softball size or slightly smaller tennis size. Tarragon is a terrific flavor accompaniment, by the way.
 
Linda September 7, 2019
EAT THE PEEL!!!
 
Roberta T. September 19, 2019
wrap beets in foil and put in dry crockpot, 3 or so hours on low when you start to smell then probably done. I leave the skins on they seem to disappear. Easiest way I have found to cook beets. I also do sweet potatoes usually at the same time. Roasted carrots are good too. They come out a little roasted tasting, very good.
 
Jan June 30, 2019
Green curry simmer sauce and TJ coffee beans sorely missed by me. The beans were house blend and none of the substitutions are remotely the same in terms of depth of roasting. I have to drive an hour to get there, but it us not worth it except in september when they have boxes of ripe peaches. Otherwise their produce is not worth the trip, especially in summer when we have farmers’ markets. Too much of their food has been pre seasoned, overly processed, highly sugared, seems geared for shortcut cooks.
 
George A. June 26, 2019

TJ’s is the place for adventuresome cooks. It is the only store in our area that regularly carries fresh figs in season. The only people in our family who didn’t appreciate their food and drink were our sub teen children. They are adults now and shop there more than I do.
 
Janet V. June 25, 2019
Just shopped at TJ today..the best looking Georgia peaches..already tasted them...and very good. Bought cheeses at excellent prices(Norw. Swiss,Dublinderetc.) Also pork tenderloin,3.99 lb. and boneless chicken breast ,less than 3.99 lb. and so many other fresh veggies...Just sharing from here in Miami.
 
Shannon June 25, 2019
Wow. Reading how far some people have to drive for a TJ’s, made me realize how truly fortunate I am! I have one TJ’s in Fair Oaks, CA - which is all of a three to five minute drive. Then there is one in downtown Sacramento, and one in Roseville - 25 and 15 to 20 - respectively. Not bragging, just saying thank you for making me realize how spoiled we are here in the greater Sacramento area!
 
Gordon June 25, 2019
Katie, you got this one very on spot and correct. The very facinating thing is Trader Joes and ALDI are owned by the same company, or man. And this man's brother owns LIDL. Making moneuy in the gorcery business is very difficult with their margins. And both these brothers have. They are one of Germanys wealthiest families. Their stores serve a very distinct purpose. They are not a general type grocery store. But what they do, they do really well. You should take a look at Wegmans next. An expensive market but they have many very hard to find foods. They also have a restaurant in their stoeres serving their food. And although the menu has changed much in 15 years, I think. It is still a god place to eat. Wegmans also has a very very good selection of wine and beer. Much better than anyplace except some place like Total Wine.
 
cosmiccook June 20, 2019
I wish they'd carry their all-butter puff pastry longer. Our TJ's sells out SO fast! I stock up as much as I can--I have limited space w allocated for it. I wish they hadn't discontinued their Dulce de Leche from Spain. My husband loves their lime & jalapeno juice for quick tequila, gin, and rum drinks.
 
Zomorodian, R. July 3, 2019
Try middle eastern grocery stores. They always have it in stock.
 
Janet V. June 19, 2019
Sarcasm does not suit the situation...good eating does.
 
Janet V. June 19, 2019
Just to be clear...and no sense of humor is required here..wraps and ready made foods can be made at home...surely fresher and better tasting.,.follow all the recipe sites that are available to make the good old home made meals that I hope you have learned from your mother and grandmother.I do not intend nor even think to tell one what to do...my comments are sincere thoughts from a well experienced cook of more than sixty five years.....
 
jcnNorcal June 20, 2019
I don't understand why you don't agree with me then. For example a new sandwich shop opened up by my work (this was a few years ago), and it was AMAZING in it's details. Freshly baked bread from a local bakery sandwiches, with just the best buttercrunch carefully chosen leaves, tomatoes that someone actually cared about selecting... it was awesome. And about double the price of a TJs three day old sandwich. Who on earth feeds that TJs yuck to people they love?

Anyway, I don't want to fight with you. Take care, bye.
 
Susan C. June 18, 2019
I LOVE that the business runs like a tight ship with an awesome crew, and I do mean awesome! It isn't just one store, or one crew - it's all of them. Such a fantastic way to be :)
Traveling to a local store is an event because it's about a 2.5 hr drive; yet it's worth it for sure! Would LOVE to have one closer to me (Youngstown, Ohio.)
 
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 😢
 
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 🥰.