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.
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.