Nuts. Cheese. Wine.
Those few words on the signs outside Trader Joe's five Orange County stores offer only the slightest clue about the eclectic assortment of merchandise inside.
But the signs are just about the only place this maverick market chain runs short on verbiage. Nearly every product that Trader Joe's offers includes not only the item itself, but the tale of how it was made and the saga of how it came to land in the acquisitive (but particular) hands of Joe himself. Shopping here is not only an educational experience but an opportunity to share in the thrill of the quest.
Check out the description of a quart of Trader Joe's Premium Blended Apple-Blackberry Juice ($1.49), for example, and you will learn how the apple harvest went in Santa Cruz last fall (very well, thanks), how organic farming is monitored (by the California Certified Organic Farmers organization), the fact that tree-ripened apples "have a higher 'Brix Content,' which is a measure of the natural fruit-sugar solubles in the juice," as well as what happens when even a drop of unripe blackberry juice gets into the mix (a potential disaster).
Or how about that chunk of Stilton cheese at $3.99 a pound? Before asking you to make a commitment, TJ's takes you on a journey through the history of British cheese, all the way back to a mention by Daniel Defoe in 1722. You get advice on how to eat it ("with well-aged Port wine, but true aficionados like it with apple pie or even with a few biscuits and a stalk of celery for breakfast"), and then you get the story of TJ's vice president who sampled more than a dozen varieties before settling on this one.
Behind all those individual tales, there is another story.
Back in the late '60s, a fellow named Joe Coulombe, who owned a small chain of Southern California convenience stores called Pronto Markets, was sitting on a Caribbean island trying to come up with a plan to defend himself against the invasion of a new but formidable competitor called 7-Eleven.
"He decided it was time to make a change," says Pat St. John, the company's advertising director. "Otherwise, they would have swamped us. So he decided that with the advent of the 747 jet, people were traveling more, and they had a sense of adventure. They were more willing to try new things."
Coulombe also decided to focus on well-educated customers. "The higher the level of education, the more likely customers are to be particular about the choices they make," St.John says. "And they're less likely to be swayed by network TV ads or media blitzes."
So Coulombe returned home, Pronto became Trader Joe's, and shopping for even such mundane items as soap, flea collars and toothpaste became an adventure. The South Pasadena-based chain now has 27 stores and a fervently loyal following.
When I was considering moving to Orange County from the Midwest five years ago, my prospective employer listed Trader Joe's as one of the perks of living here, right up there with the beaches, mountains and comfortable climate.
To give the stores a feeling of adventure, Coulombe used a little bamboo, some rope, a few unlit torches and other decorations for just a hint of the tropical islands. Aside from that, the atmosphere is no-frills, with merchandise displayed right out of cardboard boxes stacked on other boxes.
And in order to, as St. John puts it, "appeal to our customers' minds as well as to their tummies," he offered informative product descriptions heavily laced with literary allusions and even puns. Trader Joe's bagels, for example, are called "The Bagel Spinoza," after the 17th-Century Dutch philosopher. Why? "It bagels the mind." Then there's "Habeus Crispus" potato chips and their sibling for the diet-conscious, "Habeus No Saltus."
"What you buy this week you may not be able to go back and buy next week, but you may find something else you'd like to try. We scour the world, trying to act aggressively and conscientiously as a purchasing agent for our customers. And we sell nothing on which we cannot have the best price. That's rule No. 1," St. John says.
Some of the offerings are brand names, such as Birds Eye frozen dinners (99 cents to $1.19), Ocean Spray frozen fruit juice bars (99 cents) and Boodles gin ($8.49), among items available currently. Others are Trader Joe's own brand, including Pilgrim Joe's Colonial House Old Fashioned Unpressed Soap, fruit juices, baked goods and probably the chain's hottest new item, gourmet chef Wolfgang Puck's Frozen Pizzas Made Especially for Trader Joe's ($2.99).
Trader Joe's has five Orange County locations:
Laguna Hills, 24321 Avenida de la Carlota, (714) 768-9852
Fullerton, 1700 N. Placentia Ave., (714) 961-9491
Santa Ana, 1303 N. Main St., (714) 558-9843
Costa Mesa, 103 E. 17th St., (714) 631-9385
Huntington Beach, 18681-A Main St., (714) 847-9426