Trader Joe’s is a popular food shopping destination for its cheery, helpful checkout people in Hawaiian shirts, the wide array of new foods and the low-cost, private-label products that are often created by well-respected brands. But are Trader Joe’s prices always better? Find out what to buy and what to skip at Trader Joe’s.
*Prices are from February 2011
—Lisa Gosselin, Editor-in-Chief
A pet peeve many people mention is the lack of fresh, local produce. “To be honest, the produce is not the best,” says Brooks. “It definitely leaves a lot to be desired.” I confess that I like to buy fresh and local whenever I can and Trader Joe’s cellophane-wrapped peppers and other produce don’t often inspire me. But to keep an open mind, I went to a Trader Joe’s and picked up a bundle of unwrapped asparagus.
In this Connecticut store, rather anemic-looking spears were selling for $4.39 a pound, whereas the larger market down the street featured healthier-looking asparagus at $3.79 a pound or less.
But not all deals are duds in the produce section; you just have to pick the right ones. Trader Joe’s is known for buying in bulk and produce that ships well seems to fare better here. Hass avocados were bundled in a bag of four for $3.29. That seemed worth it, especially when a nearby supermarket was selling four for $5. Granted, the Trader Joe’s avocados were small and hard but after I let them ripen for a day, they were delicious. I found similarly good deals and quality on sturdy produce like clementines and bananas too.
One common comment we heard from our Facebook fans: “Best deal - milk, eggs and yogurt. Worst deal - prepackaged meats.” Brooks agrees: “You would think the meat would be fresh, but it’s just not the best and they don’t have an in-store butcher.”
I went shopping for my favorite Black Angus rib-eye steak. It was almost $2 a pound more at Trader Joe’s. Boneless leg of lamb from New Zealand: $6.49 a pound (versus $4.99) and ground beef, $2.49 a pound versus $2.99. One exception is the organic meats: Trader Joe’s has made a push toward more organic ingredients and, at $6.99 a pound, organic, boneless, skinless chicken breasts are a go-to food for me, especially when it’s not always easy to find chicken that’s both organic and skinless.
Brooks considers deli items like sushi, ready-made sandwiches and salads, and the baked goods and breads—as really hit or miss. These items vary from store to store depending on local suppliers, so keep that in mind as you shop.
“You’re in there, you’re saving money, you’re getting good deals—and then they have some things you can’t say “No” to, like chocolate-covered almonds, gourmet cookies and Belgium chocolates, and some of those things can really add up,” says Brooks. “But in some cases those are also better deals than elsewhere,” so make sure to compare prices before you impulse-buy.
Everyone loves Trader Joe’s cheese selection and with good reason: they have cheeses that are both insanely good and insanely well priced. One Brooks says to look for: “Comté. An up-and-coming cheese that’s like a Gruyère.” I agree. And I can’t pass up a good deal on cheese. In fact, I have a stockpile of goat cheese because I can’t resist the giant 10-ounce log of Vermont Butter & Cheese Chèvre for just $4.99 (versus a 4-ounce log for $3.99, which I found at several other food stores and online).
If you shop the center of the store, it’s hard not to find great deals in pretty much every aisle, especially on staples like Trader Giotto’s Extra-Virgin Olive Oil for $5.49 a litre—more than $3 cheaper than I could find at other stores. Trader Joe’s-labeled almonds at $4.69 were nearly half as much as they cost elsewhere. Nature’s Path Flax-Plus Granola cereal: $2.89 a box, versus $3.99. And my favorite, a bag of true wild rice—not mixed with long grain—for $4.99 a pound, versus $11 a pound and up at other stores.
As for the freezer: my sister swears by Trader Joe’s frozen wild sockeye smoked salmon ($17.99 a pound, versus $27.96 a pound for smoked Atlantic salmon at other stores) and jumbo frozen wild scallops ($11.99 a pound, versus $15.99). The people we polled named all sorts of frozen appetizers and entrees as their favorite go-to meals. As Brooks says, “The nice thing is a lot of their stuff is frozen or shelf-stable—you just whip it out of the freezer or your pantry and you have a party.” Good deals include frozen rice, ethnic items like naan (an Indian bread) and frozen fruit, such as mango chunks. As for frozen meals, some top-sellers Brooks points to include Mandarin Orange Chicken, Penne Arrabiata and Tarte d’Alsace—a thin pizza topped with Gruyère cheese, creamy caramelized onions and ham.
Perhaps the deal that Trader Joe’s is best known for? Cheap wine—so cheap in fact that when California stores began selling Charles Shaw wines at $1.99 a bottle, the brand earned the nickname Two-Buck Chuck. OK, maybe not a sommelier’s favorite, but for this and other wines under $20, you can usually take a few bucks off liquor-store pricing. As Brooks notes: “They have amazing deals for wine. For anywhere from $6 to $10 you can get a good bottle of wine—you would be surprised at how good it is. And then for $10 to $20 you get bottles that would be $20 to 30 elsewhere.”
But what I think is the real beauty of Trader Joe’s is that it’s a place that inspires conversation. So you tell us, what do you think are the best and worst deals at the stores you shop
I could go on and on about the flowers ($9.99 for a dozen roses) and Phalaenopsis orchid plants are usually $3 to $4 less than you can find them at Home Depot (the next best place I’ve shopped for them), especially at West Coast locations. I also love the Trader Joe’s brand lavender body oil and soaps, and the grapefruit-scented shampoo smells lovely and its packaging is attractive.
Lastly, one of the things I do love is that Trader Joe’s is making a concerted effort to do the right thing. In 2001, the company decided not to use any genetically-modified foods in its private label products and in 2007 made a commitment to eliminate added trans fats from all private label products (along with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives). Trader Joe’s branded eggs are all cage free and by 2012, the company promises that all of its seafood will be sustainably-sourced.