With just ten days until the invasion of Manhattan by Trader Joe's, the New York Times sends food writer Julia Moskin out to the provinces to see what the fuss is all about. She reports back on the Hawaiian shirts, legend of Joe Coulombe and "stunning amount of shelf space devoted to trail mixes." Moskin also writes that she was the first reporter allowed to observe the chain's secretive inner working at headquarters in Monrovia. Included is a list of TJ's ten most popular items. You know number one—Charles Shaw swill, to be known in NYC as Three Buck Chuck—but after the wine comes frozen Mandarin Orange Chicken, Nuts About Antioxidants Trek Mix, Lite Shredded 3 Cheese Blend and Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Long before Trader Joe's went national, its inexpensive but unusual products — things like wild blueberry juice, Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil and frozen chicken-lemon grass spring rolls — inspired an intense following among American food lovers, rarely seen in the aisles of a supermarket.
The stores are small, the selection is uneven and the corporate culture can be described as dorky. But because its products are often not available anywhere else; because they mysteriously appear, disappear, then reappear on the shelves; or perhaps simply because they often taste very, very good, Trader Joe's has become tremendously popular among Americans who like to be entertained and educated by what they eat, as well as nourished by it.
To protect its house-brand products, the company is notoriously secretive. But it opened slightly to this reporter recently, for the first time allowing an outsider into the daily critique conducted by the company's best-trained palates, a group known as "the tasting panel."
"The tasting panel is what takes us from having good products to having addictive products," said Doug Rauch, the president.
The Manhattan store will be located on Union Square.
Photo: J. Emilio Flores for the New York Times