The Union Square store is apparently among the highest grossing locations in the chain, with 5,000 daily customers and sales of over $1 million a week. But numbers aren’t the only thing that sets this Trader Joe's apart from most others. As Arianne Cohen notes in this week's NY magazine, "supermarket employees have never looked so appetizing, or so poignantly arty." The store is using these cute, clean-looking, multiethnic twentysomethings to keep them coming back - all of which intrigued Cohen enough to apply for a job.
I dropped off an application that represented me as well qualified (college grad, extensive retail experience). Silence ensued. I called six times. On the seventh, a manager sighed and scheduled an interview so that I would stop calling. My interview took place in a citrus-smelling stockroom corner. “You’re lucky you got an interview,” said Gregory, a distractingly handsome manager, pointing to the weekly stack of 200 applications. “If you don’t hear from us in a week, well … that’s the breaks.” I didn’t hear in a week. So I called some more.
Cohen eventually got in and discovered a hip-and-often-wild world behind the Tofutti bars and pappadam chips. They're mostly college grads and creative types "with dreams of making it in the city’s bourgeois bohemia, but currently stuck serving it hummus." They're attracted to TJ's not only because of its non-corporate vibe but because it offers health insurance (pay is in the $9.50-$12.50 range).
An important part of the Trader Joe’s experience is the mandatory three-hour “Captain’s Talk.” Captain Lance’s job is to keep the crew shipshape. Trader Joe’s is one of those companies where the culture pretends that the work is fun. Lance is a jovial, chubby, goateed guy, a dedicated and relentlessly wholesome company devotee. About a quarter of the staff fits this description. Lance lives 90 minutes away, in New Jersey, and has worked in other Trader Joe’s across the country. He is a spouter of state-of-the-art corporatespeak, like “kaizen.” Kaizen is supposedly Japanese for “one percent improvement each day.” Staffers seem to think it means helping others, or they deploy it sarcastically (“Let’s kaizen, guys!”).
The crew can seem like an ongoing soap opera of sleeping around. Much of the sex is born out of the job: Crew members are constantly mobile, able to strategically station themselves alongside whomever they’d like. Once the store empties at night, I watched flirting extend to groping. After work, they frequent Beauty Bar down the street and sometimes go home together. It’s the only activity they can afford. The tasting buzzes with last night’s gossip, something about a crew member sleeping with his girlfriend’s roommate. He’s a “Trader Joe Ho,” a term mainly reserved for guys, who see far more action than you’d expect for impoverished grocery workers. “My theory on it,” says Melody, who’s 22, “is that the only people the girls see are the guys at work. It’s slim pickings, so they pick the best of the bunch.” Melody’s rundown of recent staff activities is a bewildering chronicle of secret assignations and multiple partners, complete with character analysis (“She’s very clingy and has mothering issues”). Everybody seems to know everybody else’s business and is getting busy with them, too. With little money and rotating schedules, relationships die quickly.
Pasadena-based TJ's is one of the most tight-lipped retailers I've ever run into, so you can imagine how delighted they are to be reading this.