You Are Where You Eat

What your choice of grocery stores says about who you are

The new store, the first where shoppers walked around and chose their own goods, was very controversial at the time. With no clerk checking off a shopper's list, grocers feared that their customers would end up buying the wrong products.

"The first supermarkets and chain grocery stores had cooking classes and demonstrations, advice about how to prepare foods," says University of Minnesota history professor Tracey Deutsch. "That's what Betty Crocker was all about."

There were even worries that social anarchy might break out—after all, the neighborhood grocer was the one who knew when a household was overextended and needed credit.

Fast-forward to today. One of the most popular features in most grocery stores is the half-made meal: marinated chicken breasts, trimmed vegetables with some kind of seasoning or garnish, bagged salads.

"Women still have the feeling that they are the ones who are doing this," explains Senauer. "They still feel a need to be engaged emotionally with the meal and to do some preparation. They may want to buy a rotisserie chicken but prepare the salad, so there's something of themselves in it."

Perhaps this explains some of the phenomenal popularity of Trader Joe's: Forget takeout, now you can fill your basement freezer with shrimp tempura, hand-tossed pizza Margherita, dim sum, carne asada, and hundreds of other restaurant goodies packaged for the family dinner table.

Two hours after the doors of Minnesota's first Trader Joe's were unlocked last spring, the store's shelves were picked half-clean. In front of the cheese case, shoppers stood three-deep, awaiting a turn at the marinated mozzarella and logs of goat cheese that looked more like firewood.

People snagged whatever they could maneuver close to—dried blueberries, Marcona almonds, chocolate-covered espresso beans, wasabi peas—grabbing in quantities that would stock a bomb shelter. Outside there were TV cameras and reporters, and orange-vested police officers waving a steady stream of cars away from the parking lot.

In the checkout line, a woman with a sweatshirt and a blond perm clutched three pounds of cashews to her chest. Across the hall in the discount wine shop, a middle-aged woman paused while her husband rebalanced a case of bargain red wine, popularly dubbed "Two-Buck Chuck."

Whole Foods' Mackay has complained that the same people who are so critical of his corporate supply chain have little to say about the way the gourmet goods get to Trader Joe's. The reason, according to Pollan: "Whole Foods wears its virtue on its sleeves, and Trader Joe's doesn't."

In contrast to the sleek purity of Whole Foods, the groaning opulence of Byerly's, and the dingy warehouse feel of Cub, the decor at Trader Joe's has a playful tiki theme. No one is dressed up, and no one seems to care whether the organics here come from China, which many do, or from a local farmer. And really, does it matter that the quality of the food is uneven if the buy-in is so low?

"It's an entry point for many people," says Pollan. "You don't have to sign onto the whole foodie identity to go there."

This, then, is the future: a 10-inch log of chèvre in every refrigerator.

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