I, like most people of my generation, am very specific about my coffee. Every berry must be picked, fully red and ripe, by endangered songbirds wearing suit coats woven of hemp. Once dried, my coffee must be brought north by solar-enhanced pedi-cabs driven by prose-poets raising political awareness through community building. Oh, and I forgot: As they work, the songbirds harvesting my coffee must be serenaded by native peoples lifting their voices high in folk songs in extinct languages. These songs must praise the wise pale people of the north like myself who are so dedicated to fine, ethically made foods that, once the morning pot is brewed, we quickly slip out the back door in avoidance of Big Louie, the lout seeking to collect the vig on the Whole Foods bill.
I was hoping the new Trader Joe's, which opened in mid-May to great media fanfare, could help my coffee (and such) habit, at less expense than usual. But I had my fears. Remember the last time we had a media circus around a new grocery retailer? It was Costco, a place I've been to twice, and each time the experience has lead me to resolve to either kill myself or to stand in the parking lot with a megaphone, advising, "If you think you need six liters of Pepto Bismol lassoed together in a value pack, as well as a 49-cent hot dog and a case of hazelnut-flavored nondairy creamer, you're wrong. What you need is a good night's sleep, a week off, and the love of a good dietician."
Anyhoo, Trader Joe's. Started life as a chain of California convenience stores, Pronto Markets, but then they added a hang-loose Hawaii theme and became known for private-label gourmet stuff for high-end customers: wine, snacks, the works. When the first Minnesota Trader Joe's opened in St. Louis Park, it turned the Lake Calhoun-ish streak of Lake Street and Excelsior into something of a Gold Coast of grocery shopping, with the Uptown Lunds, Calhoun Village Whole Foods, and now Trader Joe's, all in one straight shot.
So how is it? The first time I went to Trader Joe's, I went from skeptical news-gatherer to frenzied, desperate mad shopper in the space of a few seconds. The place was jam-packed with shoppers excitedly exclaiming over the deals. Some product spaces were conspicuously vacant, as if they had just been emptied by people luckier and quicker than I. People on cell phones were all around me, telling their friends things like, "I can't find my rice, I can't find my rice! I'm going to have to fly to California...thank God, there it is."
Soon enough I was tossing bargains galore into my cart: A 10.5-ounce loaf of highly prestigious Vermont Butter and Cheese Company Chèvre, for $4.69! Half a pound of dried wild blueberries for $4.99—almost a third what they cost at my local co-op! Frozen pizzas that looked all gourmet and stuff—for $3.99! The organic, ultra-virtue fiber silage sticks-and-berries mix with which I start most mornings—less than half what it costs at the co-op! Ooh, are our beloved local co-ops actually going to be forced to think about competitive pricing? Be still my beating heart!
And what's that? Unfiltered extra virgin Italian olive oil, $5.99 for half a liter, a whole pound of cold-smoked salmon for $10.99? Someone catch me, I just might faint, or throw a sudden dinner party! Of course, I also stood on line in the attached Trader Joe's liquor store (a separate store, closed Sundays, you know the drill) for a case of the famous Trader Joe's bargain wine, Two-Buck Chuck. While there were pallets of the wine stacked up in various areas of the store, the empty cases piled here and there were causing normally sane-looking men to whip through the empty boxes in a frenzy, finally shouting to their wives, holding a place on line, "I got one!" (FYI, it's actually Three-Buck Chuck here.)
Double anyhoo, I managed to spend $130 on groceries, and was strangely confused that night to find I didn't really have much to eat. There were a lot of snacks, certainly, but not really any dinner, in the "cooking some vegetables and putting them next to some other stuff" sense of the word. (Please know that the Day-Glo orange cheesy poufs I ate as I contemplated my snacky repast were not the low-class cheese puffs of the unwashed masses. These were cheesy poufs that were lower in fat and private label and from California.)
Anyway, I eventually managed to put together a repast that made me feel very much like I was eating at a nice catered cold buffet at a museum opening: balsamic-marinated precooked chicken breasts ($4.99), sliced (by me), placed on organic baby lettuce ($1.99) with a balsamic salad dressing I put together of previously owned non-TJ stuff with sweet dried cranberries ($2.49), TJ sweet-and-spicy pecans ($3.99), and that chèvre. It was a pretty good salad that had all the hallmarks of eating in a restaurant, but the chicken was kind of overly dense and overly sauced and...eh. It reminded me exactly of being in one of those neighborhood cafés that I can never decide whether to review: It's good, but is it good enough to tell people to visit?
I spent the next few days dabbling in similar catering-company type foods, engineered from things I bought at TJ, like smoked salmon (many, many prices) with capers ($2.49 for almost half a pound), Moroccan spiced olives (59 cents for a little two-and-a-half-ounce packet) and enjoying extremely thin-crust, low-calorie (because they're extremely thin) frozen pizzas ($3.99 or so) which heated up brilliantly in my zillion-dollar oven. (Yeah, I'm one of those.) I balanced out my high-salt snacks with lots of super-dark, bargain, high-end chocolate. (Valrhona African 85 percent cocoa-mass Le Noir Extra Amer, for $2.69! ScharffenBerger bars for $1.99!)
I tried the one shade-grown organic coffee I found, Dark French roast ($7.99 for 13 ounces), and found it flaccid and awful. I kept going. Microwavable single-meal rice bowls of Chicken Vindaloo and Thai Massaman curry (300 and 390 calories, respectively, costing $2.49 and $2.29). I decided there were things I loved, like the sweet-and-spicy pecans ($3.99 for five ounces), which are whole nuts crusted simply with a bit of sugar and spice. There were things I hated: A $5.99 bottle of unfiltered olive oil was acrid, aged, and awful. That was to be expected.
But there was also a mystery: Why had I intended to purchase items for dinner, and returned with only snack foods?
I returned to Trader Joe's for a second visit, resolved to take it in with a calmer eye. I learned that the reason I hadn't gotten any vegetables or fruits on my first visit was because they looked terrible. The artichokes were yellowing, each of the four varieties of broccoli (organic, conventional, baby, rabe) was either flopsy with dehydration or yellowing. There was only one kind of organic apple on offer, and, even though I knew better, as it's spring and the apple was from Washington, I bought it. Yes, it was mealy.
There were no organic mushrooms, or organic greens such as collards, kale, or mustard greens. As a local organic produce person, I've gotten very used to an abundance of fresh, crisp local greens. As far as an average shopper could tell, by reading labels and such, Trader Joe's didn't seem to have a single locally grown herb or vegetable. Or even a single one grown in the upper Midwest. The scallions looked just like the ones from my local co-op—after I leave them in the crisper drawer for a month. The meat, seafood, and poultry area is a teensy area of the store, smaller than the soda-case area of the average SuperAmerica, and the precut meat in its plastic wrap is highly unappealing, conventionally priced, and quite limited. If you had a particular recipe in mind there's very, very little chance you'd find what you wanted.
Worse, the milk and egg area is also quite small, and full of signs bearing what I consider to be dubious language. For example, what exactly are "cage-free" eggs? Do the hens go outside into pasture, or are they merely confined in an electric-lit metal barn with a grate on the floor? What are they fed? Vegetarian feed and no antibiotics, or conventional feed, which can include things like processed chicken feathers, and plenty of hormones and antibiotics? I looked at the Trader Joe's website and its "Note About Eggs," and found little to clarify the issue.
Soon I found that the local Cornucopia Institute (www.cornucopia.org ), an advocacy group for family farmers, has raised serious questions about Trader Joe's brand organic milk, as it seems to come from farms that appear to skirt the spirit of the organics standards, by doing things like providing their cows with "dry lots" instead of healthy, living pasture. I get a kind of sick feeling in my stomach when I think about things like this. I personally won't be shopping in TJ's egg and dairy areas.
I also tried three loaves of the house TJ bread, a French baguette ($1.79), an Italian loaf ($1.99), and the organic soft white bread ($2.79), and found them all to be fairly dry and characterless, about on par with the house breads at Cub or Rainbow.
Ironically, a few months ago I spoke with a representative from the American Heart Association, who told me that the main message they were trying to get across to Americans was to eat from the periphery of the grocery store, from the fresh produce, fresh dairy, and fresh breads that usually form the outside aisles, and to avoid the processed foods in the inner section of the store. My advice for Trader Joe's shoppers is just the opposite: Skip the periphery and stick to the center, where there are processed foods and lots of wonderful pantry-stuffers. Such as those sweet-and-spicy pecans, which I'm nuts for. (Ba-dum-sha! I'm at the airport Hilton all week, folks!)
Okay, on to what you really care about: What about that Three-Buck Chuck? I tried each of the varietals Trader Joe's was offering on my visit: Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, all priced at $2.99. I was quite impressed. Well, the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon was awful, with a sort of asphalt-oak aftertaste, but the other wines were all good. My favorite red was the Charles Shaw 2005 Shiraz; it had rich, plummy, ripe fruit-punch aspects, with lots of forthright nice, round grapey qualities, making it a great summer barbecue and pizza pick. (2005 was the biggest California harvest ever, though, and I've read of spectacular quality, so my advice is to try anything else you see in Three-Buck Chuck from that year.)
The 2004 Merlot was fine, and while I liked it lots when I did a standard critic's sniff-and-spit, thinking it solidly made and well concentrated, later, when I actually drank a glass I got the kind of headache I associate with winemaking shortcuts used to get oak flavoring into wine, so now I don't trust the stuff. My favorite of the Three-Buck Chucks I tried was the 2004 Chardonnay, a gloriously oak-free, crisp, clean, tart, zingy little number. It's a perfect summer easy drinker. I also recommend the Charles Shaw 2005 Sauvignon Blanc, which is, again, a crisp, straightforward, clean, and, in this case, nicely floral drink. I'll probably buy a case of one of the whites before summer gets going—either is as good a wine as you'll find under $10.
Which means you'll see it at every barbecue you go to this summer. So, for your small-talk pleasure, I offer a few chatty tidbits to get you going. Did you know that Three-Buck Chuck is made by the Bronco Wine Company—and that Bronco is short for "brothers and cousin," and refers to feisty maverick troublemaker Fred Franzia, his brother Joseph, and cousin John Jr.? But no! They're not those Franzias. In fact, the box-wine Franzias are relatives who are competitors. Meanwhile, Ernest Gallo, of Ernest and Julio Gallo fame, is an uncle to the Bronco brothers. Small world? Yes!
Furthermore, Fred Franzia is a convicted felon, relating to a guilty plea he entered for using non-Zinfandel grapes to make White Zinfandel. It was alleged he sprinkled Zinfandel grape leaves on top of bins holding Colombard and Grenache grapes. Scandal! Also, did you know that Charles Shaw, the trademarked wine name, was lost by Charles Shaw, the man, after a nasty divorce and bankruptcy proceeding? Take that to your next barbecue: Never have a nasty divorce, lest your entire identity be repurposed. Of course, that's a very Minnesotan lesson to take from the opening of a new little gourmet grocery, but here we are. Right here. And nowhere else.
My other particularly Minnesotan thought on it all is: Trader Joe's is actually not as much like one of the local co-ops, or like Byerly's, Lunds, or Kowalski's, as it is like...SuperAmerica. A really upscale SuperAmerica. Which I suppose hearkens back to Trader Joe's origins as a convenience store. In fact, once upon a time, in college, I had a summer roommate who ended most of his days with a frozen pizza and 12-pack of 3.2 from SA. It occurred to me that said ex-roommate could now get 10 times better quality, at the exact same price, from Trader Joe's.
Do you remember being a certain age, 10 years old or so, when it seemed that a store like SuperAmerica held every possible worldly and decadent treat you could desire? Cokes, novelty bubble gum, Mad magazine, the works. Trader Joe's is kind of just like that, for adults. Which is to say the coffee-plucking songbirds in their hemp suit coats are safe, for now, but the after-bar fridge-raiding just got a whole lot more interesting.