As a recent transplant from California, I have had to adjust a lot to Miami. East now means toward the ocean. The Magic City has outrageous crimes that make me wish Dexter were real. Lizards hang out everywhere, including my bathroom. And my kitchen is seriously lacking treats from my favorite well-priced gourmet snack store, Trader Joe's. Well, that void is about to be filled when Miami gets its first Trader Joe's October 18. Let the countdown begin, and let me share a bit about my experience.
Trader Joe's has long been a fixture in my life. Growing up, I knew to ask the cashier for special stickers hidden at the register and available only upon request. In grade school, my afternoon snacks consisted of Pirate's Booty, bags of frozen mangoes, and green tea mochi. The friendly staff was a source of many crushes, including a certain bag boy who wore a name tag that read "J. Sin" and whose Bambi eyelashes made me fall in love.
In college, I stocked my dorm room with frozen fish nuggets, gyozas, tamales, taquitos, and mini pizzas that accommodated my tight budget and helped me gain my freshman 15. In business school, my love and appreciation for Trader Joe's reached a whole new level. I was living blocks from the original TJ's in Pasadena. It was at this location and at this juncture of my business education that I became obsessed with the Joe. Joe Coulombe, despite selling the store in 1979, was still a regular at this location. I became a bit of a stalker. Every turn of my red shopping cart at each aisle brought the possibility that I might spot him. On the few occasions I did glimpse him, it was a bigger treat than when TJ's peppermint marshmallows are in season.
Naturally, for a course in business ethics, I chose Trader Joe's as my subject. I learned that Joe had owned a chain of convenience stores, and when 7-Eleven arrived in Los Angeles, he knew he couldn't compete. That's when he had three separate aha moments.
First, he was inspired by an article about a new generation of college-educated young people. He knew this education was bound to change society. The second inspiration was a Boeing 747. He knew there was a rising demographic of educated people looking for something exotic and reminiscent of their travels.
The last piece of inspiration came from Joe's Caribbean vacation. It allowed him to envision what Trader Joe's would look like -- with Hawaiian shirts on employees and boat oars and fishing nets on the walls.
The first Trader Joe's opened in 1967 in Pasadena. He chose that location because he saw the area as the epitome of his "overeducated and underpaid" demographic. (Remember, the 'Dena is home to the fictional Big Bang Theory guys and Penny.)
All stores have a neighborhood feel, aided by employee name tags, bells for employee communication, a food- and drink-sampling station, and playful customer support. You will see the regular Trader Joe's label and the more ethnic Trader Jose's or Trader Ming's branded items, which make up the majority of SKUs. All of TJ's brands ensure no GMOs, MSG, artificial flavors, or preservatives. And you never have to bother with coupons -- only a fun-to-read newsletter.
On more than one occasion, I have been in a store when a crew member announces it is an employee's last day because he or she is going back to college. The intercom encourages shoppers to thank the employee for the awesome job he or she did over the summer. These personal touches and the customer wow factor are always at the forefront. If a new register needs to be opened, a bell will be rung; twice means there's a question, and three times means it's time for a "captain" (manager) to show up.
Another part of the adventure, beyond the Hawaiian shirts and the bell-ringing code, is the culinary exploration. It's always a good idea to stop by the new products section, where recently released goods and limited editions are offered. Whether it is Candy Cane Joe-Joes -- similar to peppermint Oreos during the holiday season -- or the famous cookie butter, Trader Joe's offers snacks that you just have to try. All the employees are well-versed in the offerings and are helpful with suggestions on what products to try, how to prepare them, and which ones pair well with others.
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That thoughtfulness makes Trader Joe's an exciting addition to Miami. The store has garnered an almost cult-like following, with customer-created cookbooks, blogs, and Facebook fan pages. Also, as a fair warning, remember that Whole Foods parking lot music video? Yeah, Trader Joe's parking lots are way worse, plus we have Miami drivers and baby lizards to add to the mix. Relax -- once you survive that, you get to go on a great adventure into your friendly neighborhood specialty grocery store! In case you missed it, here are the ten must-try items to get you excited about the opening.
Follow Carina on Twitter @CarinaOst