Trader Joe's: A Sneak Peek and Ten Tips From Captain Jodi

It's happening. Trader Joe's is opening its first Miami-Dade store this Friday, October 18, at 8 a.m., complete with a ceremonial lei-cutting, music, and giveaways.

But what does the store look like and what's the fuss all about? When Short Order was asked if we wanted to get a little tour by captain Jodi McCullough, we jumped on the opportunity. Captain, by the way, is Trader Joe-speak for store manager.

See also: Trader Joe's Opens Tomorrow: Five Wines and Beers Under Ten Bucks to Try

We arrived a few minutes early for our walk-through and observed crew members (employees to us mortals) busy prepping for the opening, some posing as shoppers, while others worked the register. Other crew members were busy stocking produce. The rest of the store, including non-perishables and frozen items was completely finished and ready to go, with the exception of fresh flowers.

A cartoon monkey invites you to check out some orchids for your home, and a bamboo tiki-bar of sorts displays all sorts of pumpkin-flavored delights. The aisles are on an angle, so when you walk into the store, you can survey the entire place. It's these little things that make you realize that everything has been carefully thought out. We also noticed something else. At least a dozen would-be shoppers trying to get in. "Are you sure there's no soft-opening?" a savvy Trader Joe fan asked. "No. Sorry. We'll open in Friday at 8 a.m. Be sure to come back" was her answer.

Captain Jodi arrived, wearing a red Hawaiian shirt and greeting us with a hug. Yes, a hug. We never got a hug from a Publix manager (though we were asked to stop taking pictures once). Still cheery after an entire day of media tours and crew training, she breezed down the aisles with the energy of a bobcat on espresso, pointing out the murals painted on the walls, each depicting a different scene from Miami life. "I love paddle boarding, so I wanted to incorporate them into the Matheson Hammock mural."

Other murals included art deco hotels on Ocean Drive, Pinecrest Gardens, and lifeguard towers on the beach. The entire back wall pays tribute to the University of Miami, with cows portraying football players and chickens as cheerleaders. The store's sampling bar where one can grab a snack, a cup of coffee, or a fresh juice for free, is renamed Canes Galley. "For opening day, we're serving Mandarin orange chicken and our green plant juice to match the school's colors."

We asked captain Jodi, who has been with TJ's for five years, why there's so much buzz about this store. "Besides the fact that the prices are so good and the quality of the products are amazing, we really strive to create a fun shopping experience." When we asked her what it's like to work here, with all the bells and colorful shirts, she replied, "I love to come here every day. It's about the experience. It's about the internal. We get to know our customers and have a dialogue with them. If I felt like I helped someone, that just made my day."

Since captain Jodi was in such a good mood, we decided to ask her for some inside tips and tricks for shopping Trader Joe's. Here's what she shared:

10. Buy Trader Joe's Brands

Though TJ's does carry other brands, about 80% of the products are Trader Joe's. The company buys direct from the manufacturer, which saves them money. And there's just about a Trader Joe's equivalent for everything you might want -- and then some. Want Cheerios? Trader Joes O's are $1.99 for a giant box and come in plain, yogurt, fruit, and whole grain. In fact, there are 30 different Trader Joe's cereals -- all under two bucks each. Captain Jodi says: The recipe for peanut butter treats on the side of the box of "Crisp Rice" cereal is "to die for".

9. Ask Someone For Help

On the selling floor there are dedicated crew members with one sole purpose -- to help you find things. Looking for a TJ substitute for your favorite pasta or planning a garden party? Ask a crew member. Want a gluten-free snack? Ask a crew member. Seriously. It's like having a personal shopper. Captain Jodi says: The Snickerdoodle soft cookies ($2.99) are free of eight common allergens and amazing. "I'm not gluten intolerant. I just love these cookies. Every Saturday I break open a box and declare it Snickerdoodle Saturday!"

8. There are Pre-Made Shopping Lists for People With Dietary Needs

If you shop kosher, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, low-sodium, or low-fat, you can go online and print out a shopping list. Or, head over to customer service, where they'll provide you with a laminated list tailored to your specific needs.

7. GMO-Free Zone

Trader Joe's has been on the non-GMO bandwagon long before most people were concerned about genetically modified organisms. All Trader Joe's branded products are GMO-free. According to their website, "When developing products containing ingredients likely to come from genetically modified sources, we have the supplier of the product perform the necessary research to provide documentation that the suspect ingredients are from non-GMO sources. This documentation is in the form of affidavits, identity-preserved certification of seed stock, and third-party lab results from testing of the ingredients in question. In addition to this work done in developing a given item, we conduct random audits of items with potentially suspect ingredients, using an outside, third-party lab to perform the testing." This GMO-free statement doesn't apply to other brands sold in the shop or animal products (meat, dairy and some farmed fish), however.

Captain Jodi says: All meats, seafood, cheeses -- basically everything cold, is shipped daily from the local distribution point in Atlanta, so you don't have to worry about that "last day before a shipment arrives" sketchy period.

6. Try Before You Buy

While shopping, stop by the Canes Galley where they'll have fresh coffee in the morning and bites all day long. In addition, the store features wine tastings and roving samplings at any given time. Plus, if you're on the fence about those dried green mangoes just ask a crew member to open a package for you to try -- just don't do it yourself.

Captain Jodi says: The galley is the heart of the store, where people congregate to mingle and chat.

5. If it Didn't Work Out, Return It

Yes. Return it. Didn't like your chocolate-covered potato chips? Return them. Your espresso didn't keep you awake at night? Return it? Your Pinot Noir too "jammy"? Return that too. "If you don't like it, or it wasn't right, we'll give you a refund," says captain Jodi. "Even if you tried it. That's what I would want for me."

Captain Jodi says: If for some reason your item didn't work out but you can't return it (say you cooked the chicken and it just wasn't right), don't worry about packing up the bird and driving it to the store. As long as you have your receipt, you can call the store or stop in, ask to see a manager, and they'll take care of it on the honor system.

4. Look For Josie the Pink Flamingo

Josie is the Pinecrest mascot. A stuffed Pink Flamingo, complete with name tag, she's the TJ version of Where's Waldo. If you have a child and he/she spots Josie, your kid gets to pick a treat from the treasure chest located at customer service.

Captain Jodi says: Josie moves around daily, but she might just be hanging out with her friend, Polo the Chihuahua, in the pet aisle.

3. Shop Early in the Morning or Later in the Evening

This one's a no-brainer, but weekends are going to be busy, at least for a while. "We're training our people so there's a flow and we've got police outside to control traffic, but we really don't know how busy the store's going to be until we're open," says Captain Jodi.

If you can, come early when the store opens at 8 a.m., have a cup of coffee and relax. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to shop.

2. Cheap Wine is Good Wine

From Two Buck Chuck to Trader Joe's Reserve, the wine selection is inexpensive and plentiful. Everything from sake to Pinot Grigio is available. Don't know what to buy? Each crew member has their own favorite and the store conducts wine tastings for crew as well as guests, so ask someone. And remember...you can return it if you don't like it.

Captain Jodi says: Try the Caretaker Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.99). It has great depth and spicy notes. It also makes a good gift.

1. Check Out That Fearless Flyer in Your Mailbox

If you live in Coconut Grove, South Miami, or Pinecrest, you might have gotten the Fearless Flyer in the mail. If not, it's available at the store or online. It's part newsletter/part advertisement and has monthly specials, recipes, trivia, and old-time cartoons.

Follow Laine Doss on Twitter @LaineDoss and Facebook.

Follow Short Order on Facebook, on Twitter @Short_Order, and Instagram @ShortOrder.

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