It has been almost two months since they opened their first (and so far only) Utah location and I just made it to their store today for the first time. Trader Joe’s. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!
My first encounter with a Trader Joe’s in Arizona felt like walking into Nirvana on morphine. First of all, it was a thousand degrees outside and walking into a well-air-conditioned store from that level of Hades was especially delicious. I didn’t want to leave. But also, as I was just getting into the whole “healthy food” thing at that point, the experience felt like Disneyland to me. Better, actually, since I’m a bit anti-Disney right now. (Don’t shoot me, please. I have my reasons.) It was just as expensive, as well. But you know what? I really didn’t care. I think I must have laid down a couple o’ Franklin’s on that first visit and I thought, “This is worth every shiny penny!” (Not the dirty ones; only the shiny ones.)
Why? Because Trader Joe’s carries magical things. “What sort of magical things,” you might ask? Well…
- Real whole baby carrots… Not the surgically sculpted ones incised from a larger parent carrot like you find in most grocery stores. No, these are beautiful damsel carrots wrapped in shiny cellophane: my favorite non-recyclable, non-biodegradable material.
- Not just Green Beans, but Yellow and Green Beans! Uh-huh.
- Purple Potatoes! My family thinks I’m nuts for loving these, but I swear they taste better than the white ones. Really, truly. Try these in a taste test and be sure to buy organic. You’ll see I’m right. (Unless, of course, you have no taste-buds… or a cold. Then, you’ll just have to take my word on it.)
- They sell these little baby beets pre-cooked and vacuum-sealed. A perfect lunch. A perfect two lunches, actually.
- Sushi! Sushi! Sushi!
- An infinite variety of trail mixes, dried fruit, candies, etc.
- Pre-prepped stuff for take-out lunch or take-home dinner that changes every time I visit. I always try something new and it’s always fabulous.
Why is it fabulous? Part of the “big why” is that most of their offerings are free of all the stuff we health and eco-conscious zealots are wary of. (Except for the cellophane.)
They raise their li’l palm fronds and semi-solemnly affirm that, “All Products in The Trader Joe’s Label Promise: NO artificial flavors, colors or preservatives; NO MSG; NO genetically modified ingredients; and NO added Trans Fats.” They also offer clearly marked products in special categories: Vegan, Gluten-free, Kosher, Sodium and Fat-free. Ayz ‘bout died ‘n’ gonst t’ heav’n, I think.
Now, you Californian-denizens may think this is no big deal. You get it there all the time everywhere. I’ll bet your local 7-11 is stocked with sections of organic produce and earth-friendly consumables. But it’s not so common in the rest of the country.
So, my only opportunity to shop Trader Joe’s for the last few years has been during a trip to Arizona or California. I’d always make it a point to stop in and stock up. One item that was always a “must acquire” was their Peach Salsa. My sister has a penchant for this stuff. She throws away the bag o’ chips and just consumes it with a spoon. Me? I’m not so crazy about it. I mean, it’s OK. But I don’t LOVE it like she does. But I’d always make a point to stock up on a few bottles to give her whenever I had the chance. Bribery goes a long way.
Finally, after far too many years of complaint-mail about, “Why don’t you guys have a store in Utah?” Trader Joe’s said, “Fine. It’s against our better judgment, but we’ll come to Utah ‘liquor-free!’” No, they didn’t officially say that. I’m putting words in their mouths that aren’t there… officially. The difficulty with a Trader Joe’s in Utah is simply the restrictive liquor laws which would not allow them to sell their signature wines. Apparently, the benefits finally outweighed the drawbacks and they opened their first store in downtown Salt Lake City the end of November, 2012.
It was mayhem! Hundreds upon hundreds of customers lined up to visit the new Trader Joe’s: Many, never having shopped a TJ’s before! They went on the basis of scuttlebutt, alone. Or, they might have gone alone on the basis of scuttlebutt. Either way, the place was packed for weeks through Christmas and they could not keep the shelves stocked. Like,… literally, there was video on the local news of how empty the shelves were at Trader Joe’s. (We don’t get much action around here.)
I am not a fan of crowds. They rank somewhere just below needles in my “things I hate most in life” list. So, as much as I love Trader Joe’s, I decided to wait for the hysteria to die down. Today was sunny, but very cold – about 7 degrees the thermometer squeaked. I had an early meeting in Salt Lake at the Leonardo in conjunction with the Sundance Film Festival. (It sounds so posh when I say it that way.) I decided afterward that it would be an excellent time to visit the brand-spankin’-new Trader Joe’s.
The parking lot should have tipped me off. I did have a little trouble finding a parking space. But it wasn’t all that awful, so I thought nothing of it. As I approached the door, a wave of warmth spread through me as I saw the red carts lined up outside. Many a happy memory have I spent with such a cart. I escorted one in.
Right then. I knew right then that I should have turned around and walked out. My initial scan of the store immediately revealed that there were more people per square foot than was comfortable for me. “It’s OK,” I thought. “It’s Trader Joe’s. I know this store. I can do this.”
If you are an extrovert and absolutely love being around people, seeing a store full of people is not any big deal for you. And, seeing it from the perspective of a relatively shy person may entirely escape your understanding. I’ll do my darndest, though, to help you into my shoes. (They’re a size 9.5 medium with arch supports.)
Reggae music infused the air with the trademark “island” pulse. As I cautiously sauntered inward with my cart, my hips swayed oh-so-slightly to the beat and I bobbed a little on the balls of my feet. Somewhere inside of me is a tiny Jamaican, just dyin’ to boogie to this stuff. But over the years, I’ve learned how to dance “quietly” without people noticing… much.
I bounced my way toward the pretty produce. TJ’s always packages and displays their wares so nicely. It makes you want to buy it. As I scrutinized a beautiful group of completely out-of-season beef-steak tomatoes, a wet cough caught my ear.
Now, there are dry coughs and there are wet coughs. Any kind of a cough is cause for coverage on the part of the cough-er and concern on the part of everyone else around them. Although, generally speaking, dry coughs could be from anything, including dry air – of which we have a plentiful overabundance here. A wet cough, however, is… well, you know. The sound of phlegm making its way up and out of the respiratory system. More often than not, the sound of this kind of a cough sends me running for the disinfectant.
Like a feral predator, my instincts triggered some primal response to hunt down the source of this offense and the master control center in my brain issued the uncompromising command order to “avoid contact at all costs.” Time slowed as my mind followed the path of sound, weaving past the chattering four-year-old and the “Sundance-clad” woman conducting a business meeting on her cell phone. (You can always spot the out-of-towners. They think they know how to dress here, but they really don’t know how to dress for Utah weather. Anyway, that’s another topic.)
The cough culprit of this instinctual meandering was a dear older gentleman in a plaid shirt, khakis and a fedora. Really, this could have been my father. Except my father is wa-a-a-ay better-looking. I’m not kidding. My heart softened as it always does for the older generation, as the Master and Commander in my brain continued to send a barrage of “Warning, Warning, Warning!” with every cough.
Oh so carefully, I shimmied my way through the produce, ever mindful of the cougher’s location. Ignoring the baked goods, I made my way to the canned and bottled merchandise aisle. Packed! It was packed like sardines in a can.
So I skipped the canned goods and made my way to the frozen food aisle. Frankly, I wasn’t shopping for frozen items today, but it seemed like the only way to make it to the other side of the store. There was still a bit of a gamut making my way past a few other carts-n-people, but a few well-placed, “Oooo’s” and “Ahhhh’s” distracted the nematocystic entities long enough for me to slip by unperturbed. I made it through to the other side and turned the corner toward my destination: the “Chips-n-Salsa” aisle where I would find that coveted Peach Salsa.
You realize, of course — I’ve been editing this story — that by this time, I was a woman on a mission. Enough of playing dodge-carts with every John, Meg and Sally in the store. Enough of the skidding to a halt, and “Oh, excuse me’s,” and “Sorry, could I just slip past?” Enough of diverting the book-club clog of women with, “Oh, have you seen their sale on Rennet? Next aisle over.” Enough Ms. Nice-Girl. I had my orders, “Get the damn salsa and get the hell out.” (The military commander in my brain uses language like that, ‘cause she’s military.) Intensely focused on my now singular goal, I rounded the corner of the salsa-aisle.
“Ach-hem… Bluuuurgh…” declared the wet-cougher old man, standing right in the middle of aisle between me and my Peach Salsa.
CUE MUSIC INTRO.
INT. TRADER JOE’S – SLC – DAY
Flickering fluorescents bathe the shiny-chip-bagged ravine in a superfluous fluxion glare. Like ravening sharks through Jell-o, red shopping carts mingle amid the array of sheepskin coats and woolen scarves that wrap each lingering shopper, weighing them down in the tidal stream.
Midway, an old man COUGHS. TIME stops as the residue escapes into the air uninhibited, the man’s partially raised hand completely ineffectual save to serve as a casual wave to the boxes of Joe’s O’s on his immediate left. They don’t wave back.
A dark-haired young woman (as age is relative) remains unaffected by the time shift. She walks past the statues of two women bundled against the cold, comparing hot cereal options. Approaching the COUGHING MAN, she slides down under the spray to “child-heighth” and peers down the ravine to the other side.
A path of LIGHT illuminates the way toward the peach salsa which is momentarily swathed in a heavenly glow. As if a vacuum in space had opened, we are sucked back toward our point of origin. Time proceeds and IMACRAB stands at the head of the aisle, white-knuckling her cart.
An ENGINE revs and forward we go through the gauntlet! Past the debating women, rebounding into a section of Veggie-chips and skidding forward into a crouch past the COUGHING MAN. A larger-than-should-be-allowed family clogs the artery in a debate over Clif bars and ImaCrab straightens and turns.
The COUGHING MAN is rotating like dying top… unsure of his next direction.
(under her breath)
The COUGHING MAN turns and walks… toward her!
Pushing through the throng, ImaCrab skitters to a halt in front of the peach salsa. She throws EVERY JAR into her basket and tears away at breakneck speed for the cash register.
I bought twelve bottles: one for every month of the year because I won’t be going back for at least that long. Everyone at the cash registers was smiling in their “island-themed” way, happy to help. Of course this is Utah, so much of that “island theme” may have been the “Prozac of Happy Valley” staring at me. Whatever the cause, I was grateful that they were at least efficient with my checkout and didn’t bother to ask why I had such an odd assortment of purchases today: 2 tomatoes, a package of baby beets, and 12 bottles of peach salsa.
Backing out over the icy asphalt, I meandered my way through the parking lot and out toward Trolley Square. There, green-clad carts awaited me, along with the comparative calm of cellophane-free imported organic produce; welfare-rated dead animal flesh; bulky, earthy grains, spices and teas; and the best organic deli in the valley. Like the lost prodigal, Whole Foods welcomed me home; and I fell down and kissed the floor at its feet… after I disinfected it first.