Last Updated Feb 8, 2011 5:33 PM EST
This article is part of a package on shopping at Trader Joe's. Read the other article, on 4 things not to buy at Trader Joe's.
Could you find a store with a friendlier vibe than Trader Joe’s, with its Hawaiian-shirted staff and cow-bell clanging cashiers? Doubtful. The store does its darnedest to feel like a quirky neighborhood hangout — albeit one that happens to carry Indian samosas and Thai lime-and-chili cashews, and is run by an enormous international conglomerate. But Trader Joe’s is no corner grocery. The chain sells about $8 billion worth of groceries each year, just as much as Whole Foods.
Trader Joe’s, which now has 344 stores in the U.S., is owned by Germany’s Albrecht family, an über-private clan that Fortune magazine called “obsessively secretive.” (Playing to form, the company declined to comment for this story.) Each Trader Joe’s carries approximately 4,000 products that seem not so much stocked as curated. They are collected by Trader Joe’s buyers who travel the globe in search of the latest and best-priced organic products, and those that make the cut are then tweaked for American palates. Here are six of the best:
From Valrhona and Toblerone bars to Belgian and Swiss bonbons, Trader Joe’s chocolate comes from all over the world at down-to-earth prices. The Valrhona bars that sell for up to $4.99 elsewhere can be had at Trader Joe’s for just $2.99. And Trader Joe’s house-brand bars, none of which contain any artificial flavors or preservatives, are even cheaper. Trader Joe’s chocolate chips ($2.29 for a 12-ounce bag) are a particularly good buy: In a taste test of 12 brands on foodie site seriouseats.com, they bested Ghirardelli and Hershey’s — at more than a dollar less per bag.
2. Fresh Flowers and Plants
Angie Zimmerman, author of “The Do It Yourself Wedding Flower Guide” and creator of the video blog flowerarranging101, says that the flowers at Trader Joe’s are high quality and the prices often better than even the wholesale prices she gets at local flower markets. To wit, five stems of white hydrangeas at a Los Angeles Trader Joe’s were recently selling for $5.99, almost two-thirds less than a comparable bunch at a Whole Foods less than three miles away. And Zimmerman says she’s paid $6.99 for 30 mini calla lilies at Trader Joe’s compared with $10 to $20 for 10 stems at the San Francisco Flower Market. Potted plants such as rosebushes, bromeliads, and herb gardens at Trader Joe’s typically sell for at least 20 percent below what they go for elsewhere, including nurseries.
Trader Joe’s stocks about 60 cheeses at any one time, and with a fairly compact display space, the turnover is fast, keeping it super-fresh, says Cherie Twohy, owner of the Chez Cherie Cooking School in Los Angeles and author of “The I Love Trader Joe’s Cookbook” (not affiliated with the store). Twohy particularly recommends the Toscano with Black Pepper ($7.99 per pound) for serving shaved over pasta.
4. Nuts and Trail Mixes
Variety alone makes this category impressive. Trader Joe’s stocks 20 different types of trail mix, including peanut butter cup, mango and cashews, raspberry and chocolate, wasabi, and even espresso bean. And the prices are right, too — 12-ounce bags of Trader Joe’s trail mix cost $3.99 to $4.99, in some cases more than a dollar below supermarket prices. When it comes to nuts, Trader Joe’s carries five different varieties of almonds alone.
5. Toilet Paper
Trader Joe’s 100 percent recycled toilet paper scored a “green” rating on the Natural Resources Defense Council tissue guide in 2009, based on the percentage of post-consumer fiber used (80 percent) and the chlorine-free bleaching process used to make it. And while Charmin and Cottonelle (both of which the NRDC slapped an “Avoid” label on) typically sell for $8.99 for 12 rolls, Trader Joe’s rolls sell for less than half that ($3.99 for 12). Take that, Mr. Whipple!
6. Maple Syrup
This may be the sweetest bargain in the store, with Trader Joe’s Grade A Medium Amber maple syrup from Canada costing just $5.49 for 12 ounces. Time Out Chicago rated this the best-tasting maple syrup in a blind taste test, beating, among others, Whole Foods’ store label syrup, which cost 60 percent more.