By Kakie Urch
The last time I was in a Trader Joe’s — other than my inaugural trip Saturday to the newly opened Lexington location on Nicholasville Road — I came within an inch of literally bumping into a handsome, white-haired California native debating the relative value of the smoothie a child was choosing from the array of more than 20 in the refrigerated case of my local “TJs” in Palm Springs.
The man seemed to be subtly cogitating for a more healthy choice among the many healthy options, with little apparent success.
He was in my way, clogging up the refrigerator case aisle. But this is normal at Trader Joe’s.
Everyone at Trader Joe’s is on their personal food safari. You’ve got all these food-oriented people with all this nutritional information in their heads creating a human Bernoulli equation as they go from item to item, trying to bag the perfect food trophy. They meander. They are thinking so much about their food, because they can, that it’s hard for them to notice straight lines or the customers around them. They are bees, going purposefully yet randomly from flower to flower with a biological pattern unique to their own needs.
Eh, let the guy take his time and make his case, I thought. It’s Trader Joe’s. It’s Palm Springs.
The gentleman was, of course, Steven J. Cannell, the producer and creator of Columbo, Baretta, The A Team, 21 Jump Street and The Commish. I deftly cut in and grabbed my Greek yogurt.
So how does the long-awaited Lexington, Kentucky Trader Joe’s compare to its California brethren? What can Kentuckians expect from the Pasadena-founded grocery store where being vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, low-carb, raw food, ovo-lacto, all fish, high as a kite with the munchies in board shorts and healthy as Henry Rollins are all the normal customer profiles?
Even in Kentucky, with the added “We brought it from California” surcharge on some items, Trader Joe’s is a place where, as its founders hoped, the over-educated and underpaid can complete their protein, meet their daily grams of whatever, and do it through a wide choice of Trader Joe’s brand products that are surprisingly affordable.
But don’t expect the aisles in Lexington — on Saturday at 7 p.m. thronged with about 250 people — to get that much more streamlined. The bees will continue to float from frozen microwavable Jasmine Rice to Trader Joe’s Greek yogurt at 27 cents less than Chobani in the name-brand grocery.
The food-only side of the physical store in Lexington is bigger than both my TJs in Palm Springs and bigger than the one in Culver City. And the California stores include the alcohol (beer and wine) selections in the same store as the food. In Lexington, because of Kentucky alcohol law restrictions, there is a separate store adjacent for alcohol. In Lexington, too, they seem to have made the aisles a little teeny bit wider.
But the Trader Joe’s products are the same — the three long frozen cases that hold items ranging from more than passable corn-wrapped tamales for $2.50 a pair to frozen versions of the meals you might order at your favorite Indian, Thai, Mexican or vegetarian restaurant. And because they are all Trader Joe’s brand, they are cheaper than the less tasty frozen meals you might buy elsewhere.
You can eat healthy for very little at Trader Joe’s and not feel deprived. The whole wheat pita break, the hummus (about 16 flavors), the Greek yogurt and (if you shop selectively) the produce, are all priced low. A wide variety of frozen vegetables — including asparagus spears, grilled, for less than $3, are there for budget shoppers. House brand coffee ranges from $4.99 to the simple Joe to $19.99 for pure Kona. Five good sized organic sweet yellow onions for $2.49. If you eat pasta and sauce most nights, penne is 99 cents and decent Trader Joe’s marinara is $2.59. Trader Joe’s has house brand versions of everything from enchilada sauce to red curry made up for less than regular groceries.
One of the twelve best meals I have eaten in my entire life is Trader Joe’s brand cornichons, ice cold, straight out of the jar on a 110-degree day.
If you don’t have to look at prices, you may prefer Fresh Market or Whole Foods to Trader Joe’s, but really, some of the quirky (and yummy) taste combinations put together in snack chips, dessert items, prepared items, conveniently packaged “guacamole packs” and rows of beverages including that yummy Italian blood orange soda my still be your bag. Trader Joe’s is a food safari.
Lexington’s Trader Joe’s was packed with people on Saturday. They were out of every single morsel of frozen Thai or Indian food. The “impulse buy” displays of “Powerberries” — dark chocolate covered blueberries, acai berries and raspberries were depleted. I chose to park in a far lot because the close lots were so crowded. There were no grocery carts available as they were all in use.
It felt like a California Trader Joe’s in most ways — folks weren’t yet on their individual flight of the bumblebee food quests because they were learning their way around the array. But everyone will find their favorite flowers.
And we can all just reach in over Coach Cal and grab our Greek yogurts.