How I, a Die-Hard Whole Foods Shopper, Became a Trader Joe’s Convert

Photo by Flickr user Christopher Long

Photo by Flickr user Christopher Long

My love affair with Trader Joe’s began innocently enough: I was walking back to our offices in Center City from West Philly after checking out the new Herban Quality Eats, and I realized I needed some honey for the next morning’s tea. I was passing by Trader Joe’s at 22nd and Market, so I stopped in. 10 minutes later, I walked out with not just honey — raw organic honey that cost me an impressive $4.99, by the way — but three avocados (99 cents each), some organic dog treats ($2.99!) and a ginger kombucha ($2.79, I believe). My total for all of these items came out to around $15 and my first thought was: This would never happen at Whole Foods.

I was hooked.

My love for Whole Foods runs deep. My mom always shopped at Whole Foods, even way back when it was Fresh Fields, and in D.C., where I’m from, there are Whole Foods stores all over the place. When I moved to Philly in 2010, I was shocked and disappointed to find that there were a measly two of them in the city (and no Chipotle in Center City at the time — the horror), but I stayed loyal, driving from the various homes I’ve lived at in Philly to either the South Philly or Callowhill location, or occasionally the Cherry Hill Whole Foods, which is basically heaven on earth and totally worth paying the toll for.

So why the obsession with Whole Foods? Well, as I’ve explained to many-a Trader Joe’s lover, it just feels nice. Like the pottery barn of grocery stores rather than the Ikea. And there’s so much stuff: 8,391 kombucha choices, all the produce I could ever need, freshly made sushi to eat for dinner once I get home, exhausted from the trek. And the lighting! It’s not the dizzying, unflattering fluorescent lighting of most grocery stores; it’s like mood lighting — perfect for wasting minutes in the olive oil aisle deciding whether I want a jar from Spain or Turkey or California, even though my unsophisticated palate will most definitely not be able to taste the difference.

But the fact that I was able to purchase 50 items at Trader Joe’s this weekend for just over $100 — enough food to get me through breakfast, lunch and dinner for two weeks — makes all of that Whole Foods lighting and selection appear less shiny, and more just, well, expensive. I have crossed over to the dark side, guys.

Since that first trip into Trader Joe’s about a month ago, I’ve been back once every week. There are many things I now love about Trader Joe’s and a few things I really don’t. When it comes to the aspects of the store that are responsible for my conversion, the top three look like this: cost (50 items for $109.13, guys!), the creativity of their items (chocolate covered everything, beet hummus, partially popped popcorn – for the crunchies! —Sriracha everything, sweet potato gnocchi, and the list goes on and on forever), and the friendliness of the people working there.

When it comes to cost, they have really good pizza dough for $1.19 (you can squeeze three small pizzas out of a ball!), avocados for less than a dollar each — which, in my experience, have not been refrigerated and therefore end up tasting creamier and better once they ripen than the usually refrigerated avocados from Whole Foods — and organic canned beans for less than a dollar. And that’s just naming three of the many, many shockingly inexpensive foods in the store. The most expensive thing I bought on my last trip to Trader Joe’s was a bag of shelled hemp seeds (full of protein, fellow meat-free folks!) for $5.99. I repeat: This would never happen at Whole Foods.

When it comes to the creativity of their items, it’s like they jumped into your drunk brain at 1 a.m. on a Friday night and asked, “If you could eat anything right, what would it be?” And then you said “Mini Oreo-like cookies with mint ice cream in the middle” — and they made them! Walking through Trader Joe’s is legitimately like walking through a drunk person’s brain, which makes it great — but they also kill it with the healthy picks, because it can’t be faux-Oreo ice cream sandwiches all the time. They’ve got out-of-the-box good-for-you items like beet hummus, frozen cauliflower “rice,” crunchy broccoli florets (think: kale chips, but broccoli) and so on. Whole Foods has a lot of stuff, but most of it is pretty straightforward.

And last but not least when it comes to Trader Joe’s greatness: The people, in their hideous Hawaiian shirts, are so nice! The last time I was there, as people waited in a line that stretched all the way back to the produce section (downside), a Trader Joe’s employee went around asking shoppers if there was anything they’d forgotten to grab. Because, of course, he’d be happy to grab it for them! Isn’t that the most thoughtful thing you’ve ever heard? They also walk around randomly shouting “How are you?!” to shoppers. Who does that? While slightly jarring, it also warms my heart.

There are downsides though: The line, to start. The line at Trader Joe’s is insane. The last time I was there, it started by the sweet potatoes at the very front of the store. When I said, “Whoa, this is crazy” to the guys who rang me up at the cash register, he said, “Not as crazy as usual.” Yikes.

Also, the lack of selection can be a bummer. You could never go to Trader Joe’s with a recipe in hand and know wholeheartedly that you’d be able to find everything on the list. They barely have any spices, their produce selection is pretty limited — their organic produce selection even more so — and they have one type of kombucha as compared to Whole Foods’s 8,391. So if I were in a time crunch and knew I needed certain ingredients that shouldn’t necessarily be hard to find but might be hard to find at Trader Joe’s, I would definitely go to Whole Foods instead. And as someone who doesn’t eat meat or soy, one thing that really annoys me is the fact that I haven’t been able to find seitan there. WTF, Trader Joe’s? Shopping at Trader Joe’s, you also lose out on learning about new local companies (which Whole Foods often brings into their stores) since the majority of the products are store-brand.

And one last downside, in my opinion: You really have to look out for the sodium counts in their packaged foods. You can down a full day’s worth of sodium easy with those things if you’re not careful.

But still, the aisles of foods I never knew I needed, all the friendly humans, and the post-shopping receipts that don’t make me want to fall down a ditch and die have all won me over, even with the downsides of the store. Whole Foods, was my first love — but I’ve moved on to Trader Joe’s now.

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