Who Is Trader Joe’s For?

Food Features Trader Joe’s
Who Is Trader Joe’s For?

Once upon a time, I was a religious Trader Joe’s shopper, visiting the store around once per week, sifting through the frozen section to find the perfect post-work meal that would require as little work as possible on my part. I would peruse the aisle with the skincare and household items, sometimes picking out a new face scrub or dish soap. I’d grab a single-serve juice or kombucha or yogurt drink to sip on the way home. If I really felt like treating myself, I’d buy myself a $5 bouquet that would be dead and dry by the time I made it to my next TJ’s run.

These days, I frequent Trader Joe’s less than I once did, opting to visit the store only during the dead of winter when my mental health has taken a turn for the worse and I can’t imagine possibly cooking anything from scratch. Because let’s face it: Trader Joe’s is designed for people who can’t or don’t want to actually cook.

The first piece of evidence to support this assertion is the grocery chain’s famed frozen section. Unlike most grocery stores, where the frozen section is pushed to one side of the store or another, Trader Joe’s tends to place their aisles of frozen foods directly in the center of the store. When you walk into a TJ’s, it feels like you’re automatically shuffled into this section. The items aren’t placed behind the kinds of glass doors you see in other grocery stores; instead, you can reach directly into the freezers to grab the assortment of ready-made or almost ready-made meals waiting for you there. Although you can find packages of frozen broccoli or peas, you’ll mostly encounter foods that simply have to be reheated on the stove or in the microwave with very little effort required of the eater.

Walk to the snack section, and it’ll become even more obvious that Trader Joe’s caters to people who don’t cook much. The snacks at TJ’s are impressive, boasting unique flavor combinations that often aren’t available at other stores. These snacks appeal to those whose tastes might be more worldly than the average shopper but who still tend to snack on packaged foods more than, say, fresh fruit and vegetables or homemade granola bars that require lots of prep time.

It makes sense that Trader Joe’s would cater to the kind of customer who doesn’t often cook. According to Joe Coulombe, Trader Joe’s founder, the store is designed to appeal to people who are “overeducated and underpaid,” like those of us who have master’s degrees in the humanities and can’t always afford Whole Foods but who may want a more upscale experience than Aldi offers. These people may have demanding jobs that cut down on time available to cook, but they may not be making the kind of cash that can justify ordering DoorDash twice daily, therefore necessitating a Trader Joe’s frozen food stash in their freezers.

Trader Joe’s shoppers tend to be younger and therefore may not be shopping for a whole family; the store’s individually packaged ready-made options are ideal for just this kind of customer. While a Costco run may be a smarter financial decision for a big family who has plenty of room to stash bulk grocery purchases, Trader Joe’s can be a cheaper option for a household of only one or two people that live in an urban area where home food storage is limited.

There’s also a political component here; Trader Joe’s shoppers often skew liberal, where larger stores like Walmart appeal more to conservatives on average. Left-leaning customers are probably more likely to be interested in frozen soup dumplings or other international-inspired dishes than their more conservative counterparts—and TJ’s seems happy to deliver.

Young, left-leaning, busy city dwellers may not have the time, energy or skills to cook most of their meals from scratch, making Trader Joe’s an appealing option. That’s certainly why I was such a big Trader Joe’s fan in the past—it seemed like the most affordable option that would allow me to stock my pantry with food I actually wanted to eat.

As I’ve gotten older and learned how to cook with kitchen appliances more complicated than a microwave and air fryer, though, Trader Joe’s has lost some of its appeal. The popular chain is definitely not the best place to look for specific ingredients beyond niche internet-famous, Alison Roman-suggested favorites like harissa or preserved lemon. And there’s only so many snacks and frozen meals I can eat before I start craving something that wasn’t microwaved in plastic.

Trader Joe’s will always hold a place in my heart, of course, but it’s no longer a part of my weekly routine, perhaps because I have the luxury of working from home and actually enjoy cooking on a regular basis now. But as someone who remains overeducated and underpaid, I still can’t resist those $5 bouquets.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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