An Anthropologist at Trader Joe’s

I am a recluse, so I don’t go many places.

When I do go places, because I have to cook for a sizeable number of people, those places often involve groceries.

When I want ordinary groceries, like milk, I go to the ordinary grocery store, Stop and Shop.

When I want to feel wealthy, I go to Whole Foods, where six green peppers, four tangelos, a pound of coffee and two packages of Beyond Burgers costs $200.

But when I want to feel embraced by the 21st century, I go to Trader Joe’s.

I often go with my daughter. Francie used to work at Trader Joe’s, as a beverage manager. She still likes to visit the planet, as she puts it. One of her ideas was that working at Trader Joe’s was a way to study life and people without going to college and taking dry classes, such as statistics, to become a cultural anthropologist.

She was correct.

 If you might want to be an anthropologist someday, Trader Joe’s definitely is the place to be.

Trader Joe’s is a culture, not a store, and in this culture the creators crested, everything is intentional. Everything is intentional and intended to buoy (and yes, I use that word advisedly) the spirits of those who work there and the spending of those who visit.

Thus, everything is a big deal, including checking out and paying for your groceries, when, if you are lucky, the crew member checking you out will ring a ship’s bell. People who work at Trader Joe’s are called “crew members” and “mates” because the whole setup, including the Hawaiian shirts, is inspired by working on a trading ship.

Trader Joe’s was started by importers, and much of the food still is imported from Mexico and Italy and Germany. All of the foods, like all of the crew members, are peppy and cleverly named. You can buy Gone Bananas at Trader Joe’s, which are individual banana slices covered in chocolate. You can buy Bollywood popcorn, covered with turmeric and garam masala.

You can buy Apple Pie-flavored cheddar cheese and Vegan Kale Cashew and Basil pesto to put on your cauliflower gnocchi. You can buy Brie Mini Bites so you don’t eat a whole wheel of brie and suffer remorse. You can buy Simpler Wine, which is still wine in a can, but because the can is blush or teal, you need not suffer remorse for being a wino.

You can visit the artists. Yes, even a small Trader Joe’s like the one near my house employs actual artists, who draw the signage as well as amusing posters and murals. They are artists, and they don’t do anything else. Francie says that, as they are moody, they occasionally don’t even do the art.

The whole ethos of Trader Joe’s is natural and organic, but deeply contradictory. It is abundant life in a package.

The names keep that upbeat feeling humming. It is interesting to note (Francie did) that many of the names of things can be sung to the tune of “Eleanor Rigby,” just as most of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, in common meter, an iamb, can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas or Amazing Grace.

You poets out there already know this; but it’s still fun for the rest of us.

“I died for beauty but was scarce adjusted in the tomb …”

“Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me …”

Think of the old Beatles lyric:  “Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name …”

Fat Free Ricotta.

Shelled Edamame.

Three Seed Beet Cracker.

Mini Beef Tacos.

I often don’t get to Trader Joe’s until nearly noon. As a recluse, it takes a while even for me to work up the candle to drive all the way to Hyannis, which is only a twenty-minute trip, but is a big deal for people who live where I live. Hyannis, Massachusetts, home to 14,000 souls, is considered a “city” on Cape Cod. So, going to the city requires eye makeup, just as going “off Cape,” that is, driving over the bridge that connects Cape Cod to the mainland, is considered something you do seasonally, like taxes or dental scaling, requiring in-car beverages and an occasional rest.

Francie says I should go earlier to really see good anthropological content.

The people she calls “the sharks” are waiting outside at 8 a.m. They are quadruple Type A personalities, who have already spent two hours at the gym. Francie says, “They had their morning coffee when I was going to bed.” They want energy bars, the two salads they will eat that day while talking, like Kardashians, and especially, kombucha, which Francie describes as a probiotic-rich fermented juice grown from a phlegm ball.

The ordinary shoppers start to come in during the hours between ten and noon, and they are shopping not just for the food, but for the experience. Trader Joe’s is renowned for its sample stations. There are usually three sample stations going at any given time – coffee-flavored whipped cream, Stilton on crackers with avocado slices and pear jam, Mandarin Orange Chicken. Although all of the stores are set up to maximize customer flow, there’s a big traffic jam in the grocery aisle.

“People like to compare the rices,” says Francie. “All the jasmine rice is gone well before noon.” Trader Joe’s sells about twenty different kinds of nut butters, including Joe’s Crunchy Peanut Butter with Flax and Chia Seeds as well as almond and hazelnut and sunflower. They range, as Francie says, “from single ingredient to the kind with a specialized sugar that could kill your dog if he ate it.”

The spices (remember, it’s a trading ship model) are transfixing.

They all come in grinders, which is “sick,” according to my daughter, who means that in the good, 21st-century way, and the spice isle (yes that’s “isle” not “aisle”) also features coffee barbecue rub, aioli garlic mustard, lime chili broccoli shake, and Everything But the Bagel, a frankly addictive jarred mixture of seeds and salt that you shake on top of the cream cheese. My brother-in-law will not travel without this in his suitcase.

Ranged above the groceries are the delights: Kringle all the way from Racine, Wisconsin, which is the only place they make this kind of ringed Danish outside of Denmark, and Scandinavian Swimmers candy. Obviously, this candy name is a little joke on the jelly candy called Swedish Fish. But Swimmers are in the shape of what Francie describes (I don’t think this is on the package) as testicle-crushing sea monsters colored with spirulina and fruit-vegetable extract. They come in four flavors. For example, the blue dolphin is huckleberry. You see? Natural, organic, in a package.

The lunch rush is comprised of business people purchasing their cold brew and their third salad of the day.

Next come what Francie calls the Joe-Mamas. They are nice people, mothers and kids or families who have kids not quite old enough for school or home sick but not really that sick, and they buy Joe’s Diner Mac n’ Cheese and soy chorizo.

There’s a very small lawyer and her very tall teenager, who’s home schooled, and a guy with a job who couch surfs for ethical reasons whom the crew members call Semi-Homeless Steve, who complains when the jasmine rice is sold out but later comes back and apologizes- as well as Josh, Inez, and Micah. Inez is the manager of the Starbucks and Josh is the manager of Saturday Cycles, and their kid, Micah, who is also home-schooled, loves Trader Joe’s so much that the crew members had a “Micah” name tag made for him.

“At four or five, people are seventy percent of the way to Netflix by then,” Francie says. They’re running out of steam, they don’t know if they have a gluten intolerance or if they’re bloated because they ate three quarters of a loaf of toast with green pepper and spinach cream cheese, but they’re generally happy. They’ve tried every sample in the store three times, they’ve topped off their Prosecco steeped with fruity tea bags, they don’t make outrageous demands and ask why questions about the way the jasmine rice sold out so fast.

People who bag their own groceries show up later at night. These are shoppers on a drop and drag mission. They know what they want and they are going for it like heat-seeking missiles. Some of them are serious home cooks or chefs from local restaurants, who can tell the fresh pomegranate seeds from the hangers on. They also are competitive baggers, who could bag for England.

Francie says that when she worked there, she dazzled these cats with her own bagging. She could move faster than a rumor at a Taylor Swift concert. “The competitive baggers wanted to see how far I would go,” Francie says. “I know before they even tell me that they want their frozen items separate, and their meat in compostable bags, rubber bands on their berries, because you know what kind of tragedy forgetting that can lead to.”

Francie would distract the anxious baggers with pleasantries, such as how mother makes lasagna just like Carmella Soprano did, if Carmella Soprano had been a vegetarian. She would make a square tower in the bag, and then whisk the croissants and the brown eggs from the right hand side of the bag where she had kept them in abeyance for the last critical placement.

“Kid,” one of the professionals once told her. “You are an inspiration to me in my bagging life.”

The last people to check out are the stragglers, who feel guilty for having worked so late and are bringing their kids chocolate caramel coins for still loving them. Keenan, the guy who wears a kimono and knows all the words to the Big Butt song, has begun the big sweep. The artists are drawing seagull kites. The crew in Hawaiian shirts drift colorfully past the lighted windows.

It’s like life, natural and organic – but in a package. – JM

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