Quirky comes to town: Trader Joe's opening

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Looking for puffed rice flavored with spinach and kale? Have a hankering for ginseng ginger ale or maple-rosemary marinade?

Well, Baltimore, your wait is almost over.

You'll be able to find those items and more at Trader Joe's, a quirky cross between a health-food store, supermarket and discount center, which opens Friday in Towson.

This will be the fourth Maryland location for the company that started as a convenience store in California and has grown to 131 locations in 11 states by catering to consumers who relish the unusual but don't want to pay a lot for it.

"We've had 15 calls a day from people wanting to know when we're opening," said Mark Grumbach, the store's manager, who is called "commander" in keeping with Trader Joe's nautical theme.

At Trader Joe's, the cashiers wear Hawaiian shirts, and the store is decorated with lobster traps, life preservers and fish nets. Stores are called ships, and employees are crew. The reason, the company says, is "We're traders on the culinary seas" with buyers traveling to Europe, Asia, Austria and South America to look for unusual products.

All of which add to the fun of shopping at Trader Joe's, said Madalene Palmer of Silver Spring, who shops regularly at the company's Rockville store.

"It's definitely a treat to shop here," she said. "It's not a chore like when I go to the other grocery store."

In Towson, Trader Joe's will take up a part of the old Hutzler's department store at Towson Circle, 1 E. Joppa Road, where it will operate from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.

Employees are filling the shelves with Trader Joe's famous tortilla chips and spaghetti sauce. Bone-shaped dog toys hang from the wall, and milk, eggs and juice will soon stand in the refrigerated display cases.

Trader Joe's fans will find all their favorites, although as in its other Maryland locations in Rockville, Gaithersburg and Bethesda, there will be no alcohol.

A word of caution, however. Don't look for Coca-Cola, Campbell's soups, Friskies cat food or other well-known brands.

Almost everything in the store features the Trader Joe's label. And there isn't a lot of variety in sizes or packaging. At Trader Joe's there are about 2,000 items compared with 20,000 to 25,000 in a typical supermarket.

In many ways it is hard to categorize the store. Nearly all of Trader Joe's items are without additives or preservatives, yet Trader Joe's isn't a health-food store. There are plenty of cookies, chips and nuts that attest to that.

And while prices for many of the items are lower than in some supermarkets, the store is too small to be a warehouse.

Trader Joe's items range from cat scratching pads with organic catnip to multigrain breads to handmade wrapping paper, but there is no deli counter to speak of, only a limited amount of fresh meats and a small selection of produce.

Trader Joe's doesn't offer coupons or special deals. It doesn't sell products at a loss to attract customers; all items must pay for themselves or they are discontinued.

"We're not all things to all people," said Matt Sloan, captain of the Rockville store, who says customers' reasons for shopping at Trader Joe's vary. "Some go for party snacks. Some go for health food. Some say, 'It is my everyday store.' Some for gifts."

Trader Joe's began in 1958 as a chain of convenience stores called Pronto in the Los Angeles area. In 1967, the president, Joe Coulombe, expanded the store's offerings, adding hard-to-find wines and gourmet foods. He also changed the name to Trader Joe's.

Part of the appeal of Trader Joe's is the thrill of scanning the shelves, where the unusual nestles up beside the ordinary.

Trader Joe's Mostly Unsplit Pea Soup stands beside Trader Joe's Chicken Noodle Soup. A can of hearts of palm is a shelf above the instant mashed potatoes.

Sloan says if he had to pick one item to epitomize the company, it would be Trader Joe's Peanut Butter Pretzels, which sell for $2.49 for a 1-pound bag. "The flavor is great, the pricing is good. They are kosher. They are hard to find elsewhere."

About 15 items are introduced in stores each week and two teams of buyers are constantly on the lookout for new products. "The main thing they look for is value," said Scott Lane, regional vice president. "They look at the price. Is it organic? Is it unique?"

Because many of the products are unusual, Sloan says Trader Joe's can be a difficult place to shop for those not used to it. "We try to head that off with a warm feeling. And real approachable people," he said.

The crew will offer suggestions on how to serve unfamiliar items and answer questions about nutrition and health concerns.

Ruth Hayn of Rockville says she shops at Trader Joe's when she entertains her bridge club. "It's the one place you can go to find different things," she said. "It's definitely impulse buying."

Madalene Palmer makes the trip to Trader Joe's once a week. Her dog likes the store's dog biscuits, and she likes the coffee. She says she saves on tofu slices, which are $1.99 a package compared to $2.49 in her supermarket.

Always she ends up with something she hadn't planned on buying, like fruit-flavored water or soybean stew. "There is very little I don't end up liking," she said.

The opening of the Towson store comes as part of a major company expansion that will soon see stores in Chicago and Pennsylvania, Lane said. He said the company had been looking to open in Baltimore for some time, but needed an affordable space to lease. It found 8,600 square feet in the bottom level of the Towson Circle development and is looking for other locations in the Baltimore area.

Jeffrey W. Metzger, publisher of the Columbia-based trade journal Food World, says Trader Joe's appeals to a segment of customers seeking more healthy foods. "The typical shopper would use Trader Joe's as an augmentation to the weekly shopping list," he said.

The chain isn't a threat to Giant or Safeway, although Metzger said the big supermarkets will be monitoring Trader Joe's success.

Grumbach says he expects the Towson Trader Joe's to attract customers throughout the Baltimore area, although some may come from even farther.

Chris Baker, an artist, is so taken with Trader Joe's that once a month he drives 60 miles from his home in Hagerstown to shop in the Rockville store. "I come for the quality of the food," said Baker, who was stocking up on organic coffee and soy milk. "They have the best prices and a selection you can't find anywhere else."

Trader Joe's most popular items:

Tortilla chips

Peanut-butter-filled pretzels

Frozen shrimp

Frozen edamame (soybeans)

Smoked salmon

Frozen vegetarian entrees

Chicken, bean and rice burrito

Goat cheese

Soy milk

Eggs

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