Pirates Target Union Square


Portions of this article have been updated.

For New Yorkers who love nothing more than food—except a bargain—shopping trips to distant locales can become beloved weekend rituals. We relish the prices at the uptown Fairway, Costco, and the California chain Trader Joe’s. But it’s more than that—we city-dwelling office slaves who actually use our kitchens often fall into the expensive and uninspiring habit of picking up a few things on the way home from work, so the idea of pushing a cartful of edibles through a parking lot is a ridiculously exciting prospect. It’s the American dream, no?

Trader Joe’s has several locations just under an hour away from the city, in Westchester, on Long Island, and in New Jersey. Foodies have forever organized giddy daytrips to stock up on their brand-name goods, many of which are organic and bafflingly well priced. But come April, they should be able to swing by 142 East 14th Street, where the chain’s first New York City store will be open, poised to contend with the Whole Foods yuppie monster that erupted last year.

The price points and general styles of these two stores will no doubt make for entertaining comparison shopping. Much of Whole Foods’ stock is overpriced, but the in-house label has taken a smart approach, with basic items like peanut butter, olive oil, and whole grains (have you heard? They’re all the rage!) available in unadulterated forms and at lower prices than the name brands. Don’t you always buy the Duane Reade Tylenol?

But the prices can’t beat Trader Joe’s. The company perfected a similar model long ago, taking it to a further extreme—their stores are dominated by Trader Joe’s brand merchandise, which ranges from simple and anonymous (rice cakes, chicken stock) to unique creations (their frozen tamales are wildly popular.) Although Whole Foods will be threatened in the snack food category, and on many grocery staples, Trader Joe’s does a humble business in produce, and humbler still in meat and fish, which are packaged and random.

Trader Joe’s Union Square will also sell wine and beer, which is a big draw at their suburban stores. In New York City, though, we have a fantastically uptight law that says a food store and a wine store must have separate entrances at street level. Whole Foods learned just how strict this rule was when the wine section in their Columbus Circle shop was shut down last year and they were forced to pay a $5,000 fine, because the entrances (which were indeed separate) were underground. We imagine Trader Joe’s will be careful about this. Meanwhile, Whole Foods’ liquor license will not go to waste—they’ll use it at the new Houston Street store when it opens.

Both stores are deeply invested in the products they sell. Trader Joe’s website provides an abundance of information about the policies behind their purchasing (anti-genetic modification, anti duck-abuse, etc.), as does Whole Foods’, which has an entire section entitled  “Issues”. The biggest difference is aesthetic. At Whole Foods, the design is clean and cheerful, modern but designed to not intimidate. Trader, as the name indicates, actually has a pirate theme. The aisles are distinguished with signs posted on wooden planks with handwritten block letters reading “NUTS,” “DRIED FRUIT,” etc. The manager is referred to as the captain, and the assistant manager’s card reads “Kristine Shehady/First Mate.” If you’re sick of yuppies, get ready for a goofy, lovable camp counselor vibe.

Embarrassingly, I had never been to a Trader Joe’s, so when the Union Square rumors were confirmed on their website a few days ago, I made a pilgrimage to Westfield, New Jersey to experience the thrifty homemaker fantasy before it becomes all too easy to hop on the Q train carrying some hummus. Posted all over the parking lot were signs announcing a one-hour time limit—”strictly enforced”—which put me in a Supermarket Sweep panic. The Westfield store is not large (the Manhattan spot will be bigger, though not nearly the gargantuan mess that Whole Foods is), but I am an infuriatingly indecisive label-reader, so it was a challenge.

In the end I spent $80 and could hardly fit the booty in my kitchen. Here are some highlights: hippy toothpaste for $1.99! (Tom’s of Maine at Whole Foods starts at $3.99), 1/2 gallon organic milk for $3.29! (instead of $4.99 at my local grocer). Trader Joe’s organic Yogurt for $2.69! (Stonyfield brand is $3.79 at the Met supermarket). These and all prices will be the same at the new location. Shawn, the Westfield manager—oops!—I mean, “Captain” told me so.

The best purchase, though, was a huge container of dark chocolate covered raisins ($3.49), which really came in handy during my lengthy, miserable, unplanned tour of every highway ramp in stupid New Jersey. When I finally got home, the wine was even more appreciated.