A Handy Guide to Maximizing Your Trader Joe’s Experience

A dozen hot tips on how to navigate the winningly affordable grocery chain that’s spreading like wildfire


As retail goes down, Trader Joe’s goes up. Selling cheap, innovative, relatively unpolluted foods, the store attracts lengthy lines — and they’ve been a mainstay of mine ever since they opened a TJ’s near me, on 32nd Street between Second and Third avenues. Having been there way more than therapy, let me relate the best ways to behave on the premises, and why:

• Go at 9 a.m. There aren’t as many cashiers, but still, it’s a sane time when you can get in and out pretty quickly. If you do have to go at a peak hour, rest easily knowing that they have thirty cashiers working and things can move pretty fast (if not as fast as at D’Agostino, where there’s no one).

• I can’t tell you what to get since it’s a matter of taste and need, but what the hell: Get toastable blueberry waffles ($1.99); marinated artichokes ($2.69); chicken shu mai ($2.99); farfalle (99 cents); skipjack tuna ($1.49); and whole kernel corn (89 cents). That last item is “naturally sweet and crisp. No sugar added, no preservatives.” But avoid the soups. They’re less than stellar, though they at least provide some contrast with the other merch: A store where every single thing is buyable would be a Twilight Zone nightmare come true and not worth visiting, let alone pretty much living in.

• Look around the produce, where there are delicious and fresh Fuji and Gala apples (49 cents each) and bananas (19 cents each). And on the side you’ll find offbeat desserts you wouldn’t ordinary see unless you scouted the area. I got a $6.99 chocolate cake that’s a wow.

• Make sure to visit the free sample corner and take whatever chorizo or cookie delight they’re offering that day. Don’t be ashamed. This is part of the fun, making it more theme park than supermarket.

• The workers are a kooky and varied bunch, and they radiate a glow that makes it seem like they’re well-treated. Be friendly and they’ll be friendly back. But bear in mind that the eccentric workers are way nicer than the customers. These are largely supermodel-looking CEOs who can’t be bothered with small talk. Don’t waste your time engaging unless you really want to know why the frozen burritos they’re stacking up on are so very special. (Out of sheer narcissism, they might just answer.)

• When you see these entitled customers loading up for the apocalypse — a familiar sight there, where people think a mild drizzle two days from now requires a month’s worth of food — sneak ahead on line. Look away as if you’ve done nothing wrong, and just carry on.

• Grab the impulse items on the way to the counter — they’re really good, not just guilty treats you’re taking out of panic. There are all kinds of inexpensive and interesting chips, chocolates, salsas, sodas, and other yummy things. Perfect for your next movie club.

• Also make a point of looking through the beauty products, an area you might not normally notice. The Vitamin E oil is a mere $3.99, which makes me feel wrinkle-free and beautiful just hearing about it.

• The $2.99 “multi-purpose cleaner” is a green dream come true, which has made the many purposes of my apartment absolutely sparkle.

• Try to avoid looking at the copious wall murals. They are generally of zombie-like people doing bizarre things, like one man holding a child upside down in a disturbingly gleeful manner. But I do love the exit pronouncement: “We Miss You Already!”

• When you’re checking out, keep the banter to a minimum. Just say “Plastic,” gather your shit, pay up, and get out. Time to enjoy the quirky glory and splendor of that great food. On the way home, stop briefly while passing D’Agostino and stick your tongue out.

• Maybe ride in in a wheelchair, but only if you mean it. When I had a bike incident last year, I glamorously wheeled to the front of the line every day, and I have to admit I sort of miss that royal treatment now. I should have kept that damned wheelchair!