By George Capsis
Consumer Reports, once again, voted family-owned Wegmans as the number one supermarket in America but West Villagers need not despair, Trader Joe’s came in third. Oddly CR gave Trader Joe’s a low rating for the quality of its produce, meats and baked goods—so how come number three?
CR likes the “store courtesy” in both chains but Wegmans repeatedly makes the Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For and Trader Joe’s college campus-like employee benefits attract smiling, self-contained, checkout clerks who easily talk about the novel they are writing between shifts.
I agree with the assessment—at Trader Joe’s when it comes to produce I only buy the nineteen cent bananas (I pick the big ones) and cello-pack spring mix greens, and that’s about it. I never buy the meats—I mean they have no butcher—everything comes in packaged from god-only-knows and, anyway, Ottomenelli has the best meats around. For produce I will, when I get the courage, bike to Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester and Elizabeth (Chinese housewives are nuts on freshness, and while you wait will mordantly finger their way through thirty pieces of bok-choy before discovering Mr. Perfect, and an apple with a tiny ding is half price.)
No, there is no question the long but rapidly moving Trader Joe’s check-out line (30 registers) which often start shortly after you enter the store and wend all the way through (you can shop while on the line) is there for one reason and one reason only—price
Since my older brother, John, handed my mother a formally typed resignation from the family at about age fourteen, I had to do all the run-down-four-flights and up again shopping. Back in the thirties, prices simply never moved. A quart of milk was 11 cents, a pound of potatoes 5 cents and a loaf of Wonder Bread 11 cents (it was hard to sell so they made an 8 cent loaf.) Depression prices for staples are laser etched in my mind, so I instinctively measure each store by the price of its staples. Even though prices are a bit higher than in 1937, you can still price measure by staples. See the chart provided.
So, OK, you can see at a glance that Trader Joe’s is dramatically cheaper for staples but that is not the only reason I bike all the way up to 21st and 6thAvenue.
One CR reader complained that Trader Joe’s was not a “real” super market because they only carried their own brands, and for the most part that is true (They do have to succumb to really powerful brands like Fage Greek Yogurt.)
But think about it—as a Trader Joe buyer you can travel around the world talking to food producers dangling a multi-million dollar purchase order if only they would put the Trader Joe name on it, which brings me to the second reason I shop at Trader Joe’s.
Trader Joe’s is the only place you can get international frozen food. I mean, in five minutes I can microwave Linguine with Pesto made in Italy and then have a pear pie made in France—from Rome to Paris.
Supermarkets pass on their ever increasing New York City rents in the prices you pay, but Trader Joe’s keeps them the same in all of its four hundred and ten stores, except for its Chardonnay—which is $2 in California but $3 in New York.
Wegmans will open its first store in New York City at the Brooklyn Navy Yards in 2017, but that is too far to shop even with a cart. I have unsuccessfully recommended that we open Pier 40 to a Farmers Market (they tried it outside but not enough traffic) but Pier 40 would make a good location for a Wegmans or Trader Joe’s. I mean if I, in my decrepit condition, can bike up to 21st Street for $65 of staples and frozen exotica, I think West Villagers can get themselves to the North wing of Pier 40 in order to exalt in shopping in the largest Trader Joe’s in America.
Yes, insane rents have driven up supermarket prices in the West Village, but huge successful chains like Trader Joe’s or Wegmans can amortize lower prices over their hundreds of stores and make it up in thirty check-out registers’ volume.
(I am going to mail this article to Wegmans and Trader Joe’s and the first to answer gets a thirty-year lease at Pier 40.)