Surprising Facts About Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's New York

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Trader Joe's New York
Alexi Rosenfeld/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images North America

Not Your Average Joe

Did you know there actually was a Joe behind Trader Joe’s? We didn’t, though we’ve been shopping at the founder’s quirky yet beloved grocery stores for years. That inspired us to take a closer look into the Trader Joe’s story. Read on for a sampling of tidbits we learned about the Aldi-owned chain of nearly 550 stores where employees wear Hawaiian shirts (and, yes, we’ll tell you why that is).

Related: How Do Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Aldi Stay So Cheap?

Trader Joe's Pasadena, California
Franklin M./Yelp

There Was a Real ‘Joe’

The Joe behind Trader Joe’s was Joe Coulombe, whose “national chain of neighborhood grocery stores” began in 1967 in Pasadena, California. Coulombe (1930-2020) had been running a small group of markets in the Los Angeles area, eventually buying them from the parent company before launching Trader Joe’s. The original Trader Joe’s on Arroyo Avenue in Pasadena remains open to this day.

Related: Why Trader Joe’s Employees Are Surprisingly Helpful and Happy

Artist's Palette With Brushes

Joe Knew His People

Coulombe offered a hand-picked selection of products “for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2011.

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Homemade granola with coconut and almonds

TJ’s First Private-Label Food Was …

Trader Joe’s selection is curated, with fewer products than a traditional grocery store and a heavy emphasis on private-label offerings, from Trader Joe’s to Trader Ming’s or Trader José’s, depending on the region of origin. Its first private-label product? Granola.

Related: Discontinued Trader Joe’s Products That Shoppers Miss the Most

Trader Joe's shirt

TJ’s Once Sold …

Trader Joe’s apparel was a short-lived foray from the early years. Though the stores sell items beyond food and drink, now it’s just such staples as greeting cards and flowers, household essentials such as laundry detergent, and goods such as Coconut Body Butter or a Peppermint & Tea Tree Shampoo Bar.

Related: Brand Mashups You Never Saw Coming

Trader Joe's
Trader Joe's by Daniel R. Blume (CC BY-SA)

The Nautical Theme Was There From the Start

The chain’s South Seas/nautical theme reaches all the way back to its roots, when Coulombe saw his offerings as distinctive, adventurous — and exotic. The shops still stock ingredients, cuisines, and traditions from across the globe.

Related: Trader Joe's Best Buys for Packing Your Freezer

Trader Joe's employee
Alexi Rosenfeld/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images North America

The Staff Is Part of the Theme

The store’s 1960s fascination with tiki culture extends to employees, called “crew members” like on a ship and with ranks such as crew, mate, merchant, or captain that reflect their responsibilities. “Vibrant, bold shirts are the ‘uniform’ worn by our crew of adventurous traders on the culinary seas,” TJ’s site says. 

Trader Joe's Bells
Trader Joe's Bells by Aranami (CC BY)

The Bells Have Meaning

Further adding to the nautical theme, Trader Joe’s shoppers will sometimes hear clanging bells — like on a ship. These avoid the need for an intrusive PA system by signaling everything from it being time to open a new register to a crew member needing a manager’s input.

Related: The Best Frozen and Ready-to-Eat Meals from Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's (Lent 10)
Trader Joe's (Lent 10) by Cathy Stanley-Erickson (CC BY-ND)

You May Ask to Sample Even If There Are No Samples

In our nearest Trader Joe’s, there’s a little table near the back where the store often offers samples of products (some stores are still not offering samples due to pandemic restrictions). But shoppers may reportedly ask any employee to let them sample a product before deciding to buy.

Related: The Best Snacks at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's pumpkin products
Jessica H./Yelp

The Food World Is Obsessive About ‘Joe’s’

When TJ’s launches a product, the food world takes note. The stuff you toss into your basket without a thought is chewed over quickly without fail by media such as Bon Appétit and the “Today” show, which race to be first to report what’s new on store shelves.

Related: The 29 Best Things to Buy at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's bag

The Company Led the Reusable Bag Trend

Reusable bags are everywhere now, but Trader Joe’s has been offering them since the late 1970s — with a “save-a-tree” canvas bag that pretty much started it all in this country. The company offers several designs and types, even collectible, regionally themed designs.

Related: 24 Earth-Friendly Habits That Can Save You Money

shopping at Trader Joe's
Johnny Louis/Contributor/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America
Happy young woman working at her living room

… But Trader Joe’s Is Online Everywhere

From podcasts to blogs, Facebook to Instagram, Pinterest to Twitter, Trader Joe’s keeps in touch with its customers about its products and their stories. (A recent podcast episode: “Trader Joe’s Noodles Around with Pasta and Olives,” including a chat with an Italian pasta supplier and a harvest-to-table segment on extra virgin olive oil.)

Related: The Best Fall Snacks at Trader Joe's

Bananas - Trader Joe's
Bananas - Trader Joe's by Aranami (CC BY)
Colorful recycle bins

Trader Joe’s Doesn’t Waste …

The company remains committed to sustainability, even during the pandemic. It composted more than 17.5 million pounds of organic materials last year and improved packaging, such as by switching to cardboard boxes for its cherry tomatoes from wasteful plastic clamshells.

Related: 21 of the Most Expensive Products at Trader Joe's

Woman with protective face mask helping collecting food in a homeless shelter
Vladimir Vladimirov/istockphoto

… and the Neighbors Benefit

Trader Joe’s has Neighborhood Shares Programs for each location to “donate 100% of products that go unsold but remain fit to be enjoyed.” The stuff goes to local food recovery agencies — in 2021 to the tune of nearly $349 million in food and beverages,  and through the Neighborhood Shares Program served 63 million meals to a "wide range of community recipients." 

Related: The Best Summer Treats at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's
Trader Joe's by Julie Sweeney (CC BY-NC)

Some Stores Sell Wine

This will be a surprise only in states that don’t allow Trader Joe’s to sell alcohol — but everyone else gets beer, wine, and sometimes liquor. (We’ve all heard of the famed “Two Buck Chuck,” the Charles Shaw wine first introduced in 2002 and sold for $2.) No matter where you are, though, you can take advantage of Trader Joe’s Guides offering such tips as “The Palate-Pleasing Partnership of Pinot Grigio & Potato Chips.”

Related: How to Spot a Good, Cheap Bottle of Wine

Trader Joe's
Trader Joe's by Liza Lagman Sperl (CC BY-NC-ND)
Italian ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and pesto
Juan Salvador Fernández Tamayo/istockphoto
Trader Joe's customer trolley shopping basket carrying carts by store entrance doors outside women, winter flower pots, gardening plants, pineapple in Virginia
Trader Joe's Houston
Regina N./Yelp

Trader Joe’s Has Moved Into Some Fixer-Uppers

There’s a Trader Joe’s in an old movie house in Houston and another in a former armory in  Media, Pennsylvania. One in Brooklyn, New York, is in a stately ex-bank.

Trader Joe's cookbook

There Is a Fan Club — And Cookbooks

There is a “Trader Joes Fan” page on Facebook, fan-driven websites dedicated primarily to recipes and product reviews or wholly to Trader Joe’s Reviews, and a “Club Trader Joe’s” that has an FAQ just about the chain’s famous Speculoos Cookie Butter. There are also a surprising number of Trader Joe’s-themed cookbooks, including the “I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook” 10th anniversary edition of “150 Delicious Recipes Using Favorite Ingredients From the Greatest Grocery Store in the World.”

Related: Clever and Practical Cookbooks to Give Everyone on Your Gift List

Trader Ming’s Mandarin Orange Chicken
Jan Z./Yelp

The Company Has Customer-Choice Awards

Think you’re the only one obsessed with Trader Ming’s Mandarin Orange Chicken? The perennial crowd-pleaser topped the Favorite Overall list in the latest annual Customer Choice Awards, followed closely by Everything But The Bagel Seasoning Blend, Cauliflower Gnocchi, Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups, and Unexpected Cheddar.

Make a List and Stick to It

Trader Joe’s Will Help You Plan Your Visit

The Trader Joe’s site not only offers recipes, facts and figures, and blogs — but allows you to create a shopping list via categories such as “What’s New,” ingredients, and meals, while filtering results by options ranging from kosher to organic, Fair Trade to gluten-free.

Low angle view of a corner entrance to a Trader Joe's grocery store in the downtown area.
Colleen Michaels/istockphoto
Trader Joe's shopper
Trader Joe's shopper by Elvert Barnes (CC BY-SA)

You Can Request Your Own Store

If you have a bit of a drive to hit the nearest Trader Joe’s, you can ask for a store closer to home. The company takes suggestions for new locations