Until Trader Joe's opens Friday in Tampa, Cynthia Olszewski is more than willing to drive an hour from Tampa to Sarasota to shop at the Trader Joe's there. Michelle Bauer of St. Petersburg does, too. Robert Wagner drives 45 miles from Port Charlotte to the Sarasota store, which he says makes him only half the fanatic his daughter is.
“My daughter, she's here all the time,” Wagner says, standing in the back parking lot behind the Sarasota store because that's the only open parking space he could find nearby. “We knew Trader Joe's from when we lived up north, and it's just exceptional.”
Ask loyal Trader Joe's shoppers what makes the store so special and they'll rattle off a long list. The quirky products. The huge selection of organic or gluten-free or artificial-ingredient-free foods. But one thing that particularly thrills them is the “Treasure hunt.” Unlike a traditional, large grocery store where nearly every item stays on the shelf from week to week, Trader Joe's regularly brings in special, temporary items. One week, it's a specialty cheese, the next a new Chai tea and a juice blend.
“I'm an impulse buyer and I love to try something different so I usually buy more than anticipated,” Olszewski said. “If my husband notices an unusual item in the fridge or pantry, he says 'Let me guess ...Trader Joe's.'”
The California-based Trader Joe's — which also has announced plans for a store in St. Petersburg — does not try to be everything to all shoppers. The stores average about 15,000 square feet, roughly the size of a Walgreen's drug store. Most of the inventory is Trader Joe's own brand, and it is very selective. Instead of six brands and sizes of paper towels, there is one — Trader Joe's brand, $3.99 for three rolls. Instead of 20 different cereals, there are five or six, mostly organic or health-minded or unusual. Somewhat like a Costco that brings in special items for a short period of time, Trader Joe's will cycle in quirky new products week to week. Last week, that included a Tunisian olive oil for $9.99, a jar of small peppers stuffed with olives for $3.49, and a coffee/cocoa mix jar for $5.99.
Most price tags and signs in the store are a hand-drawn genre, and Trader Joe's advertises with its own independent-spirit-theme approach.
“Welsh coal miners (or “Colliers”) of the Industrial Revolution learned that the flavor of a cheese sandwich could cut through the dust they'd been breathing since before dawn,” the company said in its weekly flier recently. “At Trader Joe's, we may have never worked the black seam, but we do appreciate the benefits of a good cheese. And, our Collier's Welsh Cheddar is probably the finest example of what real Cheddar can be!”
“I found a perfectly fine sparkling wine the other week that's great for a mimosa,” said Michelle Bauer, founder of the Common Language public relations firm in St. Petersburg. “Every time I end up in Sarasota for business, I bring along my refrigerated Trader Joe's bags and fill up my trunk.”
Trader Joe's cycles in many new wines, but the staple item that draws crowds is the “Charles Shaw Blend,” for $2.99, more commonly known as “Three Buck Chuck” by local fans.
Other more regular staples include a wide variety of frozen foods, including a Channa Masala Indian dinner for $3.49 and a vegetarian pizza for $4.49.
And quirkiness is a big part of the draw for Olszewski. “Things that seem to jump into my cart,” she said, include dark chocolate cherry ciabatta rolls, cinnamon roll bread, marcona almonds, refrigerated tamales (if available), and turkey meatballs.
Prices might be somewhat higher than traditional grocery stores on some items, but not dramatically so. A dozen large eggs cost $2.79. A 14-ounce pack of strawberries was $2.99.
“I don't really shop at Publix anymore,” Jean Arnold said while loading up her car at the Trader Joe's in Sarasota. “Maybe I'll go in there for something if I'm on the way, but I get most of my things at Costco, or the farmer's market and here. The frozen food is unbelievable, and there's always something different. You're lucky that you're getting one near you now.”
That store in Tampa opens at 8 a.m. Friday morning at 3808 W. Swann Ave.