Do you remember the first time you went grocery shopping on your own? For college students or other newly minted adults, choosing your own food and deciding what to cook for the week probably seemed exciting. Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, the novelty quickly wore off.
Enter Trader Joe’s. The 50-year-old self-proclaimed neighborhood grocery store has grown into a national chain known for its quirky culture and delicious food. Take, for example, the chain’s famous Cookie Butter, which is basically spreadable cookies. What more could you want for your breakfast toast?
The best part of Trader Joe’s, however, is that the more you learn about the chain, the more there is to love. This video gives some of the highlights.
When you walk in the store for the first time you might think that you’ve just found a cute supermarket, but from inside jokes to special bell codes to great employee benefits there’s a whole host of secrets hidden behind those doors.
Here are the most crazy cool secrets you might not have known about Trader Joe’s.
1. There was an original Trader Joe.
Let’s start with the basics: Where did that name come from? The chain was founded by Joe Coulombe, who opened the first store in Pasadena, California, in 1967 (you can still shop at the original location today).
Company lore has it that Coulombe, who graduated from Stanford Business School, came up with the idea for a unique market while he was traveling in the Caribbean. He thought that better-educated Americans were becoming interested in foods from other cultures, according to an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Those foods were hard to find in your average supermarket back in the 1960s, so Coulombe became a trader, bringing hard-to-find foods to his customers at great value.
Like any good trader, Coulombe knew when to sell. German entrepreneur Theo Albrecht bought the chain in 1979, but Coulombe remained on board as the company’s chief executive until he retired in 1989.
2. The theme goes way beyond the Hawaiian shirts.
Remember how the original Trader Joe came up with the idea when he was in the Caribbean? That might help explain the tiki theme that is found at all Trader Joe’s locations, even in the dead of winter. The upper level staff in the stores wear Hawaiian shirts, and you may even get a floral lei just for doing your grocery shopping.
But the theme goes beyond just what meets the eye: It also factors into the titles for employees. All employees are crew members, and supervisors are known as mates. And as for the store manager? You guessed it: They're the captain.
3. They sell big-name brands under their own label.
Trader Joe’s is well known for having great food sold under the store brand. You might wonder what the secret is, and the truth is that it’s all in the packaging. The company works with major brands to sell their product under the store’s label.
While that’s great for customers, sometimes it can lead to real confusion for staff.
“I remember a whole batch of yogurt coming in once in Trader Joe's cups with Stonyfield lids,” a former employee from Massachusetts recalls. “That was crazy because we couldn't stock the yogurt until we got new lids. Those agreements with name brands are very closely guarded.”
4. There are some exceptions to the “try anything” rule.
Trader Joe’s famously allows customers to try anything in the store, unless the product is something that has to be cooked. You would think most people would understand that, but customers still try to request free bites of everything from chicken soup to bison burgers, says Tom Wallace, who worked at a Trader Joe’s in Massachusetts for five years.
“I have certainly had customers ask if they could sample these items and had to politely explain why we couldn’t,” he says. “Although, it should have been obvious.”
However, the chain does its best to let customers try food that must be cooked by setting up tasting stations. Sometimes that’s to get people to try something new, but sometimes it’s to correct an ordering error, says Amanda Pouncy, who worked at a Trader Joe’s in Texas for two years.
“Sometimes we make a mistake on ordering and end up with a ton of an item that normally would sell one or two units a month, and we have to improvise,” she explained. Those items end up in the tasting booth.
Pouncy admitted that sometimes employees took advantage of the taste anything policy.
“Don't tell my captain,” she jokes, “but we definitely used to pick out our favorite ice cream sandwiches and open them, then pretend that a customer asked for a sample, just so we could have a nice treat in the summer. Texas gets hot and sometimes when you're pulling carts from the middle of a parking lot with no shade all you want is a sublime ice cream sandwich.”
But it isn’t a food-eating free-for-all. Wallace once saw a customer reprimanded for abusing the try-anything policy.
“She would bring candy to the demo area and ask for a sample and then grab a handful,” he said. “Good try. She was eventually told by the store manager that she was taking advantage of the policy.”
5. But that other famous rule has no exceptions.
In addition to letting customers try nearly anything, Trader Joe’s advertises their no-questions-asked return policy. That one is 100 percent true.
“I've had people return dead plants before, and we did give them their money back but we definitely talked about them in our closing circle later on in the evening,” Pouncy said.
That’s right, Trader Joe’s employees all take part in a closing circle at the end of the shift. How cute is that?
“The closing circle is when the crew gets together for a little chat about the plans for the evening after customers have left the store,” Pouncy explains. “We might try some new food, drink some coffee, and then jump head first into stocking the store for the following day of business.”
6. They operate a secret code.
If you’ve ever been in a Trader Joe’s, chances are you’ve heard the bells at the register and wondered what that’s all about.
“TJ’s does not use a PA system in the store unless it is an urgent matter,” Wallace explains. Instead, they turn to the bells.
One ring of the bell signals that more cashiers are needed up front. Ringing two bells indicates that a customer at the register needs assistance that the cashier cannot provide, and the sound of three bells signals that a supervisor’s assistance is needed for the transaction.
Wallace notes that you may not hear one bell too often, since Trader Joe’s prides itself on customer service in the extreme.
“If any crew member saw a customer waiting in line and there was an open register you were expected to check that customer out no matter what you were doing,” he says.
7. They seriously support local artists.
If you’ve ever taken the time to notice the signs in a Trader Joe’s, you’ve already seen that they are each unique. That’s because the chain has a dedication to supporting artists, who produce everything from murals in the store to the price tags on the shelves. This is about a lot more than just making a charming environment, according to one artist who has worked at Trader Joe’s for 10 years.
“I think it's important in this day in age to connect with people face to face and by putting actual pen to paper or marker to board,” she says. “It reminds us how things used to be before we had so much screen time.”
Artists work on signs, murals, and the Fearless Flyer magazine that is available at stores. The artist we spoke to emphasized that this isn’t just corporate branding, but genuine appreciation for artistic connection.
“They've supported me by giving me lots of freedom to create signs, murals, and decorations for the store,” she says. “You get an opportunity to engage with the customers by what you say on the sign.”
Former TJ's employee Pouncy added that the artists who work with Trader Joe’s have an almost mythical reputation.
“There are a few talented people in every store who practice lettering in tiny offices that no customer ever sees or knows exist, and they make amazing decorations that hardly ever get the attention they deserve,” she says. “The character that these tiny art exhibits, displays, and murals give TJ’s is unlike any store, and it's what makes TJ’s all its own.”
8. They treat the rest of their employees well too.
Working at a grocery store may not be the most glamorous job, but Trader Joe’s employees insist that it’s a great one. Not only does the store foster teamwork by having all employees do all jobs, but it also puts its money where its mouth is.
“The pay is well above any hourly rate you would receive at a traditional supermarket,” former employee Wallace says.
Both he and Pouncy say that they received reviews every six months, which generally came with a pay increase.
“I received about four raises while I was working there, and that's more than any job I've had since,” Pouncy explains.
Plus, there is always opportunity for advancement.
“Also anyone who worked hard and expressed an interest in growth could easily move into a more involved role,” Wallace says.
9. They’re a little nuts about customer service.
Trader Joe’s employees are trained from their first day on the job to put customer service first. Wallace says that he first thought the store’s protocol was a little over the top, but he soon realized that it’s how all stores should operate.
“We've all had the experience of wandering around a store looking for an employee to assist you and getting more and more irritated the longer it takes,” he says. “I can guarantee that this will rarely, if ever, happen at TJ’s.”
Crew members aren’t just trained to answer customers’ questions but to actively engage with customers. The dedication shows. One frequent shopper says that a Trader Joe’s employee noticed her haircut before her husband did.
Pouncy says that in return customers are equally enthusiastic about their favorite products at Trader Joe’s.
“When I was managing the deli section I got harassed for a good year because of an item that was out of stock and completely out of my control,” she said. “I know the soy chorizo is good but I can't control that!”
The next time you visit a Trader Joe’s, be sure to pause to appreciate this wild and wacky culture!