The gourmet grocers come to Pittsburgh

I am not a patient person. Indeed, there are few things I dislike more than having to wait for something; yet it was with great pleasure that I waited in a checkout line for 30 minutes during the grand opening of Trader Joe’s’ Pittsburgh store on October 27. The reason for my pleasure is simple: For a college student with a tight budget, a penchant for good food, and a taste for adventure, Trader Joe’s fits the bill.

It is hard to succinctly describe Trader Joe’s. Certainly it is a grocery store, but Giant Eagle is also a grocery store and it would not be fair to equate the two. Trader Joe’s can be described as a specialty foods store, or a natural foods store, or a health foods store, and all the descriptions are apt but incomplete. With products like gorgonzola walnut ravioli, burgundy pepper seasoned leg of lamb, and peppadew chevre commonplace, it would be easy to call Trader Joe’s a gourmet food store. Yet their selection of staples such as milk, bread, and butter, combined with their low prices, prevents such an association. Trader Joe’s makes it easy to eat healthy with products like soy and flaxseed tortilla chips, which contain six grams of protein and four grams of fiber per serving, and goji berry trail mix, yet you can just as easily indulge in more sinful items like chocolate gelato or French brie.

The store offers an impressive and exciting array of products ranging from basic to gourmet and domestic to international. Most of these products are packaged under Trader Joe’s private label and are unique to the chain. “I am really looking forward to trying out all of the private-label stuff,” said Leah Franczyk, a Greenfield resident who was at Trader Joe’s on October 28. “It’s healthy and reasonably priced; you can’t beat that.”

Her sentiment was mirrored by Kevin Platukis, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. “They have a lot of interesting products. I’m looking forward to taking full advantage of everything they have to offer when the grand opening rush dies down,” Platukis said. “That is, if it ever dies down,” he said.

Perhaps more impressive than the foods are the prices. At Trader Joe’s, most items are priced below what you would find at Giant Eagle or Whole Foods. Expecting to have well over $50 of groceries in my cart, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bill totaled less than $35. For instance, Kashi Go Lean cereal goes for $2.49 at Trader Joe’s but $3.79 at Giant Eagle; a gallon of skim milk, $2.79 at Trader Joe’s, costs $3.79 at Giant Eagle.

Just as it is hard to describe Trader Joe’s, it is also difficult to describe the store’s typical customer; the clientele are as diverse as the food selection. On opening weekend, many shoppers were college students or young professionals, but there were also many parents shopping with children, as well as sizable group of senior citizens.

Though Trader Joe’s opened its first Pittsburgh store last weekend, it has been around since 1958. The brand began as a small chain of convenience stores called Pronto Markets in the Los Angeles area. However, the company’s founder, Joe Coulombe, quickly realized that the chain could not compete with 7-Eleven. He also realized that Americans were increasingly traveling abroad and returning home with new, unique tastes that could not be easily satisfied at the grocery store. The first Trader Joe’s was opened in 1967 to cater to these changing tastes.

The chain is most densely concentrated in southern California, but it also has a strong presence in the Northeast. Recently, it has rapidly begun expanding outside of its core markets into locations in the South and Midwest. Aside from Pittsburgh, Trader Joe’s recently opened stores in the Atlanta metropolitan area, as well as in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., and Madison, Wis. In total, there are over 250 stores located in 20 states.

Each store is tailored to its environment. The Pittsburgh store boasts a large painted mural of the downtown skyline in the rear of the store, and large replicas of three bridges that connect Downtown with the North Side span several aisles.

Trader Joe’s employees also make the store unique, adding some personality to the grocery shopping experience. Clad in their trademark Hawaiian shirts, they show a genuine interest in both their work and in Trader Joe’s products. For instance, upon seeing that I was purchasing blueberry raspberry oat bran muffins, my cashier candidly explained their merits (they are amazing when lightly toasted and served with butter) and downsides (they are too large, so you need to cut them in half) to me.

While Trader Joe’s does many things well, it is lacking in several areas. The store itself is much smaller than Giant Eagle or Whole Foods, and it consequently offers comparatively limited quantities of goods. Trader Joe’s has a large selection of reasonably priced vitamins and dietary supplements as well as a well-stocked floral department, but only a scant selection of cleaning or health and beauty items, which makes it less convenient than the typical grocery store. Additionally, the produce section is anemic — both Giant Eagle and Whole Foods provide a much more robust selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.

With these few downsides, the store can still satisfy everyone from cost-conscious shoppers to gourmands. Its large, eclectic variety gives you plenty of options and its low prices allow for affordable food experimentation. The long checkout lines during opening weekend will certainly die down, but even if they do not, Trader Joe’s is well worth the wait.