Growing Up With Trader Joe's

How a grocery store has been my rock for all these years

I hit Trader Joe's early Sunday morning hoping to avoid the insane weekend crowds, but when I got there, the place was already crawling with people. I'd crashed a party.

Trader Joe's 50th birthday party, in fact.

Little kids colored at low tables and had their faces painted. Employees, normally dressed in Hawaiian shirts, wore red commemorative 50th birthday T-shirts and walked around balancing trays like caterers at a black-tie affair, offering dark chocolate peanut butter cups and peanut butter pretzels like they were glasses of Dom Perignon. (When I die, I want to be buried with a bag of those pretzels. Just saying.)

Annoyed that my cunning plan to avoid the Sunday rush had failed, I stomped around the produce section like an angry teenager, but somewhere near the organic eggs, I realized I wasn't mad. I was sad. So sad, in fact, that I actually turned down the peanut butter goodies offered to me by a cheerful 20-something with long dark hair that fell halfway down her back exactly the same way mine did in high school.

Suddenly, I found myself back in Sherman Oaks at the Trader Joe's on the corner of Riverside and Hazeltine where, in 1969, I was 16 and stocking up on snacks with my boyfriend for a trip up the coast to San Francisco to see the Grateful Dead.

The stores were only two years old and this was the second one opened in L.A. It was still a novelty and we loved it. Where else could you buy dried apricots, roasted cashews, licorice whips, potato chips, beer, tequila, cheap wine and Marlboro cigarettes without getting carded? We had no problem buying booze in those days. We were rarely carded anywhere in L.A., but when someone actually asked us how old we were, we'd whip out our black-and-white fake IDs that I, the artist of the group, painstakingly altered with an X-Acto knife and black ink. Of course, no one believed us. But no one cared. We'd load our stash of goodies into my boyfriend's battered blue-and-white VW van, and hit the 101.

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Ah, those sweet, innocent days. There was softness in the air that engulfed us and held us close, while love songs played in the background on radios and eight-track tape players mounted under the dashboards of VW bugs and Mustang convertibles. And the nice guys at Trader Joe's (they were always guys and always nice), in their Hawaiian shirts and long golden surfer hair and sunny ocean breeze smiles, sent us on our way to fun.


I was a young mom when Trader Joe's became a grocery store. It was a smart move—keep the booze and snacks but make it possible to drop in and leave with something for dinner. The Hawaiian shirts survived, as did the friendly laid-back attitude. And women worked there now. The background music was the same but—20 years later—it was classic rock. I could still hum the Beach Boys and The Beatles and the Grateful Dead at the checkout counter—the same counter I bought tequila and cigs a zillion years ago. And it still felt like home. I'd load my sensible mom car with nutritious groceries that included organic applesauce, fruit-juice-sweetened soda, and fruit roll- ups. No cigs or cases of beer for me. I was all grown up.

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Around this time, TJ's took over the world. Seemed like they were on every street corner, like gas stations in the 1960s. Recently, Whole Foods tried to rip them off with 365, their new mini store. I'll admit, I was seduced by the fresh produce, fruits and vegetables without all that plastic, but for the two months I shopped there, I was consumed with guilt. Like I'd taken a lover and was cheating on my husband—a lover with a hipster vibe, slick packaging and cool concrete floors. Coming to my senses, I slunk back to my first love and the tacky Hawaiian shirts, leis and nautical-themed signs with a sigh of relief. My world was safe again.


My daughter, grown now, shops at Trader Joe's. She buys wasabi peas, gluten-free ginger cookies and kale chips. Besides peanut butter pretzels, I buy organic white corn tortilla chips, chocolate-covered espresso beans and fruit-juice-sweetened gummies. I still sing along to the classic rock playing in the background, only now it's the Talking Heads, Blondie and The Police. The kids working there look sweet in their Hawaiian shirts and don't seem to mind wearing something so laughably kitsch. They're nice and have been for 50 years. And they'll probably be nice for another 50. I'd bet my patched jeans and halter-top on it.

Tags: food