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Ode to...Grocery Shopping

Mercer Island is overflowing with Starbucks and specialty pet shops, but what we really need is a Trader Joe's.

There were lots of things I expected to miss when we moved to a new community, new city, new coast. I knew I’d miss our friends, our summer barbecues, and familiar routines. I didn’t really expect that I’d miss my grocery store.

Oh, but I do.

And it wasn’t as if it was some one-of-a-kind market known only to those in the wilds of suburban Connecticut. It was Trader Joe’s.

Before you write in, of course I know there’s one in northeast Bellevue and one way up in Kirkland and out in Issaquah. Call me lazy if you want, but I’m rarely in the mood to drive 15 or 20 minutes each way every time I need milk or cereal or shiitake mushrooms, which is often. (Okay, not the shitakes so much, but the other things.) I’ve always wanted to be someone who plans out meals for the week and does one big shopping trip to tide us over for the next 21 meals. I’m embarrassed to admit there are many nights when I’m trying to come up with something for dinner at about, oh, 5 p.m.

All of that means I’m a regular in the produce aisles. And isn’t a bad market at all. But still, I miss Trader Joe’s -- and so does my wallet.

At TJ’s, the prices are always the same – no tricky sales, no membership card, which I’m plenty sick of. More importantly, I don’t have to examine every label for things like partially hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup. Sure, some foods are still processed, but at least they’ve taken out the junk. And another thing: the check-out aisles aren’t packed with gum and candy right at a 6-year-old’s eye-level like they maliciously are most everywhere else. We moms appreciate that.

Of course TJ’s isn’t perfect. They don’t always have what I need, like fresh rosemary or chili powder or bread crumbs. The produce aisle isn’t huge and it’s not the place for fresh fish. And sometimes they staffers are too friendly and feel free to comment on every item I buy. I’ve heard plenty of remarks (and once a complaint) about the sheer volume of items in my cart like “Got a lot of kids at home?” or “Feeding an army?” Stuff like that. Plus, they don’t have baggers. So you either pack up yourself or be prepared to wait.

But the best advantage, really, is how much cheaper the food is. Here’s a short list of products I’ve noticed that are significantly less pricey at Trader Joe’s:    

Product: QFC Trader Joe’s Rice Dream rice drink $2.99 $1.69 Goat cheese $5.99 /4 oz. $2.49 /4 oz. Pine nuts $13.99 per 1/2 lb $7.99 per 1/2 lb. Gruyere cheese $9.49 per 1/2 lb $5.49 per 1/2 lb. Parrano cheese $7.99 per 1/2 lb. $4.99 per 1/2 lb. Wheat thin-type crackers: $3.79 $1.69 Annie’s mac & cheese $6.29 $2.99 Nutri-Grain-type cereal bars  $4.39 $1.69 Artichokes (each) $2.50 $.99

Say I bought one of each item in this admittedly unscientific survey, I’d spend $30.01 at Trader Joe’s, or $57.42 at QFC. If one lays down, say, $150 a week on groceries, shopping at the less expensive store would result in a pretty substantial savings each month. With what I’d save over the course of a year, I could to take my family on a little vacation. Either that, or buy a tank or two of gas.

Maybe it’s worth the drive out to Issaquah after all.

Jerry Gropp Architect AIA May 10, 2011 at 03:45 PM
Michelle- Trader Joe's is great- but we need both QFC as well as TJ's on Mercer Island. J-
Barbara M Fragione May 10, 2011 at 04:10 PM
It would be great to have a Trader Joe's on the Island. With gas prices as high as they are I hate to drive all the way to Issaquah every time I need something.
Ken Urman, Real Estate Broker May 10, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Michelle I agree with your opinion....well presented. I would welcome a Trader Joe's on the Island. I am not fond of the QFC's on the Island. I find the prices of non-sale items are too high, selection is generally poor and service lacks most of the time. It also seems that off-Island QFC's do better. I believe QFC takes advantage of it dominance on the Island. BTW I think TJ's responds well to communities that advocate for them to come to town.
Diane Taylor May 10, 2011 at 04:59 PM
AMEN Michelle. I've actually gone to the Trader Joe's website and filled out the section that asks if you want a store in your neighborhood--maybe if we get a huge number of residents to do that, they'll come here. I've heard the company doesn't think it's worth it to open a store on Mercer Island. I think they're wrong, especially if it's near I-90 so other Eastside commuters could stop on the way home.
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA May 10, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Ken- I know we SouthEnders agree on the unwise Road Diet- as does Michelle. Having Trader Joe on the Island might well moderate some of QFC's prices that can be overly high at times. My first job was working at the Wallingford Safeway- my father was District Manager for General Foods- so the grocery business is close to my heart.
Michelle Bowers May 10, 2011 at 06:35 PM
Diane: that's interesting. How did you hear that TJs doesn't think it would be worth it to open on MI? I think it would be packed. Forget MI, I'd be thrilled if there was even one in Factoria. Yes, I'll fill out the store request on their website. Good idea.
AZ May 11, 2011 at 02:08 AM
Diane, could you please share the URL for that request. I'd be happy to fill that out, and I'm sure I could get more MI friends to do so, too!
Susan Szafir May 11, 2011 at 02:22 AM
I think your article resonates with many folks on the island (especially Moms who are often the primary shopper + don't have the time/energy to schlep out to Issaquah etc.) I've also heard that TJ's has passed on MI as a viable location, but don't know if this rumor is truth or fiction. Wondering if you're up for a little investigative reporting i.e. is there someone at Trader Joe's corporate who can comment on what it takes to get one in the neighborhood? I've also been on a few email chains urging me to fill out the form on the website, which I and many others have done... yet still no TJs which makes me wonder if a) they've not yet gotten critical mass through the site to pique their interest or b) if they've already done a risk assessment of this area? Either way, it would be helpful to know more.
Michelle Bowers May 11, 2011 at 04:22 AM
Hi Everyone: Here is the url for requesting a Trader Joe's store near us: http://www.traderjoes.com/about/location-requests-form.asp Let's all fill it out. Susan, thanks for your comments. I'm with you 100%. What I have heard from the manager at the NE Bellevue store is that they might be closing that location and moving to a more central Bellevue location. I've also heard from other employees that they tried -- unsuccessfully-- to get into Factoria, but that other stores like Safeway have contracts specifying that competing stores can't relocate within a certain distance of them. I'll let you know if I get any concrete answers from them.
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA May 11, 2011 at 04:40 AM
I've raised the MI location point many times in my weekly visits to Trader Joe's. Always get an equivocal answer like Diane's. Jerry
DeAnn Rossetti May 11, 2011 at 04:47 PM
Great article, Michelle, and I know from experience that Trader Joes won't go into any community where they feel there are not enough people and traffic to support their store, and their expectations of profit. Here in Maple Valley we have been trying to get them to come into our community for years, only to hear that there are not enough people in our community to support a store, never mind that Covington, Black Diamond and Ravensdale are close enough that they'd be sending folks here to shop at TJs too. I have also tried to get World Wrapps and a bookstore to come into my town, with the same result--the city council claims that no one would use these businesses, which is bunk, according to every resident I've spoken to. Did you know that in 2004 or thereabouts, the man that runs Metropolitan Markets was trying to open one of his very nice gourmet grocery store on Mercer Island, in the old Safeway building, but was unable to get the Safeway people to agree to let him come in and renovate the space? In my opinion, the other Mercer Island grocery stores had a hand in preventing Metropolitan Market from entering Mercer Island, because they didn't want the competition, but I have no proof of that. Anyway, I think it is a crime that the QFC on Mercer Island charge so much more than they do elsewhere for food.
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA May 11, 2011 at 10:29 PM
Michelle- Things may change at Trader Joe's now that the owner has died. http://smallbusiness.aol.com/2010/07/28/trader-joes-owner-dead-at-88/

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