Trader Joe's Is a Living Hellscape

Trader Joe's
Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Editor's Note: The strong opinions expressed in this story do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Thrillist. It is merely the author's stance, though having read this disclaimer, it is also now your stance, legally speaking. Kidding! You are now within your right to (politely) question the author's sanity.

Do they wear Hawaiian shirts in hell?

I believe they do. Ever since a particularly fire-and-brimstone sermon stuck with me as a kid -- or maybe it was Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey -- I've believed that hell is a personalized nightmare. And every week, I'm forced to spend an hour in my own custom-made Hades to atone for my sins.

It's called Trader Joe's, and I'm starting to think I'm the only person who hates it.

Yes, Trader Joe's, everybody's favorite source of inexpensive groceries, smiling cashiers who would look equally at home at a Jimmy Buffett tailgate, and perhaps the most uncoordinated cart-pushing public of all time.

But what exactly makes Trader Joe's a living hellscape when everybody else seems to think they're floating on reduced-priced organic clouds? Let me explain.

Trader Joe's frozen stuff
Flickr/Amy Widdowson

The TJ's-brand stuff is just generic

The first thing that people will point to is the vast array of TJ's-branded products, and I'm not even gonna try to say that stuff like cookie butter, chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels, and that delightful orange chicken isn't great.

But for every decent offering, there's a sea of mediocre crap. Those baked cheese curls might look like Cheetos, but they taste like a failed science experiment conducted by alien schoolchildren: weirdly always stale, they taste like lightly seasoned cardboard. That's basically the whole snack aisle.

Meanwhile, over in frozen, things go from bad to worse. Yes, it's enticing to see a world's worth of entrees like soup dumplings, chimichurri rice, and British hand pies. But the fact is, just because you can offer up a spread that looks like a college dining hall's "ethnic night" dinner doesn't mean you should. Also, soup dumplings aren't supposed to taste like somebody squirted Cup Noodles broth into a mini-pierogi.

Even something as simple as chicken nuggets can't deliver more than a spongy, chemical-y, bland meat wad with crumbly breading. And on more than one occasion, I've crunched into a bone fragment ("bone me once, shame on you," as they say). A cheap filet of Denver sole seemed like a soap carver's approximation of fish. And those pizzas? Well, many of them (how are there so many?!) seem designed to give that "no such thing as bad pizza" serious scrutiny.

Basically, every new purchase is a game of chance: Maybe you'll land on a fantastic bag of pumpernickel pretzels. But probably not. You're probably opening a bag or box and being met with something that will either make you sad or, um, choke you to death. Probably not the latter, but still, bones are no joke.

Trader Joe's
Flickr/Takayuki Shimizu

It's cheap because… well, it's cheap

A while ago, Whole Foods opened up the first of its 365 stores, which almost exclusively sells WF's branded items. It seemed like Whole Foods was nosing in on Joe's turf. But there's one difference: The 365 stuff's actually good. Maybe that's because I've never choked on a bone from Whole Foods chicken. But even if I had, I might take solace in the fact that it actually tasted good.

Imagine if Kroger opened a store that only sold its generic knockoff items. A whole sea of bullshit knockoff Doritos and salsa con queso that tastes like nuked Kraft singles, but cold. Boxed mac & cheese in the image of Annie's, except not. Fake-ass Goldfish shaped like spaceships.

That's basically just Trader Joe's: a bunch of knockoff, slightly off (and often hideously gross) approximations of good food made from cheap ingredients masquerading as something different and enticing. It's a purveyor of cheap counterfeit bullshit stuff for people who can't just up and admit that they're more interested in value than quality. Those people would probably never stoop to the level of a Safeway Select pot pie, but they have a whole freezer full of TJ's version.

And here's another thing: Kroger's and Safeway's knockoff stuff is largely superior to 90% of TJ's comparable items. Just sayin'.

Trader Joe's bananas

Brainwashing in aisle four

All of the above is all well and good, but it's not really the off-brand disappointments that make TJ's such a hellish place. It's the mentality people have when they approach it. My wife has it. The guy behind me in the checkout line who decided to strike up a long conversation about the bread I was buying has it. It's just… love!

I'm not opposed to love -- it's the reason that I'm always at this godforsaken place in the first place (more on that later). But sometimes love clouds your judgment.

It makes you think that 19-cent individual bananas are somehow cheaper than scoring a bunch at a fruit market for 50 cents a pound. It makes you think that just because there's a Trader Joe's logo on the box that somehow a knockoff deep-dish pizza is fucking health food. It makes you truly believe that everything at Trader Joe's is certified organic just because some things are, and that allows you to ignore that fact that you're buying non-organic tomatoes that have been wrapped in plastic. I'm pretty sure there's at least a portion of that Texas-sized garbage island in the South Pacific that's nothing but unnecessary TJ's plastic.

I'm fairly certain that the "fresh-baked" loaf of bread I bought three weeks ago -- the one that still has a springiness and nary a speck of mold on it -- is neither organic nor healthy nor fresh-baked. The thing probably has enough preservatives to embalm a human being. I'm pretty sure the ham that has an expiration date four months down the road didn't just humanely fall off the unharmed body of a pig that was treated so well that its meat never expired.

Yet many, many people (hi honey!) believe TJ's = healthy and organic. It makes no sense.

Trader Joe's bell

Is this a social experiment?

Walking into this ever-crowded place seems to change everybody -- me included -- into a dead-eyed zombie pushing an undersized shopping cart around like they've enlisted in the world's most boring demolition derby.

One soulless person just listlessly walking around staring at the ever-changing shelves is bad enough. But at Trader Joe's, every day seems like Black Friday. People cram into the aisles -- which seem much smaller than other places, but that might also just be my mind imploding -- and then start smashing around like they just took bath salts. There are collisions. There are traffic jams as people stand mid-aisle mouthing the names of spices. The odds of you getting out of there without at least ramming into some poor bastard's Achilles are slim. You will likely bleed. But try not to go to the bathroom, because people are likely lined up down the aisle to get in there, too. And they're not in a rush to get out.

That's the nightmare inside, but outside is its own horror show.  Every single Trader Joe's parking lot is like purgatory for people who hate parking lots… you'd think the tiny aisles would have freed up some parking spaces outside. And once you finally park, you're forced to endure a legion of clipboard-wielding slacktivists who ask "do you have a second for the environment" outside the doors when you just want to buy your goddamned plastic-wrapped fruits.

Then there's the sample area, where people turn from soulless vessels wandering a mediocre wasteland into ravenous, lusting hyenas who just found a wounded gazelle. But here's the thing: A wounded gazelle probably tastes better than some shitty breadstick dipped in fondue. Yet the area near the counter is like a mosh pit filled with old people, kids, hipsters, stoners, and soccer moms. Thanks for the thimble of free coffee, TJ. It was totally worth being body-checked by a septuagenarian eager for a free nibble of cheesecake.

I'm beginning to think that this place was designed to fuck with us as part of some grand social experiment. How else do you explain the register, where you have to unload your whole cart onto some tiny platform shelf as the Hawaiian-clad clerk haphazardly scans your stuff. "Do I bag it myself," you wonder, then BONG! Some dickhead rings the big-ass bell overhead. At first, I thought it meant somebody won something. But no. It's because they don't use an intercom system. They communicate by bells. Loud bells right above your head. (Side note, never go to this place hungover.)

They're using alternate, antiquated forms of communication. Yes. This place is an experiment. And we're all the subjects. But hey! There's cheap wine!

Trader Joe's chocolate

I'm stuck in a loop, like an un-sexy version of Westworld

And yet I'm there at least twice a month, risking bruised shins and bent fenders, navigating aisles of disappointing pre-made curry and mystery sauces, and jutting through seas of aloof old ladies and hipster dads like the world's most milquetoast linebacker.

"But guy writing on the internet," you say while simultaneously composing 140 threatening characters to me on Twitter. "If you don't like it, don't go. Also, kill yourself. TTYL #eatadick."

And you know what? You're right. If I don't like eating theses terrible knockoff snacks, I can march my ass down the street to get my junk food. If I don't want to endure crowds of people who have convinced themselves that a microwave burrito is magically healthy because TJ's shipped it in from a warehouse of mysterious origins, I don't need to be there. Maybe I should eat a dick! (Side note: Do they make off-brand dicks for me to eat at TJ's?)

But I will return. I will remain in my loop and eat those bony-ass nuggets and house the poorly dusted Doritos substitutes. I will buy the stupid plastic-wrapped tomatoes and the rocket-shaped fake Goldfish. And, let's be honest, I will basically snort cookie butter.


Because my daughter loves it. She houses the fish nuggets with a vigor that most toddlers reserve for boogers and Play-Doh. She loves the knockoff crackers. She's milk sensitive and will only drink TJ's-brand soy milk before a nap. When we roll in there, there's a little baby cart that she loves to push (into other people's ankles). She's a TJ's cult member before age 2, and I'm too worn out and lazy to just go to two stores like an adult.

If it makes her happy, then I'll slap that smile on my face and endure the bells. I'll revisit my personal hell as often as we need soy milk and wheat pretzels and 19-cent bananas. I'll take my bruises and keep getting disappointed by dips that taste like socks and tortellini that tastes like it was bought in an alley beyond an Olive Garden once it expired. I'll just keep getting new and different things until I finally find a shopping list of stuff that doesn't just taste like a slight approximation of what I love.

Eventually, I'll learn to love it. I'll find the perfect cart of groceries and finally realize, hey, there's great stuff here!

And at that point, my daughter will very likely turn on all things Trader Joe's. She'll become infatuated with some other store's in-house brand. Probably fucking Costco stuff… the next logical circle of this Dantean grocery store eternity.

Do they wear Kirkland jeans in hell?

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Andy Kryza is a senior editor at Thrillist who is probably at Trader Joe's right now. Follow him to the beer aisle @apkryza.