"We're not supposed to talk to media, sorry," the friendly-as-ever Trader Joe's employee said to me, smiling. I wasn't surprised.
Trader Joe's is an amazing company -- a company that even sent me a $5 gift card just for writing it a letter. I get good vibes from its employees, and I love its food. But TJ's corporate has a reputation for being secretive. And where there are secrets, there's usually a story. After that first strikeout outside my local store, I found two employees who were willing to dish anonymously about working in one of America's best (and most tight-lipped) grocery stores. We talked about everything from Two Buck Chuck to its sampling policy to the employee discount you've always been curious about. Spoiler alert: you won't want to quit your job just to save money on groceries.
Don't expect an addition of sales/discounts
TJ's bizarrely cool, comic bookish Fearless Flyer comes out only eight times a year to highlight "mostly new stuff" hitting shelves. According to my source, you won't find any discount offers or coupons in there because everything it sells is already at its lowest price point.
There's a trick to getting a ton of free samples at the demo station
Show up around closing. "If you're there at the end of the night, and we're just trying to clean everything out of there, you can probably stand there for 10 minutes and eat."
You're definitely already buying the best value item
"Coffee. Our coffee is inexpensive compared to most other places. We have so many coffee options, there's something for everyone in our tiny little coffee section. We've got the spicier coffees, the nuttier coffees, and there's usually an affordable alternative to each one."
Its competition... isn't really competition
"I think Whole Foods is cool. I think they do something that's completely different than what we do. I get frustrated when people try to compare us to Whole Foods. I think we're a little different and we do our own thing. We can all coexist."
"I had a customer come in and ask, 'Do you guys have any conflict with Whole Foods?' And I said, 'They have employees come over here all the time and we go over there all the time.'"
Those bells are an employee-only code
"It's a communication system. Basically it's an intercom, except for the response time for this system is a lot better. Instead of asking for so and so to come to the front, one bell [ring] calls for one of us to come up and help the register. Response time is quicker -- you get more people coming up."
"Usually [employees] are assigned to registers, but they're allowed to bounce off and support others if there's not a lot going on up front. And it's cool because one of the things TJ's is known for is no wait times, or low as possible wait times. We want to get everyone through as quick as we can to facilitate them having a good rest of their day."
If you're not nice, don't apply for a TJ's job
"I think honestly they do [screen for niceness in the hiring process]. I've been going to TJ's for 10-12 years now, and it's always been that way in every one I've been to. Everyone's friendly. They're genuine people too. It's not people who've been told they have to act nice. It's people who genuinely care about how the customer's feeling; they want to give the best experience to the customer. And I don't feel like that's fake with anyone in the store."
Working around food is hard
"This is going to sound cheesy, but the worst part [of the job] is having to work around all that food and just wanting to eat it all the time."
The employee discount is small
"It's enough to offset sales tax here [Editor's Note: We're not saying which state for anonymity purposes]. It helps, every little bit helps." I asked if their friends beg them to use it. "No, my friends don't beg me to use it. Admittedly, most of my friends work there, so I don't have that problem."
The foreign (secretive!) ownership doesn't have a presence
[Editor's Note: German supermarket conglomerate Aldi owns TJ's.]
"I don't know what [Aldi's] about. They seem okay to me. I think we've more become our own unique culture that can't be traced to anyone. It's just Trader Joe's."
TJ's employs people to travel the world and eat/research
"We actually have a team of individuals -- this would be the coolest job in the world, by the way -- they get to go around the world and research the best providers for all of our products. They will not accept a provider if it's not 100% [up to snuff] with them. [Our food] is made all over the place."
"There was this one pizzeria in Italy that one of the individuals who'd go around looking for products went to. And he was so taken aback by this pizza that he asked for their recipe. The pizzeria said no. 'Can we buy you out?' 'No, I like my pizzeria,' the guy said. So [the TJ's employee] came back to them with a business plan. He came up with a process to freeze the pizza on site with them. It gets frozen, packaged, and sent to us, and then it goes to the warehouse and then shipped to the stores. This guy's pizzeria is now his side job [compared to all the business he does with TJ's]."
You're missing out on two underrated items
"Dolmas -- they come in a can in olive oil. I was suspicious originally because I've had a lot of Greek food in my lifetime. It has the right consistency -- it's not too firm or soft."
"Our pre-marinated meats -- I overhear a lot of people say we don't have a good meat selection, and I disagree. I think our meats are fantastic, especially if you're looking for something quick and easy. It's already marinated. Throw it on the grill, and it comes out delicious."
These are their top picks from the freezer section...
1. Mozzarella sticks
2. Palak paneer
3. Chicken tikka masala
4. Frozen mango chunks
5. Speculoos Cookie Butter Cheesecake Bites
6. Lamb vindaloo
7. Dark, sweet cherries
8. Tomato and Brie pizza
9. Truffle and mushroom pizza
And their favorite snacks...
1. White cheddar puffs
2. 12 grain crackers
3. Restaurant-style tortilla chips
4. Cheddar Rockets
5. Horseradish chips
6. South African smoked chips
7. Salted peanut butter pretzel bites (Make sure they're salted! "I was deeply disappointed by the unsalted ones.")
8. Ruffled sweet potato chips
And here are the new snacks you need to look for...
"The Baconesque Popcorn is really good."
"The raw almond butters. One's creamy, one's crunchy."
Lee Breslouer would save a lot of money if he had that employee discount. Follow him to Cookie Butter Cheesecake-scented tweets at: @LeeBreslouer.