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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Trader Joe's vs Whole Foods

When it comes to appreciating the grocers who provide my food, you couldn’t find a geekier health foodie.  When I discovered Alfalfa’s on a visit to Boulder, CO in 1994, tears came to my eyes.  I wandered through the maze of aisles and displays, and lovingly brushed my fingertips across the mounded fresh, whole, organic fruits, vegetables, bakery items and case goods.  My whole body tingled with happy anticipation at all the “really, truly, good-for-you goodies”.  I went back every day during my visit to try another of their wonderful fresh made dish or crispy fresh organic fruit or vegetable.

Alfalfa’s was so different from the “health food” stores in my hometown - Sevananda and Return to Eden.  In 1994, every health food store had that distinctive smell, an exotic mixture of herbs and spices that is so . . . well . . . foreign and exotic.   Ironically, the health food store clerks always looked unhealthy - like the organic produce stocked in the back - limp, pale and sickly.

In 1995, I visited with a friend in Fort Lauderdale.  In my pre-visit research I found out a Wild Oats had opened.  It was one of the first natural organic food stores to appear in the southeast. Again, I went every day during my visit.  I admit, seems an odd choice of vacation fun, but I couldn’t get enough.

Then Whole Foods finally made it to my hometown, Atlanta.  Even though the Buckhead store was tiny and paled in comparison to the huge one I had visited in Boulder, I was thrilled.  Finally  - real food at a grocery store!  (As a busy professional, I didn’t have time or the skill to grow my own food and CSA’s were scarce). I love you WHOLE FOODS!  When I planned to buy a house, I drew a 2-mile circle on the map with the Sandy Springs Whole Foods store at its epicenter.    My store was tiny but sufficient, and it grew in size as interest in whole organic food began to grow in the southeast.  (Damn, I still had to buy some household staples at the neighborhood Kroger.)

Then a Trader Joe’s popped up across the street around 2003.  I visited and, I didn’t get it.  I like to cook - mainly to control every ingredient that goes into my mouth.  To me, Trader Joe’s was all about prepared convenience food.  Why, even their produce came prepackaged.  Really, what single person needs a whole bag of sweet potatoes or five zucchini squashes when two would do?  My friends raved about Two Buck Chuck.  But, I don’t drink.  My impression was that Trader Joe’s was for lazy yuppies who don’t understand the need, and won’t take time, to nourish themselves with honest food like Nature and Mother Earth intended.

It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles and stayed with friends who were Trader Joe’s aficionados that I came to appreciate TJ’s.  Perhaps, as well, Trader Joe’s had developed and matured since my first visit.  My first few shopping trips were awkward and miserly.  Then I discovered a few products that I bought all the time at Whole Foods ("Whole Paycheck"); except, they were astoundingly cheaper.

Then something strange happened, a turning point.  I went for my weekly grocery shopping at Whole Foods.  I reached for an item and realized I could get a similar product at Trader Joe’s for A LOT CHEAPER.  I couldn’t make myself buy those items.  Some latent frugality gene kicked in.  Best example:  A one-pound jar of raw, crunchy almond butter:  $11.99 at Whole Foods and $4.99 at TJ’s.  Ok, the TJ’s brand is not organic but this is a HUGE price differential.  Same with carrots, strawberries, mushrooms, soy creamer, organic yogurt, coffee, and Ezekiel bread.  Pretty soon, more than half of my shopping list could be purchased at Trader Joe’s.  Then TJ’s became a habit.  I even sacrificed my organic imperative and learned the Clean 15 because TJ’s organic offerings can be spotty. I only went to Whole Foods for the items I couldn’t get at Trader Joe’s like dino kale, amaranth, aluminum free baking powder* (*TJ’s only stocks this during the holidays), organic beef and good fish.  Trader Joe’s was getting 70% of my weekly grocery dollars and Whole Foods only 15%.  (CSA gets the other 15%).

But, alas, my weekly spending at Trader Joe’s that averaged around $85 suddenly jumped up to $115.  Hey, what’s going on here?  To be honest, I had to add some animal protein* to my diet, but not $30 a week!  (*You can read about this in another post.)  Concurrently, on my infrequent trips to Whole Foods, I noticed that prices seemed to be dropping.  Time to investigate and here’s what I found.  Whle Whole Foods has reduced prices on a variety of items and they do now offer more specials and sales prices, overall TJ’s is still the best buy.

However when it comes to overall selection and better meat, fish, and produce I head to Whole Foods.  The best produce comes from a local organic farmer through my Community Supported Agriculture group.  I also have a garden. Produce doesn’t get more local than your own back yard.  I give TJ’s high marks for continuing to add products. In fact they just added organic dino kale.

Price comparison here.