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Utahns ready to savor a Trader Joe's of their own

Published November 26, 2012 12:39 pm

Retail • Organic-laden chain with a cult following set to make SLC debut on Nov. 30.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jenny Sheets' patients at the Davis County psychiatric ward will just have to wait if they want a counseling session with her Friday morning. Sheets is going grocery shopping.

You've heard of rabid fans standing in line to buy the next iPhone or to see the newest "Twilight" movie. But have you ever heard of anyone waiting in line to be the first inside a new grocery store?

That's what's expected to happen when Sheets and other manic followers of the cult grocery chain Trader Joe's arrive for the chain's first opening ever in Utah. The doors open at 8 a.m. Friday for the grand opening in Salt Lake City at 634 E. 400 South (inside The Family Center at East Downtown).

"I'm really excited. I'm taking off work to go down there," said the 43-year-old therapist from Clinton, Davis County. (Her patients needn't worry. She says a co-worker is covering her shift). "My kids think I'm ridiculous."

The 54-year-old Southern California grocery chain operates 381 locations in 34 states, but Trader Joe's will finally arrive in Utah to introduce residents to its off-kilter, high-seas décor and its well-known organic, one-of-a-kind specialty foods.

"It's a big to-do with them coming out here," said 55-year-old Salt Lake City life-skill instructor, Christine Bales, who also will be there on Friday when it opens. "My son sends care packages from them to me every year. That's how much I miss them."

So what are these delirious devotees clamoring for? How about Trader Joe's Belgian Butter Waffle Cookies. Or the Trader Joe's Carrot Cake Cookies. There's also the Trader Joe's Puffed Wheat Cereal Sweetened with Organic Agave Syrup as well as Trader Joe's Hofbrau Brats.

Sure, they have the regular eggs, cheese and produce you can get at any other grocery store. But fans say Trader Joe's fruits and vegetables are all organic, while still available at reasonable prices.

"There are a lot of unique products," said the new store's manager, Rory Violette, who is called the "captain" (middle managers are called "mates," while employees are called "crew members.") "Anything under the Trader Joe's label is free of artificial colors and preservatives. It's kind of like a food scavenger hunt every day. We have new items every week."

But what the new store won't have is a Trader Joe's staple available in other locations around the country — its famous "Two-Buck Chuck" bottles of wine (under the Charles Shaw label). Because of state law, the Salt Lake City store will not sell spirits and wine, just beer from local breweries with 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, the only alcoholic beverages allowed to be sold in grocery stores in Utah.

"There's that one little caveat," Violette acknowledged. "But other than that, they [customers] are excited about shopping here."

Sheets, for one, doesn't mind that the Utah store won't sell wine, even though she and her family used to buy "bags and cases" of it from Trader Joe's in Southern California to bring back to Utah.

"We're just excited to have the rest of it," she said. Wine "would be nice but it won't stop me from going there."

The neighborhood-style grocery chain didn't start as Trader Joe's. It began as a series of convenience stores called Pronto Markets in 1958. In 1967, founder Joe Coulombe changed the name to Trader Joe's, which then sold mostly cheeses and wine.

Today, the privately held company is owned by a family trust set up by German businessman Theo Albrecht, who also owns the Aldi Nord discount supermarket chain in Germany.

The Trader Joe's concept aims to replicate the small neighborhood grocery store vibe. The Salt Lake City store will cover 12,700 square feet, the average size of a Trader Joe's but just a fraction of much bigger grocery stores operated by Smith's or Dan's.

Yet Trader Joe's tends to stand out. Wood paneling in its stores is covered with handmade signs, and locally painted murals grace the walls. For the Salt Lake City store, more than 4,000 signs are being drawn to be used in the aisles, and a local artist/crew member is painting scenes for the walls that include vistas of downtown Salt Lake City and Utah's ski resorts.

Those distinctions also blend into the store's work culture. Crew members run around in Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts. And don't expect to hear cashiers bellowing "clean-up on aisle five" over an intercom. At Trader Joe's, golden ship bells (such as the kind you see on old sailing vessels) hang at each cash register so the staff can communicate with a ding (one ring is for a cashier, two rings is for customer service).

"Something we pride ourselves in is having fun," store captain Violette said. "We don't take ourselves too seriously."

Because Trader Joe's is not a publicly traded company, sales figures are as secret as its buying practices. Corporate officials at headquarters in Monrovia, Calif., declined interviews for this story.

But Jack Plunkett, CEO of industry analyst group Plunkett Research Ltd., estimates that Trader Joe's will make $9.5 billion in sales this year, or about $2,000 per square foot of space the company owns. That puts Trader Joe's in the upper echelon of a list of retailers that includes Apple stores, certain jewelers and the shopping plaza at the Circus Circus Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, he said.

"We're thinking they're growing at about a 6 percent rate. We think that's conservative," Plunkett said. "The best indicator is they continue to expand into new markets. They're expanding into Utah. They've recently expanded into Texas. They wouldn't do that if the formula didn't work."

A big part of that success, he added, can be attributed to Trader Joe's-branded food. More than 80 percent of what the grocer sells is specialty foods, from Trader Joe's Honey Nut O's Cereal to Trader Joe's Garbanzo Beans and Trader Joe's Chicken Mole with White Rice.

The company won't say which wholesalers provide products, but it prides itself in getting goods from around the world.

"[Trader Joe's] is big but not so big that it can't be supported by medium-sized suppliers. They can go to a supplier and say, 'Can you give me 80,000 cases of this product?' Whereas Safeway may have to ask for a million cases. It does give them more flexibility," Plunkett said. "Retailers love selling private merchandise, and many successful concepts try to do that to an extent. They get to control the retail price."

More importantly, a private label also creates more customer loyalty. So much so that there are Trader Joe's fan pages on Facebook. One was created specifically for Utahns' craving for the first store in the Beehive State.

Therapist Sheets will travel more than 45 minutes from her home in Clinton to stand in line about an hour before the new Salt Lake City Trader Joe's opens. At last, she said, she won't have to travel to stores in Arizona or her native Southern California to get dried mangos or pineapple, or the saffron she says is "uber-cheap."

"It's like a rite of passage of some sort to get a Trader Joe's here. I know it's just a grocery store, but it makes us [Utahns] feel like we're not so excluded," she said. "It's like when we got an In-N-Out Burger — anytime I can get a taste of home it makes Utah seem a little less weird."

vince@sltrib.com

Trader Joe's grand opening in SLC

When • Friday, Nov. 30. Doors open at 8 a.m.

Where • 634 E. 400 South (inside The Family Center at East Downtown)

What's happening • A lei-cutting (as opposed to a ribbon-cutting) will be performed at 7:45 a.m. The first 100 customers will be given a lei. Random bags of groceries will be handed out throughout the day

Normal stores hours • 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week —

Trader Joe's 'Most Favored Favorite Products' for 2011

1. Frozen Mandarin Orange Chicken

2. Triple Ginger Snap Cookies

3. Greek Yogurt

4. Hummus (Chipotle, Jalapeño Cilantro, Mediterranean)

5. Candy Cane Joe Joe's Cookies*

6. Frozen Chocolate Croissants

7. Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

8. Valencia Peanut Butter with Roasted Flaxseeds

9. Frozen Mac 'n Cheese

10. Charles Shaw Wines

*Seasonal item