Who is Trader Joe and why do Minnesotans care?

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Tatiana Eletski and her son Misha were ecstatic at the opening of the new Trader Joe’s in Minnetonka on November 6.  Each of them had arms full of groceries, and Eletski informed me that her husband would be shopping at the store later that day to pick up some cheeses that he likes.  Eletski said she loves Trader Joe because it reminds her of shopping in Europe, where they come from.  “We can get the foods we are used to eating, like swordfish, and certain kinds of chocolate,” Eletski said.  She said she also loves the people that worked at the store.  “They take care of you.  They open your egg cartons and make sure that none are broken.” 


The Minnetonka location is the fifth Trader Joe grocery to open in the Twin Cities metro area.  They also recently opened a store in St. Paul on Lexington Avenue and have locations in St. Louis Park, Maple Grove, and Woodbury. 


Not everyone is ecstatic about the store, though.  When the St. Paul location opened this summer, it was met with a picket line by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789.  “We’re a retail food union, and we would love to talk to Trader Joe’s employees about joining our union,” said Don Seaquist, president of the local.  “But so far they haven’t allowed us access to their employees.”  Seaquist said that the union wants to be able to speak with employees about the benefits of joining a union, which include protection against unfair firings.  So far, Trader Joe has not responded to any of the local’s requests to speak to employees, and hasn’t allowed them access to the break room. 


Steve Korte , owner of Korte’s Market, started a petition to prevent Trader Joe’s from opening its St. Paul store, because he felt that it would be unfair competition.  However, in a recent interview, Korte said that Trader Joe isn’t as much of a threat as he had once supposed.  “It’s been a pleasant surprise,” he said.  “They haven’t affected us much at all.”  While he was originally worried about a drop in sales, he has found that he has a different niche market than TJ’s.  “They are a discount organic and natural foods store, and I’m old neighborhood grocery store.”  Korte said he’s more affected by the economy than by competition.  “Everybody changed their buying habits,” he said.  “People are shopping the ads.” 


April Fleck, from Minneapolis, who shops once a week at the St. Louis Park location, said she has a love/hate relationship with Trader Joe.  She likes the prices for the most part, and it’s a good place for her to shop with her two kids because it’s a smaller store, and “the staff are all goofy kid-friendly people,” she said.  There’s also a play area, which makes getting her shopping done a lot easier.  Her beef with Trader Joe, though, is that “it markets itself as organic, and it’s not really …The meat’s not fresh, and not local.  If you’re going to buy non-organic meat, you’re better off going to Rainbow, because it’s fresher and more local.”  Fleck also said the produce wasn’t very good, and the store often doesn’t have staple items such as dried beans. 


Neala Schleuning, from St. Paul, wrote in an email that Trader Joe doesn’t carry spices or herbs, and the fruits and vegetables are all shipped from California and wrapped in plastic.  “People just go there for the cheap wine,” she said.  While there was concern that the St. Paul location would cause traffic problems, Schleuning said, “Parking is always tight, but I always find a place to park, and I haven’t noticed any backups on the streets.”  She prefers to shop at Mississippi Market, which recently opened its new location on West Seventh Street. 


Last spring, neighbors from the Whittier neighborhood in Minneapolis were raising an outcry about a potential Trader Joe store near the Wedge Co-op. (See Wedge vs. Trader Joe in Minneapolis)  Aaron Landry from the Heavy Table blog reported that, according an email from city council member Robert Lilligren, there was a proposed mixed-use development at 2309 Lyndale Avenue, two  blocks from the Wedge.  Currently, state regulations would forbid off-sale liquor sales at that location due to its proximity to Humm’s Liquors.  In a recent interview, Lilligren said that, as he understood it, Trader Joe wasn’t interested in the location unless they could get an exception to the liquor regulation. 


Lilligren said he doubts that it will go anywhere.  “It’s not even up for debate,” Lilligren said.  “Liquor licenses are a real volatile issue.  I wouldn’t even bother bringing it forward. “


 So for now, anyway, Minneapolitans who like their grocery baggers in Hawaiian shirts and have a fondness for cheap wine will have to go to St. Louis Park or one of the other metro area locations.