Discover more from The Crunchwrap by Adam Chandler
Trader Joe's Might Be My Favorite Scam
+ help weigh in on a timely debate
I love Trader Joe’s. Their frozen burritos sustained me through my 20s and possibly set me on a lifelong battle with hypertension. Meanwhile, shameless years of hoarding samples from their Cobble Hill location in Brooklyn got me through some very lean and lazy years.
And though I know it’s forced, I enjoy the low-stakes amiable chatter from its staff. Apparently, this feature is so critical to the TJ’s brand that earlier this month, the company declared it would be NEVER become one of the many grocers that deploys self-checkout machines.
I know the criticisms of Trader Joe’s and agree with the gripes of those who say it’s a scam. But as long as you know what’s good there (most pre-packaged goods, frozen items, some prices) and what’s bad there (prepared foods, fresh produce, every single other shopper) then you can never truly be disappointed with Trader Joe’s. Right?
Well, during a recent visit, I was tested when I saw two voluntary recall notices at checkout. I was in the middle of some low-stakes amiable chatter with a cashier so I didn’t get the best pictures of them. (Forgive me!) As you can sorta see, one recall was for its frozen Fully Baked Falafel (in which rocks had been found) and the other was for its unfortunately-named Unexpected Broccoli & Cheddar Soup (in which insects had been found)…
For whatever reason, this news didn’t faze me all that much. Already knowing better than to buy prepared food at TJ’s or frozen falafel from anywhere, these two recalls instead brought to mind a weirder question: Which is worse? Finding insects in your soup or rocks in your falafel?
Later, I posed this question on Instagram and the results were surprisingly very split. Out of an even 40 votes, 22 respondents said that biting into a rocky falafel is worse than finding some bugs in your broccoli-cheds.
As you can see, I am firmly in the camp of falafel rocks being worse. Insects have become a trendy protein and I’m not sure if I bit into falafel that had something other than chickpea (or whatever new-fangled peppers that Taim puts in theirs) that I would ever trust anything again. I guess I’m willing to have someone change my mind.
If you have strong feelings or personal stories that inform the rocks vs. insect debate, please make them known! I’d love to hear them.
I suppose the Bigger, More Important Question (yeah whatever) is What’s behind these recalls?
Well, herein lies one element of the Trader Joe’s scam. Their image as a kind of benevolent scrappy family biz comes in part from the fact that have these specialty items (thai chili almonds, cookie butter, shrimp boom bah, etc.) seemingly designed for stoned people in cleverly named TJ’s packaging.But contrary to a pretty popular perception, it’s not Trader Joe himself (or his cadre of Hawaiian-shirted elves) baking their Mini Gingerbread People by hand or irradiating their ketchup-flavored seasoning.
Instead, the company relies on a network of small producers to make these items before they’re branded as Trader Joe’s own proprietary items. And one problem with these smaller suppliers is that they don’t have always the same robust checks in place for potential food safety issues as bigger purveyors – especially the ones that sell their wares under their own brand names.
Ultimately though, the two-buck chuck stops with Trader Joe’s. The company chooses its own suppliers and in doing so, signs off on the safety standards to which its suppliers and producers adhere.
Generally, it’s not a problem, until it is. Just last week, Trader Joe’s issued its fifth recall of the past month. Following the soup and falafel, there were rocks discovered in two of their almond cookie products, and then, metal was found in their multigrain crackers which, I gotta say, is worse than bugs or falafel rocks BY A LONG SHOT.
Will it stop me from getting their frozen burritos? Absolutely not.
That’s it for this week! For a Deeper Crunch™ on this grocery biz, I highly recommended Friend of the Crunchwrap Benjamin Lorr’s book The Secret Life of Groceries.
Thanks as always for reading,
Through extensive trial and error I’ve learned that four seems to be the number of samples per visit before it officially becomes “an issue.”