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COMMENTARY: Trader Joe’s: Still a Perfect Piece in the Downtown Huntington Puzzle

Posted by kinchendavid on December 20, 2006

By David M. Kinchen
Editor, Huntington News Network

Huntington, WV  – Back on Sept. 27, 2005, I did a commentary suggesting that what downtown Huntington needed – in Pullman Square and the area around it – was a specialty grocery store catering to the people shopping in Pullman Square and places like Shawn Bresnahan’s Le Cook Store.

The ideal store would carry the kind of items people living and shopping in downtown Huntington desire – and there will be plenty of those in coming months and years – Organic foods, foods that require little or no preparation beyond a good microwave oven, good, inexpensive wines and other beverages, a wide variety of cheese, high quality bread, prepared deli food for parties, etc.

Tony Rutherford’s latest upbeat story on downtown Huntington reminded me that Tony was part of a group seeking a restaurant when the idea of a Trader Joe’s in Huntington hit me like the proverbial bolt of lightning.

Quoting from my earlier story:

A Trader WHAT?, you ask. If you’ve lived in California, as I did for 16 years, you don’t have to explain Trader Joe’s. They’re specialty food emporiums geared to those seeking what I call affordable gourmet food of all kinds. Typically occupying only 10,000 square feet, TJs – everybody in the Trader Joe’s cult calls them that – have the most loyal customers of any retailer I’ve seen. TJ shoppers really are members of a cult.

Trader Joe’s carries an extensive array of domestic and imported foods and beverages including fresh artisan breads, Arabica bean coffees, international frozen entrées, 100% juices, fresh crop nuts, deli items, and vitamins and supplements, as well as the basics, like milk and eggs – all at prices that rival discount grocery stores. At the stores I’ve been to, someone is offering samples of foods for sale in the store, often several demonstrators with their colorful shirts.

Founded by Californian Joe Coulombe almost 40 years ago – the first Trader Joe’s opened in Pasadena, Calif. in 1967 — Trader Joe’s has been owned since 1979 by the giant Aldi group of Germany. Yes, the very same Aldi group that runs the warehouse-type supermarket in the west end of Huntington and thousands of similar ones in Europe, Australia and the U.S.

That’s where the similarity ends. Trader Joe’s stores feature employees garbed in Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts. Even the store manager – called the “Captain” in TJ-speak – dons a colorful Hawaiian shirt when he or she takes the helm. The Aldi people kept Coulombe’s policy of extensive local autonomy for each store’s “captain,” allowing him or her to tailor the merchandise to the local market. Aldi didn’t mess with a formula that was working very well indeed.

After saturating the California market by the late 1980s with more than 100 stores, the front-office types of Trader Joe’s started opening stores in Boston and other East Coast markets. They also expanded to Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Columbus and similar Midwest locations – always in upscale neighborhoods or suburbs. There are now more than 200 stores in 19 states, with about 25 new ones opening every year.

TJ customers are highly educated, which prompted that light bulb to go off. My old shorthand was “Volvo-driving, professor types.” Huntington is really a city of 320,000 people spanning several counties and three states – West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

The Tri-State has many people who would flock to a Trader Joe’s for their daily bread, soup – the stores have marvelous private-label canned soups that make the nationally advertised preservative-laden brands taste very ordinary by comparison – and just about anything an educated consumer could want. TJ stores usually have 2,000 different items, compared to 7,000 or so at a conventional (boring, in my opinion) supermarket.

The Marshall University community alone could support a TJ’s in Pullman Square. There’s one not far from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the two on the North Side of Chicago draw heavily from university students at De Paul, the Northwestern University Medical Center complex and the many upwardly mobile residents of Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Old Town, etc.

(Update, just back from an early December trip to Chicago, I stopped in at the newest Trader Joe’s, on Ontario Street, near Rush Street, in Chicago. This River North store serves one of the most upscale demographics in the country. Not all of TJ customers are rich, by any means, but they’re the kind of customers retailers would kill for!)

In Chicago recently, my shopping selection in the Lakeview store on Lincoln Avenue included pastrami, chili, corn chowder – something I love that’s difficult to find in many supermarkets – green olives in a foil pouch, dark rye bread and other items to make a delicious, healthful meal. I’m a soup/salad/sandwich kinda guy!

Virtually all the canned goods and other items are private-label brands, manufactured to TJ’s rigid specification minus preservatives and additives. Vegetarians will find the store a paradise, as will those who prefer Kosher food for religious or health reasons. Do I sound enthusiastic??!! Blame it on my addiction to TJ stores in Sherman Oaks, Granada Hills and Encino, as well as the two Chicago ones.

Lest I forget, there’s the Trader Joe’s “Fearless Flyer,” which appears periodically on no set schedule and has cleverly written and illustrated copy on new products at the stores. It’s fun to read, it’s irreverent and it has been called a cross between Consumer Reports and Mad magazine! Each edition highlights a selection of Trader Joe’s products that the company buyers believe are worthy of customer interest, including heat-and-eat meals and items that are reduced in fat and calories or have other special attributes.

Perhaps without even knowing about the saying from master showman Roxy (S.L. Rothafel), the man behind New York City’s Roxy Theatre and Radio City Music Hall, Joe Coulombe and his successors – including octogenarians Theo and Karl Albrecht of Aldi – have consistently followed the maxim “Don’t give the people what they want—give ‘em something better.”

You don’t need an MBA to succeed in business following that advice!

Web site: for more information about Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s: http://www.traderjoes.com

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