Last week, a Trader Joe's opened in my community.

Those of us familiar with the iconic LA-based store rejoiced. We showed up on opening day and reveled in the joy of the stocked shelves, wide aisles and a parking lot that does not appear to have been designed by a deranged demon, surely making it the best Trader Joe’s in the nation.

Some in our city, however, expressed confusion and disdain on the Nextdoor forum for Draper, Utah. One comment from the uninitiated reads:

“So wife and I went and checked out the new Trader Joe’s today now that they are open. I have to say I was not impressed, neither was my wife. ... I have come to the conclusion they exist to ensure that those in our community that either don’t know how to cook or simply don’t want to, don’t starve to death.”

I think keeping communities from starving is as good a reason as any to exist. Still, I need this poster to know that Trader Joe’s offers more than just food for those who don’t know how to cook or simply don’t want to — it offers the chance for a better self, for the dream of a better life to be lived, so long as it is leveraged correctly.

Customers shop for items as Trader Joe’s in Draper opens for business on Friday, March 3, 2023.
Customers shop the many items as Trader Joe’s in Draper opens for business on Friday, March 3, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

To leverage Trader Joe’s correctly, you first have to understand what it is, or perhaps more importantly, what it is not.

Trader Joe’s is not a traditional grocery store with shelves full of name brands and generic versions of those products. Trader Joe’s carries only one brand, its own. Its bread, pasta, cheese puffs and ice cream are all Trader Joe's labeled. If you go in looking for Diet Coke, Cheetos, or Tylenol you are sure to be disappointed. For this reason, it is best to think of Trader Joe’s as supplemental. The store to visit after Costco or Harmons. You can try and make it your primary stop, but you’ll end up with things like agave syrup instead of Karo and kombucha instead of Sprite. Healthy, yes. Delicious? No.

Trader Joe’s is not about crossing items off your grocery list. It’s about adopting a new lifestyle.

A helpful exercise is to ask yourself, “What kind of person do I want to be this week?” as you walk into any Trader Joe’s location. The kind of person who has fresh flowers in every corner of their home? The kind of person who sprinkles sophisticated and sometimes zany spices on their avocado toast? The kind of person who can whip out pre-marinated meats and feed guests at a moment’s notice? Trader Joe’s can, and will, help you become that person at a price point that will make you ask the cashier, “Are you sure you got everything?” They did. It’s just a surprisingly affordable store.

But, as with all great successes and transformations, making Trader Joe’s your new (better?) personality requires some trial and error. Not all Trader Joe’s products will be for you. Many are not for anyone, in my opinion. It sometimes feels as though the Trader Joe’s production team gets a little carried away with their more successful flavors, and we’re maybe one sales quarter away from Cookie Butter lasagna or Everything But The Bagel ice cream. (That might be kind of good, actually.)

Food items on display tables at Trader Joe’s in Draper as the store opens for business on Friday, March 3, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

You will make some mistakes as you embark on your Trader Joe’s shopper journey. Mistakes like the fateful mushroom frozen pizza I bought on a whim that reminded me a little too much that I was eating fungi, or the UNSALTED corn tortilla chips I accidentally purchased without reading the label, or the chili apple gummies that nearly burned a hole in the roof of my mouth. But the good news is the low prices allow for trial and error until, after years of experimentation, you become an efficient Trader Joe’s shopper with the speed of an F-22 and the precision of a Swiss timepiece.

Now, when I walk into Trader Joe’s I know exactly where to go. The flower buckets for tulips, the drink aisle for the vinegar sodas, the meat cooler for the chicken shawarma, the produce section for the hummus and tzatziki, the snack aisle for the chocolate cat cookies and the Scandinavian swimmers, and the freezer for the frozen naan. Then I peruse and pick up anywhere from two to seven new items to try. Truffle potato chips, perhaps. Or a can of rosemary mixed nuts. Maybe some mini ice cream cones to have on hand, or some soup dumplings to make for dinner at the end of a busy day.

The Trader Joe’s team is constantly adding new products to the shelves. Conversely, the team is constantly removing products, which can create real heartbreak for those who have become attached. My husband has been mourning a now-retired cherry cider for a decade.

But part of living the Trader Joe’s lifestyle is learning to be adaptive. When Trader Joe’s closes a door, it opens a window and hands you a watermelon cooler or a mango lemonade.

I leave Trader Joe’s feeling accomplished, invigorated and excited about the life my purchases will allow me to live. Sure, sometimes those purchases sit in the freezer for months or spend their existence in a forgotten corner of a high cupboard (RIP, rosemary nuts), but the dream never dies. The hope of Trader Joe’s remains eternal.