They come for the organic, the gluten-free, the vegan, kosher, low-sodium and bargain-priced store brands. They come because Trader Joe’s, those who know it best and those who have just been introduced to the specialty store, say it’s unlike any other market you’ll find out there.
Trader Joe’s opened its newest location in Shrewsbury Friday morning to eager crowds of shoppers, some who wanted to see what it’s all about and others who say they’ve waited more than a decade for this.
Past the kettledrum and store associate handing out leis to customers as they arrived – most of them walking in from the parking lot at a near-jog pace just to cross the threshold for the first time – store captain Greg Glei stood near the bank of registers and chatted with shoppers as they filtered past.
“It’s really exciting to see everyone show up today,” he said. “They’ve been driving by here for about the past three weeks, looking in and wondering when we were going to open. We’re glad to finally be open.”
Shoppers hailing from all over Monmouth County couldn’t wait to see the store open. Many of them have been making the 45-minute to an hour trek to Westfield – the previous closest location – just to get their Trader Joe’s fix.
Still, others, with little or no previous Trader Joe’s experience, came to grand opening based solely on recommendations from family and friends. Tinton Falls resident Jean Nelson came prepared with a list, not of things she necessarily needed for her kitchen, but of items her sister, an avid Joe’s fan living in Connecticut, told her she should look out for.
“I’m so excited that it’s finally come to the area,” she said. “My sister raves about it. There’s a wide variety of products, no GMO (genetically modified food), and that’s important to me.”
That’s one of several reasons why people seek out Trader Joe’s.
Just why the market is so popular depends on whom you ask. Store reps like Glei point to the quality and the prices of the products the market carries. Shoppers often point to more specific reasons, like the specialty foods and wide selection of product that meets their individual dietary restrictions.
Whatever the reason, the market has developed quite a following in its crawl from the west coast through the United States. Currently there are more than 20 Trader Joe’s in the New Jersey-New York area, and, for many shoppers, hour-long commutes, just to buy groceries, has been a routine.
Mom and daughter Patti and Molly Shea of Middletown have been doing the Westfield commute thing for years. Trader Joe’s, Patti Shea said, just has a vibe, with its friendly staff and island-themed displays and decorations that makes shopping at its locations enjoyable.
It’s also practical, especially for her daughter, who suffers from gluten allergies. Instead of finding the barren corner in the frozen section of a traditional supermarket dedicated to gluten-free products, Trader Joe’s selection of products can be found all over.
“It’s such a relief just to be able to look around,” Molly Shea said. “To be able to walk down an aisle and be able to buy dinner for the whole family instead of having to buy a single (frozen) meal for myself.”
But, stores that carry specialty foods, especially in Monmouth County, aren’t that rare. South a few miles on Route 35 is Wegmans in Tinton Falls, and, in the other direction on 35 is Whole Foods in Middletown. In between there are dozens of independent markets and restaurants that cater to dietary needs.
Part of the reason for Joe’s popularity is its pricing. Glei said approximately 90-percent of the products available for sale are in-store brands. That keeps costs low for both Joe’s and the consumer.
“I love the selection of the products them have here,” Oakhurst resident John Barker said. “They keep the prices down and don’t use preservatives and they’re able to keep food healthy.”
Taste is also important. Every experienced Trader Joe’s shopper has a favorite product. For some, like Mark Estrada of Tinton Falls, it’s the cookies dipped in chocolate, for others it’s the salsa, or the cereal, or the sausage.
Of course, for many, it’s all of those things and more.
“I’ve been waiting for 10 years for this,” Monmouth Beach resident Kristina Marchisin said, wheeling her cart around Trader Joe’s half an hour after the store’s early-morning ribbon cutting. “I would have been here are 8am, but I had to drop the kids off at school.
“The variety they have is just so much. I can shop, I can do everything I need here. It’s a one-stop shop for me.”
Trader Joe’s opening isn’t just a positive for the county’s shopper, but for Shrewsbury, too. The market fills a long-empty storefront in a shopping complex right in the center of this small town.
Mayor Donald Burden, himself lei’d in honor of the opening, called Trader Joe’s a magnet for both bringing in outside customers as well as other businesses.
“It gives some stability to the area and it will probably attract other businesses that are interested in locating here,” he said. “It’s a business that’s friendly to families and retirees and it will bring traffic here.”
Though questions remain about potential impacts on traffic in an already congested area, Burden said the company has been more than willing to work with local officials and Shrewsbury’s police department. He said he’s drinking the Trader Joe’s Kool-Aid.
“They don’t sell it here,” he said, referring to Shrewsbury Joe’s not having a liquor license. “But, I’ve had my share of it.”
For other organic options in Monmouth County, check out a Brookdale College student's quest to find the purest food.