‘FREE MONEY,’ DIM SUM & TWO-BUCK CHUCK

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So who or what is Trader Joe’s?

It’s a food store with rabid devotees that allows customers to taste anything and return anything, no questions asked. The only exception? Selections from the wine department, which carries ‘Two-Buck Chuck,’ the Charles Shaw wine it retails for between $1.99 and $3.49 a bottle.

Kathleen Purvis of the Charlotte Observer took on the ‘who is Joe’ question last month, shortly before the opening of a Trader Joe’s in Piper Glen, N.C.

“People who have shopped there are so excited, you’d think the shelves are stocked with free money,” she wrote. “People who haven’t shopped there have the puzzled looks of confused Airedales.”

Here are some excerpts from Purvis’ take on Trader Joe’s:

It’s a food store, but it’s not a supermarket. In a nutshell — they’d call it a mountain-grown, sun-roasted macadamia shell — it’s a specialty food store.

Trader Joe’s finds small, artisan producers of special foods, then packages it all under its own labels. By cutting the middle man and buying in bulk — there are almost 300 stores nationwide — it sells at steep discounts.

It has most of the departments of a supermarket — bakery, deli, dairy, frozen foods, flowers, meat and produce — but it’s not the place you go for a box of Tide on double-coupon day.

Instead, it’s the place for frozen foods, packaged foods, snack mixes and breads, most of it with healthful or gourmet pedigrees. To fans, it’s a party-giver’s paradise, a short-cut cook’s dream and a gourmet cook’s ticket to nirvana.

The L.A. Times calls it “the kid in a candy store” concept: impulse shopping without guilt.

Trader trademarks

— The chalkboard signs. Each store has an “art team” — two artists have been hired here — but regular staff get to draw, too.

— The brand names, such as Trader Ming, Trader Jose, Trader Giotto and Baker Josef.

— The Hawaiian theme. Think trade winds and trade ships. But also think California surfer, where the store started.

Founder Joe Coulombe has said he got the idea on a vacation, and that he wanted to capture that feeling, because people are more willing to try new things on vacation.

Store employees — look for the flowered shirts — are crew members, the manager is the captain, the assistant manager is the first mate.

It would all be really cheesy, if they didn’t have a good sense of humor about it.

The nearest Trader Joe’s to Red Bank is in Westfield, where a redbankgreen reader tells us that, on the downside, the store is often packed with shoppers, and “the organization of the store is a little off.”

But that’s vastly overcome by the quality of the foods, she says. House-brand sauces, salad dressings and frozen desserts are all “great,” she says, and the prepared appetizers and entrees are both high-quality and easy to get ready for the table.

“The stuff is good,” she says. “It’s almost gourmet, but you don’t have to be a gourmet cook to make it, and you don’t feel like you’re getting Costco quality.”

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