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Lick the Plate: Big love for Trader Joe’s

I’ve had an ongoing debate with some foodie friends that if we were given the ultimatum to only shop at one grocery store in the North County area, which one would we pick? Given the proliferation of amazing options in that category, it was a difficult and almost impossible decision to make.

I had to develop a list of selection criteria, and of course that varies from person to person depending on household needs. And with me being an empty nester that played big into my process. Besides produce, which has to be fresh, I need food items that can freeze easily or canned goods for the pantry that will satisfy my somewhat snobbish tastes in quality stuff.

I obviously eat out a lot with this gig, which means there are long stretches where I’m not cooking at home and I hate seeing food go bad. I also need this one store to fulfill my eclectic beverage needs both alcoholic and of the soda variety.

Besides all that, the atmosphere, vibe, soundtrack and staff all play equally important contributing factors in this one-stop shop. It’s amazing how many stores out there still have not caught on to how important these elements are to the shopping experience.

There’s more to the wine selection than just Two Buck Chuck. Photo by David Boylan

And finally, this store has to be reasonably priced while delivering everything I’ve mentioned. As an added bonus, the discovery of new products on every visit pretty much sealed the deal for my pick. When I did combine all my criteria and the bonus, Trader Joe’s was really a no-brainer selection.

I normally frequent the Encinitas location but have on occasion popped into the Oceanside store located near my day job. I’m normally in and out with a list, charging it like the power moms who frequent the Encinitas store. On a recent visit to the Encinitas store, I gave myself some time, pen and notepad in hand, really soaking in the experience.

First off, the music is always spot on, and I find myself singing along or doing a somewhat awkward head bopping dance to their most excellent mix. As a marketer, I know full well that when you create a vibe like that, people buy more and I’m OK with that.

The Trader Joe’s experience starts before you even enter the store as there is always a great selection of plants and flowers out front. First up inside is the produce section, which is not their strongest suit, but I’ve never had a bad experience with it either. I include the Leucadia Farmers Market for my weekly produce — as it’s not really a grocery store, right?

Very decent coffee and tea offerings are also part of the first aisle experience, and in normal times it’s where they are usually sampling something delicious. As I round the corner, I’m a sucker for a good protein bar and they are always stocked up with a few tasty options.

The frozen section is a refreshing delight from typical grocery store frozen food offerings. Several varieties of fried rice that are perfect to doctor up with additional ingredients, spring rolls, shawarma, Indian dishes, pizza, burritos, and one of my favorites, their frozen mashed potato cubes; you simply add milk and butter that produces a quick and delicious mashed potato side dish. An entire column on the doctoring up of Trader Joe’s products could be in order because it happens often.

I’m also quite satisfied with the meat section and am a regular consumer of their applewood smoked bacon, Italian sausage, 80/20 blend of hamburger, pork loin, ribeye steak, whole chicken, and much more. Most are packaged for quick freezing or have expiration dates that allow for a few days in the fridge.

As far as seafood, I’m a bit jaded in this category by my relationship with my friend who owns Boundless Boat Charters and the regular fresh seafood I have access to. That said, I’ve purchased beautiful looking, non-frozen salmon at Trader Joe’s and was not disappointed.

Going down another frozen food aisle, I’m sure you have all been sucked in by the endless varieties of dessert snacks — from bonbons to five-seed almond bars to green tea mochi and what seems like an endless variety of decadent temptations. Sometimes I just keep my head down to avoid overindulging.

Canned goods are another big love of mine there. Their Cuban-style black beans are a weekly staple in several dishes. The dairy section is another winner with plenty of cheese offerings and happy eggs.

I would be neglectful if I did not touch on the beer, wine, kombucha and spirits offerings. This section is amazing. Where can you find German lager, French wine and hard kombucha all under $10 and of high quality? And I’m just skimming the surface here. We all know about Two Buck Chuck, the Charles Shaw patio pounders they have offered for years, but I’m talking about some very drinkable wines at prices that can’t be beat.

I’ll wrap this up with a shout-out to the staff who are always around to answer questions, seem genuinely happy to be working there, and just exude an authentic good vibe that tops off the fabulous shopping experience at Trader Joe’s. And from what I hear, Trader Joe’s take pretty good care of them.

All of what I’ve described and much more is reflected on their killer website. I’d suggest giving it a look and being grateful for this national chain with individual stores that each have their own personality. www.traderjoes.com