Genuine market bliss

Special to The Times

SUPERMARKETS can gnaw at the soul. At the core, they're fluorescent warehouses of horrors, full of garishly packaged products jockeying for our patronage. But Trader Joe's has cut a path directly into the hearts of Southern Californians because it transforms the supermarket, with all its drudgery, into an exotic culinary toy store. Here, raw childhood id is what drives us through the aisles -- I want this, I want that -- and it almost always gets its way. There's never any rush at Trader Joe's: People slowly navigate their carts through the narrow crevices and carefully study every square inch of shelf space, so as not to miss any of the astonishing new products that may have recently been introduced.

Of course, once you see that product, you must have it. When you get home, you're like a kid on Christmas morning. Spicy Ranchero Egg White Salad -- where have you been all my life? Shoppers live for the Trader Joe's epiphany, because it can happen at any time. They can buy impulsively, but without guilt.

In its nearly 40 years of business -- the first store opened in 1967, in Pasadena -- Trader Joe's has developed into a blissful parallel universe where egalitarian gourmands can seek out meatless meatballs, no-pudge fudge brownies or jalapeno-stuffed olives. Millions of Angelenos have drunk the Kool-Aid (er, the Sir Strawberry juice), popped the Trader Darwin vitamins, gobbled the Trader Jose cheese enchiladas, had a few too many glasses of Two Buck Chuck. Trader Joe's buys straight from the supplier and slaps its own labels on many products, so the consumer saves money while the company profits handsomely: an estimated $5 billion in sales in 2005.

The cult of Trader Joe's may be rooted in Los Angeles, but it has grown to encompass more than 150 stores in 20 states. And when Trader Joe's comes to a town, mayhem often ensues. Earlier this year, lines formed around the block in St. Paul, Minn., during opening week. When Trader Joe's set up shop in Manhattan's Union Square, even jaded New Yorkers were curious to see what they'd been missing all these years. Multiple blogs are devoted to the Trader Joe's experience, and there's a comprehensive Wikipedia entry, as well.

Let's just hope that, with all the expansion, the egg white salad won't go out of stock.

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