In the last two days I have received a barrage of e-mails--at least 30, if I counted correctly--from local folks urging Metrofoodie to blog about why we need a Trader Joe's in the Capital Region. I was curious about the sudden flurry, and I assumed it had to be some sort of a planned campaign, so I did a little digging, and sure enough, it was organized by someone named Bruce Roter, who appears to be the driving force behind a group called We Want Trader Joe's in the Capital District (wwtg.org).
If you're not familiar with Trader Joe's, it's a food store chain that sells natural and somewhat upscale products at very reasonable prices in a comfy, neighborhood-store setting. For many people who stumble into a TJ's for the first time (many of the 322 locations are in California, but you can find them in places like Larchmont, N.Y., Fairfield, Conn., and Brookline, Mass.; the closest one, in Hadley, Mass., is about an hour and 45 minutes from Albany), it's love at first sight. People come home gushing about all the high-quality groceries they bought and how little they spent. As founder Joe Coulombe puts it, "Trader Joe's was designed by me in the 1960s and 70s to serve people who are overeducated and underpaid."
You should also know this: Coulombe sold TJ's in 1979 to German billionnaire Theo Albrecht, whose family also owns the discount food-store chain Aldi, which is a decidely less upscale, no-frills operation aimed at lower-income and less food-snobby populations.
So . . . And I say this as someone who has shopped several times at Trader Joe's and loved it: Do we need another big-box retailer to come into our area, grab a slice of the natural-foods pie, and ship the surplus profits out of our region (in this case, out of our country)?
With the local, sustainable foods movement (and the broader local, sustainable-economies movement) really picking up momentum, even a seemingly benign chain like Trader Joe's may be past its time. I will paraphrase a suggestion I was offered on this subject by someone involved in those movements locally: To all of the people who put their energy into the cause of bringing Trader Joe's to the Capital Region, have you considered putting even half of that energy into finding out more about, and partaking of, the local and natural food options we have here? Have you considered joining a co-op? Shopping at or volunteering at a farmer's market? Joining a CSA?
Landing a TJ's (or a Whole Foods) in this market might seem a sign of progress to some, but there may be drawbacks to the local economy, not to mention the health of local growers, co-ops, etc.
But I'd like this to be a starting point for discussion. I would really love to hear comments, especially from the supporters of the movement to bring a Trader Joe's here.