If happiness in your shopping cart equals a tub of dark chocolate–covered edamame beans, a box of truffle–infused risotto, a cluster of organic sunflowers and a case of Two Buck Chuck, then you know Joe.
I recently spent some quality time with Joe on a recent getaway to the mountains, but I promise, my husband didn’t mind.
Some girlfriends and I made a detour into Greenville, S.C., specifically to shop at Trader Joe’s, the California–based gourmet wonderland that’s made inroads in the Southeast in the last several years.
Six women filled the car for the weekend with 11 different types of cheese, oodles of goodies like ready–for–the–oven garlic fries and of course, plenty of $2.99–a–bottle Charles Shaw Pinot Grigio (aka “Two Buck Chuck.”) I had to sit on someone’s lap with my face squished against the seatbelt for the rest of the ride, but the indentation across my forehead was totally worth it.
Trader Joe’s is paradise for the curious palate, and there’s never enough room in the cooler: Punjabi eggplant. Chocolate mole chicken. Artisan chocolates. Feta–stuffed olives. Grass–fed meats and sustainably–farmed seafood in the freezer section, all priced like it’s no big deal.
The cost of our over–the–top weekend indulgence was far less than a single meal out with a couple of cocktails would have been, and we got to eat it all in our pajamas.
Some don’t grok the fawning devotion to Trader Joe’s, be it out of ignorance or the incapacity to be moved by colorful packets of little baby squash. Forget the posh vibe of other fancy food stores, with the pretentious classical music and over–priced strawberries spotlighted like they’re about to perform a lapdance. TJ’s store decor is cozy and campy, with a Caribbean straw market flair and friendly staff wielding samples every few feet.
If NPR had its own food store, this would be it. This is where the lower tax brackets can enjoy all the perks of food snobbery, a place for the proletariat to be proud of its fine–tuned tastebuds.
In the words of 2010 Fortune magazine article, Trader Joe’s “presence in your community is like an affirmation that you and your neighbors are worldly and smart.”
So maybe you’re salivating and nodding, “Why, yes, I would like rosemary–spiced Macona almonds for $2.99 a bag. I’d like to shop at Trader Joe’s!”
Charleston has one to call its own, as does Knoxville. Atlanta boasts the tear–jerking injustice of FIVE. So where, pray tell, is Savannah’s?
The Facebook page “Bring Trader Joe’s to Downtown Savannah” has 887 members and remains active with helpful suggestions about possible locations and some outright begging.
Surely, if Trader’s Joe’s knew how much we want and frankly, deserve a store, it could only be a matter of time, yes?
No. Alison Mochizuki, TJ’s director of public relations in Monrovia, Calif., informed me regretfully that Savannah is nowhere on TJ’s “future” list.
What if we asked really, really nicely?
Ms. Mochizuki was sincerely apologetic. “Unfortunately, wooing does not go into our decision–making process.”
Mochizuki also was also terribly sorry, but no, she was not at liberty to discuss with the press what factors make a city Trader Joe’s–worthy. So I turned to Steve Weathers, president and CEO of SEDA, the Savannah Economic Development Authority to find out when I can expect to have my flash–fried banana chips.
Mr. Weathers, who’s familiar with Trader Joe’s from his stints in economic development all over the country, broke the news to me gently: Like all successful retail chains, Trader Joe’s has specific demographic criteria that have to be met to consider setting up shop in a particular location.
Within a 15–minute driving radius of a potential site, there must be at least 36,000 people with four–year college degrees who have a median age of 44 and earn a combined household income of $64K a year.
Let’s look at downtown Savannah: We’ve got 24,000 people with higher education diplomas, the average age is 34 and the average household pulls in $48K a year.
Weathers said those numbers go up as out towards the southside as the SCAD students are taken out of the mix, but no matter: Savannah doesn’t make the cut.
In short: We’re too young, too poor and too dumb.
I found this crushing. Weathers must’ve heard my sniffling on the other end of the line.
“It’s not personal,” he consoled. “The bean counters come up with the data and we just don’t have it.”
So all the Facebook lobbying and brow–furrowing debates on whether the old David’s supermarket in the Starland District is a better location than the empty pink loaf of the Backus Cadillac building makes no difference at all?
“Coming as a professional in economic development, the bottom line is that they have to stay in business,” he continued apologetically. “However, as a shopper, I would say if they set up a store downtown, I think it would be busy seven days a week.”
Weathers, a TJ’s fan himself, said the only way the chain might consider coming to Savannah at this point is if the city subsidized it through free rent or massive tax breaks, which seems about as likely as City Council voting to pave River Street with particle board. But he was encouraging.
“No reason to give up hope. Their formula might change, and Savannah is continuing to grow,” he said. “Anything can happen in the next five to ten years.”
Five to ten years of shop–commuting for me and the other 886 Facebook fans. But we will persevere until we can have our frozen $3.99 organic chocolate pound cake and eat it, too, won’t we?
In the meantime, there are 17 pounds of chili lime cashews and garlic fries in my freezer.