Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Trader Joe's: Coming Soon to a Neighborhood Near You?

The local food blogs (at City Pages and Heavy Table) are buzzing over the suggestion that Trader Joe’s may be coming to a new location at 2309 Lyndale. The debate so far seems to be concentrated on several issues:
  • Do chain stores belong on Lyndale?
  • Would a Trader Joe’s hurt the Wedge Co-op?
  • What does this mean for traffic?
  • Is Trader Joe’s a terrible, soul-sucking evil corporate Walmart-type that will destroy the neighborhood? (that’s a bit extreme, but Trader Joe’s seems to have the ability to incite strong feelings in people)

I’m perfectly fine with a Trader Joe’s moving into the neighborhood, although my position hasn’t yet solidified. Some musings on the issues at hand:

Do chain stores belong on Lyndale?
I would much prefer to see local, independent stores than I would see chains. But, that said, I don’t think it needs to be a hard-and-fast rule. National chains have their role in society, too, and I’d rather see some development than no development. Trader Joe’s fills a different niche than any other store in the neighborhood. If it was in direct competition with another independent store I might feel differently. But in this case, if done right, I think a Trader Joe’s could fit in well.

Would a Trader Joe’s hurt the Wedge Co-op?
I don’t think the two stores are direct competitors. Sure, some traffic might go to Trader Joe’s that might otherwise go to the Wedge, but for the most part Wedge fans are going to stick with their regular store. Trader Joe’s is great for frozen items and private line convenience foods; it’s not the kind of place you visit because you want top quality produce or meat. Yes, people have a limited amount of money that they’re going to spend on food each month, but realistically many Wedge patrons don’t shop exclusively at that store. A Trader Joe’s might take some money away from Wedge and other area food stores (Rainbow, Kowalski’s, etc.), but it’s unlikely to be as drastic as some people fear. Finally, many people in these neighborhoods are already Trader Joe’s fans; in their case it would simply mean that their Trader Joe’s budget was shifted from one location to another. I'd like to also think that instead of getting in the car and driving to St. Louis Park they'd do their shopping by foot or bike. Given the unpleasant nature of most Trader Joe's parking lots, I'd guess that many Uptown residents would choose to walk and not drive.

What does this mean for traffic?
Yes, a Trader Joe’s will undoubtedly increase traffic. The parking lot will almost certainly be congested. The only reason I care about any of this is because it will slow down buses, as well as potentially hurt other area businesses. In general I think that people who live in urban neighborhoods should expect traffic and parking problems; it comes with the territory. In an ideal world the bulk of Trader Joe’s shoppers will be walking or biking and not driving. Both the Wedge neighborhood and Whittier are dense, urban neighborhoods, and walking should be a doable option for many local residents. I'm not sure where the tipping point is between acceptable and unacceptable traffic levels; I don't want to see local businesses hurt, but at the same time I hate to see the continued development and growth of our neighborhoods designed around the needs of automobiles.

Is Trader Joe’s an evil big box store?
Trader Joe’s likes to fashion itself as an alternative to both traditional large grocery stores as well as smaller upscale gourmet food shops. It’s not a co-op, either, but does incorporate some of the food ethics that are more traditionally found in stores of that type. I think it’s this marketing that leads to people’s strong feelings – of both love and hate – for Trader Joe’s. Yes, it is a national chain, and some people would hate it for that alone. But the feelings towards Trader Joe’s seems to run deeper than that. Some of the comments on local discussion boards seem to bear this out; I’ve already seen multiple references to the epitome of evil corporate globalization, Walmart. Warnings about “big box stores” and “walkabilty” are already flying. This is where the opposition argument really begins to fall apart for me; while Trader Joe’s is a national chain, it’s certainly not anything like a Walmart. And as far as “big box stores” and threats to walkability, well, Trader Joe’s are not big stores, and there’s no evidence that a local store would in any way negatively impact neighborhood walkability. When the gloom and doom warnings veer off into the downright silly then I think it’s fair to say that there’s more at work than just a discussion about whether or not a certain store would be a negative or a positive for the neighborhood. While there are valid reasons to dislike Trader Joe’s, I think many of these negative reactions are knee-jerk emotional responses to both chain stores as well as to the perceived yuppie clientele of a Trader Joe’s.

I like Trader Joe’s. I don’t like the crowds and I don’t like the crowded aisles, and find the theme thing a little annoying, but I like the fact that I have an option to buy affordable, vegetarian frozen and convenience foods. I do agree that we as a society should be increasingly moving towards buying locally, and I also try to when possible support local businesses. I’m not perfect, though, and while I try to stick to my principles there are times when it’s not possible. Trader Joe’s isn’t perfect, either, but it’s certainly not the evil empire that some opponents make it out to be. If Trader Joe’s does come to town then we can and should expect it to be an appropriately developed urban store. We can also use this as an opportunity to raise community-wide discussions about the importance of supporting local businesses. We can expect Trader Joe’s to give back to the community and to be a good corporate neighbor. A Trader Joe’s might not be the best fit for Uptown/Lyndale/Whittier at this point in time, but it’s not a terrible, thing either.


  1. I don't know anything about TJ's corporate practices, but I know they have some mighty tasty frozen spinach/artichoke dip and pre-made pizza dough. Really, though, in that location, I would expect the majority of trips to be non-motorized. That parking lot looks very small. Just judging from MS Live Maps, I'd say it's not much more than a dozen spots. So people are either not going to go, or they're not going to drive there. I think a Trader Joe's in that location is a win/win(/win). Independent stores are better than chain stores, but chain stores are better than empty space.

  2. Update: The Wedge has decided to tackle this by framing it in terms of the liquor variance issue. They're on more firm footing there than with the other arguments, but I think that Hum's Liquor has a better chance at making the argument than does the Wedge. Trader Joe's would be selling their wine and beer from a separate space, and therefore competing directly with Hum's as oopposed to the Wedge. I'd be curious to hear what Hum's has to say about this, as their constituency isn't making as much of a fuss as are the Wedge supporters. (and for the record, I'm not supporting Trader Joe's OVER the Wedge; I feel that they can both coexist.)

  3. Have you heard about how parking will work? 2309 is that new Paris-inspired development. I wonder if they'll find more parking or more space for the Trader Joe's on neighboring property. It seems small otherwise for TJ and their liquor store. Just too small.

  4. What many people don't seem to know about this development is how it will impact the other small businesses on this block. Which leads back to your comment, "We can also use this as an opportunity to raise community-wide discussions about the importance of supporting local businesses." Yes and thank you for that!
    I am the co-owner of Sacred Rearrangements, shop and healing center at 2207 Lyndale. The building that houses us is scheduled to be demolished as part of this development. There is much talk on the blogs you mention about "impacting local businesses, etc. etc."-but so far has focused on the competition to Hum's or the Wedge. But no mention of the destruction of a local family-owned business-probably because people don't know. Sure, we don't have the history of the Wedge or Hum's, but we have been there for nearly three years, which for a small business in today's market is phenomenal. We offer the community many holistic health services that are both affordable and accessible. Not to mention, we have a number of practitioner We don't own the building so now, to find a space with comparable rent and to come up with capital for relocation costs is a real kicker! I'm not ultimately worried about us, as we will figure it out...but I bring this up because it's an important discussion about local businesses and what happens to them. Is there a way in all this for businesses like Sacred Rearrangements to be taken care of?

  5. The question of small businesses on the block (and the neighborhood in general) is a good one; I don't know what the solution is, but I feel far more sympathetic to businesses like yours than I do the Wedge. Many of the smaller, independent places got forced out of the core Uptown area in the past, and so far the businesses along Lyndale and in Lyn-Lake have been better able to retain some of that independent spirit. I'd hate to see the neighborhood lose that through new developments and/or higher rents.

  6. I heard a rumor that Trader Joes will be opening on the east side of downtown Minneapolis. Any truth to this rumor?