600 customers flood Trader Joe's within an hour of its opening


Customers are greeted to cheers and calypso music during the grand opening of Trader Joe's in Butler Plaza in Gainesville on Wednesday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 9:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 8:34 a.m.

Amanda Harvey, the first customer of Gainesville's Trader Joe's, cut the ceremonial lei across the entrance at 8 a.m., and with that the grocery store opened for business in Butler Plaza.

Facts

Grocery opening today in east Gainesville

The Save-A-Lot grocery store opens today in the former Food Lion location in east Gainesville.

The store will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily at 2302 Hawthorne Road.

Save-A-Lot stores offers a limited selection of groceries at discount prices. About 80 percent of the products are the company's own brand.

The store will provide another grocery option for east Gainesville after Food Lion closed Feb. 15.

Save-A-Lot also has a store at 2605 NW 13th St. in the plaza with Walmart and one in the city of Archer.

More than 100 customers who had been waiting in line were greeted with cheers and high-fives from employees in orange T-shirts and Hawaiian shirts while a steel drum player treated them to calypso music.

By 9 a.m., more than 600 people had come through the entrance, based on the number of synthetic flowered leis placed around their necks.

"It definitely exceeded my expectations," said store manager Jodi McCullough, whose Trader Joe's title is captain. Employees are called crew members.

How did a small grocery store with no history in Gainesville create so much buzz?

Most of the customers said they had shopped at Trader Joe's stores in other cities where they became fans of the private-label foods, unique specialty items and low prices.

McCullough said customers also like the store experience with helpful employees who walk them to products and quirky decorations made by employees that emphasize local people and places.

"It's one of the most fabulous places," said Barbara Rothstein, 65, of Micanopy who has been to stores in New England. "You can get healthy food for great prices. The people are friendly. They're always well stocked. They have stuff that nobody else has. I go for the brown rice crackers, and they have wonderful fresh spices. And they have pre-made foods that taste like you bought them at a gourmet shop."

McCullough said the Gainesville store has one of the largest frozen food sections in the company, including grass-fed ground beef and the company's biggest seller — Mandarin orange chicken. She said the store has a lot of prepared meals to serve the demographics of a university and medical town.

"Folks need quick meals on the go," she said.

University of Florida students Brittany Potanovic, 22, and Sarah Alexander, 21, said they became regulars of a store in Atlanta, where they served a summer internship together, since it fit their budget.

"Trader Joe's has that same appeal of a Whole Foods," Potanovic said. "They definitely cater to the organic and cool trends in food, but have way lower prices."

Trader Joe's stores carry more than 2,000 private-label items — 80 percent of their offerings. The Trader Joe's label means foods do not have antibiotics, preservatives, artificial colors or artificial flavors, McCullough said.

The company's buyers find food all over the world, including pizzas handmade in Italy and chocolate from Belgium. All items have to be approved by a panel of tasters.

Popular items include cut cheeses and crop nuts.

The store carries staples such as bread and milk but also carries pear cinnamon cider, wild salmon jerky and Peppermint Joe Joe's — Oreo-like cookies with peppermint filling.

Gainesville residents have already started receiving the "Fearless Flyer" newsletter in the mail, highlighting some of the offerings.

Cristina Eury, 39, of Gainesville, had shopped at several Trader Joe's stores when living in Phoenix and after moving to Gainesville would stock up at an Atlanta area store on her way back from her in-laws.

On Wednesday, her cart had coconut milk, Irish breakfast tea, fruit roll-ups for the kids and Joe Joe's while she worked her way through a list texted from her husband, Wayne, an English teacher at Gainesville High School.

Trader Joe's name is also synonymous with the low-cost wine originally called "Two Buck Chuck." The Charles Shaw Wine now sells for $2.99 a bottle.

Kurt Jensen, 37, of Gainesville filled his cart with 21 bottles — three of each kind "to last a few months."

According to a news release, the company keeps prices down by buying directly from manufacturers, cutting out distributors. The store does not offer sales, price promotions, discount cards or coupons.

McCullough said stores also handle their own graphics with employees making decorations and shelf signs.

Her first hire was UF arts graduate Jeffrey Sincich, 22, who called after she posted a sign at the arts department.

He helped paint murals that include Ichetucknee Springs and Paynes Prairie and create foam cutouts that include local celebrities Tom Petty and Bo Diddley at "Joe Diddley's Butcher Shop Plaza."

A cutout likeness of the Hippodrome Theatre is labeled "The Chip-N-Dippodrome," while a mural of coffee bean bats at the UF Bat House leads from the coffee section.

The store has 87 full-time and part-time workers, 80 percent of whom were local hires, McCullough said.

The 14,500-square-foot store is at 3724 Archer Road in part of the former Goody's location near Best Buy. It is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

The company is based in Monrovia, Calif., and operates 380 stores in 35 states.

The Gainesville store is the company's third in Florida, following openings in Naples in February and Sarasota in September.

"There's lots of foodies in Gainesville, and we felt it was a perfect fit for Trader Joe's," spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said.

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