U.S. road trippers brake for Trader Joe’s great grub

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      Thanks to a sweet exchange rate, more Vancouverites are willing to brave long border lines and perilously high gas prices to take a road trip south. Those heading to the U.S. might be interested in stopping by Trader Joe’s, a popular grocery chain that has gained cult status in many U.S. cities thanks to remarkably cheap gourmet food that’s free of preservatives and artificial colours and flavours.

      Trader Joe’s manages to keep prices low by selling its own in-house brands and by having its stores in less-than-prime locations, like the one that opened in a strip mall in Bellingham late last year. The store’s proximity to the I-5 makes it convenient for pit stops. The food on offer lends itself to snacking during long hours in the car: an endless array of baked, popped, and low-sodium potato chips, as well as dips such as blue cheese and pecan, sun-dried tomato pesto, and peach salsa—all for under US$4. There are also plenty of ready-made salads, pizzas, and meat dishes that could make for a quick picnic.

      The California-based company does little in the way of advertising or marketing, which has created an information vacuum that the store’s rabid fans have filled by writing about its latest products on Web sites such as www.traderjoefan.com/. Indeed, part of the appeal of a trip to TJ’s, as it’s sometimes known, is that you never know what you’re going to find, since the inventory is constantly changing.

      If you’re staying in the U.S. for more than 48 hours, you can use your alcohol exemption (1.5 litres of wine, 1.14 litres of liquor, or 24 cans of beer) to bring home a couple of bottles from the store’s vast wine collection duty-free. Its popular wine, Charles Shaw, retails for US$2.99 and, surprisingly, doesn’t taste at all like turpentine. You can also find several popular labels at prices that are substantially cheaper than back home: a bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella that would retail in B.C. for about $45 costs less than US$20.

      It’s also worth stocking up on the store’s pizzas, chocolate, quiches, and huge array of cheap cheeses—half-pound wedges of creamy Brie for US$2.50 or mild Manchego for US$5, a chunk of Gorgonzola for US$3—which are perfect for serving when you have guests over. In fact, a trip to Trader Joe’s can dramatically reduce your entertaining budget while letting you impress your friends with all manner of imported food and drink. Just don’t bother mentioning that it was imported from Bellingham.

      Access: Trader Joe’s is located at 2410 James Street in Bellingham, near I-5 Exit 255. It’s open every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Find other locations in Washington and beyond at www.traderjoes.com/. There’s no duty charged on basic groceries, but check the Canada Border Services Web site (www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/menu-eng.html ) for what can and can’t be imported.