Anna Sowa / The Bulletin

On Friday morning, Bend resident Chrissi Wright expects she’ll leave Trader Joe’s gourmet grocery store with eight bottles of the popular Charles Shaw wine, priced at $2.99 each, tucked under her arms. Wright has waited two years to do this since the Monrovia, Calif.-based grocery store announced it’s opening in Bend — the first one east of the Oregon Cascades.

“I love Trader Joe’s because they let me eat like a yuppie without taking all my money,” Wright said. “Their products are gourmet, often environmentally conscientious and beautiful … and, of course, there’s Two-Buck Chuck — possibly the greatest innovation of our time.”

Wright was joking about the Trader Joe’s wine, nicknamed Two-Buck Chuck because of its lower price in California, but many Central Oregonians are serious in their commitment to what they call high-end products for low prices. Rumors of Trader Joe’s opening have swirled throughout the High Desert for years, exciting many avid shoppers, concerning two local grocers and making some wonder what the big deal is with these small stores that together generate more than $6 billion in sales, according to estimates from a grocery trade magazine.

Trader Joe’s will open at 9 a.m. Friday at the Cascade Village Shopping Center. For the past month, hopeful shoppers from throughout the region have been spotted driving by the 13,000-square-foot building off U.S. Highway 97, craning necks to see if it was open or peering in the store’s glass doors.

“People are going to go crazy,” Darren Watson, the store manager, said of the opening. In Trader Joe’s the manager is known as the “captain.”

He could not disclose how many employees he hired, but he said 90 percent came from Central Oregon. The rest, like him, came from other Trader Joe’s stores.

Die-hard fans

Trader Joe’s has earned an almost cult-like following among die-hard fans who frequent the nearly 300 privately owned stores in more than 23 states, with the heaviest saturation in California. With Bend, Oregon now has eight Trader Joe’s.

“We don’t have club cards, we don’t switch our prices around,” Watson said, explaining Trader Joe’s pricing. “And we buy in huge quantities straight from our distributors, which cuts out the middle man and lets us offer the lowest possible prices.”

In Bend, many Trader Joe’s enthusiasts have said they travel to other areas to shop at the stores, or send their shopping lists with friends. Before Bend was announced, many others regularly called the corporate offices in the Los Angeles area, or inquired with employees at other Trader Joe’s, about a possible Bend store.

Throughout the nation, similar stories have popped up surrounding Trader Joe’s mania. Blogs have been devoted to the retailer and when a store opened at New York City’s Union Square, a checkout line snaked throughout the small store and almost out the door, the New York Sun reported.

With its Hawaiian themes — store management likened to ship captains or mates, all employees wearing Aloha shirts — and unique structure, the company tries to defy the typical grocery store experience, according to Trader Joe’s Web site. For example, the stores use a bell-ringing system for communication instead of making announcements over a public address system.

The company is secretive about its corporate practices, except to say that it knows how to care for customers and cultivate a friendly, kind of funky shopping environment. Trader Joe’s brand products, which make up 80 percent of the store inventory, are all free of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, Watson said. And with the exception of liquor, product prices remain relatively stable across state borders.

Even with food prices soaring due to crop shortages and increased demand, Trader Joe’s buys large enough quantities to afford cheaper prices, according to Watson.

“We want people to price-compare,” Watson said, picking up a bag of puffed corn snacks that looks like a generic version of Pirate’s Booty. “I love working here because it’s a product you can back up.”

Added competition

Trader Joe’s began in 1958 as a Southern California convenience store called Pronto Foods, according to its Web site. The nautical themes are meant to reflect the store’s bounties that travel from distant lands for food-savvy consumers. The business model changed in the 1960s to the quirky, island theme that exists today, according to the site.

The company has since been sold and is now owned by Germany’s Albrecht family, according to Supermarket News’ Web site. The store’s independence from Wall Street has helped it keep prices lower for the consumer, the store’s Web site says.

Estimated sales from Trader Joe’s 310 stores will be $6.5 billion for the fiscal year ending June 8, according to grocery industry trade magazine Supermarket News, placing it 23rd among Supermarket News’ top 75 retailers of 2008. Trader Joe’s does not release financial information.

Comparatively, No. 5-ranked Safeway had an estimated $42.3 billion in sales for the fiscal year that ended Dec. 29, 2007, among its 1,738 stores. Wal-Mart was No. 1, with an estimated $240.8 billion in sales in its fiscal year that ended Jan. 31 from its 3,153 corporate stores, according to Supermarket News.

While Trader Joe’s may excite some shoppers, it adds competition to the already competitive local grocery store market.

Newport Avenue Market has been operating its specialty neighborhood store on Bend’s west side since 1991, store manager Spike Bement said this week. The location has held a grocery store since the 1960s, he added.

“We’re always concerned when competitors come to town that sell similar things,” he said.

For years, Newport Market was the only store on the west side of town, until Ray’s Food Place and Safeway opened on Century Drive.

But Newport Market has survived those changes, and Bement believes the market will survive against Trader Joe’s. He said that while Trader Joe’s does well with its private label and low prices, Newport Market has a different array of products. Diverse kitchen supplies are among its notable items.

“We just have to draw on our experience and focus on our store,” Bement said. “We’ll try to do what we can do best.”

Natures General Store, located in Bend’s Wagner Mall on Northeast Third Street, has been open for 25 years with the support of shoppers who back local, independent businesses, said owner Debbie Sloan.

“You have to wonder how the town can support so many grocery outlets,” Sloan said of Trader Joe’s opening. “But they have their niche and we have ours, so I don’t think there will be any competition.”

Why the buzz?

While some may not see what the big fuss is about, a vocal contingent of locals swear by Trader Joe’s.

Bend resident David Uri spent the last 15 years living in New York, Connecticut and Southern California, coming to a Trader Joe’s-less Bend two years ago.

“Bend has finally ‘arrived’ now that we have a Trader Joe’s,” he said Tuesday during a trip in California. He regrets he won’t be in Bend for the grand opening, complete with a lei-cutting rather than a ribbon-cutting.

Uri looks forward to Trader Joe’s selection of prepackaged kosher foods and meats, adding that his family is stocking up on the products this week in California.

“Bend is the perfect market for it, given our demographics — our ‘green’ orientation,” he said. “I hope they put another one on the west side.”

Crooked River Ranch resident Gina Anderson says she can’t remember the first time she shopped at Trader Joe’s when she lived in California, but she was hooked from the start.

“For me, Trader Joe’s offers an interesting selection of items, from foods to flowers, at reasonable prices,” she said. “I’m a fan of their wasabi peas, the dark chocolate dipped orange candy, the meringue cookies and the multigrain savory thin crackers.”

She’s also a fan of their natural personal hygiene and cleaning items, from hand soap to shaving lotion to an all-purpose cleaner that smells more flowery than chemical.

Watson said informed consumers like Anderson make up the Trader Joe’s customer base.

“Seventy-five percent of our customers are well-educated,” he said. “They care about how our products are made, and with our private label, we can take all the bad stuff out.”

Prompted by consumer concerns, Trader Joe’s last year announced it would be phasing out all “single-ingredient” foods imported from China, due to worries about the foods’ safety.

Ready for the rush

Earlier this week at the Bend store, Trader Joe’s staff artists finished painting signs and murals, including a scene of Mirror Pond and a climber scaling Smith Rock. These local touches accent the store, which will stock basically the same products as other Trader Joe’s stores, Watson said.

Shoppers will enter the store to displays of fresh flower bouquets for $4.99 or $11.99 orchids. Beyond is the 700-square-foot produce area full of foods primarily from Washington state, Watson said.

With food prices rising throughout the country, Trader Joe’s items remain relatively low, Watson said, due to the company’s bulk purchasing power. He points to Joe’s O’s cereal, which resembles Cheerios, for $1.99 per box. And a gallon of 1 percent milk for $3.39. Additionally, signs are posted on refrigerated shelves for a $3.79 Louie salad, $4.99 tri-tip lamb kebab platter, and a $2.99 California sushi roll.

In the dry-goods section, Watson points out various items he expects will be popular among Central Oregon’s outdoor enthusiasts, like granola, trail mix and nuts.

Packages of vacuum-packed “flattened bananas” cost $1.29, Thai lime and chili cashews go for $4.49 and a 1-pound bag of whole roasted cashews costs $4.69.

Past a food-tasting kiosk and bins of frozen gourmet fare, employees stacked hundreds of bottles of wine and beer this week, both domestic and imported.

A case of Charles Shaw wine, 12 bottles, goes for $35.88 and Watson notes that an entire wall is stacked with extra cases in anticipation of fast sales.

Watson said he’s never worked at a Trader Joe’s that had so much on-site parking. He hopes that, plus additional opening-week staff, will ease any shopping congestion.

“It’s not going to be like people think,” Watson said. “We’re going to be prepared.”

Anticipating a traffic bottle-neck, the Cascade Village Shopping Center and Oregon Department of Transportation are promoting an alternative route for shoppers heading to the store from the south. Cascade Village representatives urge shoppers to use the U.S. Highway 20 exit to enter the mall for at least the next three to four weeks.