Sagen es ist nicht so, Traeder Joe's [Say It Ain't So, Trader Joe's]

This is getting complicated. Please, please don't tell me I can't shop at Trader Joe's without breaking my Buy-American resolution. I shop at Trader Joe's almost daily. It’s such a cool place. Not a bazillion aisles, just the right number. Not a bazillion of the same product, just one or maybe two. You can run in and out in a matter of minutes. And all the employees there seem happy. They dress in Hawaiian t-shirts and have a laid-back, goin'-to-the-beach attitude. This may be mandated on a bulletin board in the break room, but who cares? I like happy. I like Hawaiian shirts. I like vacations and can't seem to get them so I shop at TJ's and make do. And if I'm not stopping by there, Don is, for a Chinese Chicken Salad at lunch, or on Saturdays for Garlic and Portobello Mushroom or Goat Cheese Pizza. Or on Sundays, to pick up New Zealand lamb chops to throw on the grill for dinner. Oh no. Did I say New Zealand? Like I said, this is getting complicated.

First problem: Company ownership. In 1978, Theo Albrecht, a mega-successful German grocery store chain owner / businessman, bought Trader Joe's from its American founder, Joe Coulombe. Mr. Albrecht, by the way, was kidnapped for 17 days in 1971. Thereafter, mentally scarred, he remained as reclusive as possible. I could only find a single headshot of the guy online, circa-1970. Obviously, however, he left his hideaway long enough to purchase Trader Joe's. He recently died (July, 2010). One online source said TJ's is now owned by the Theo Albrecht Family Trust. Another says it's owned by the German retail giant, Aldi Group. It's all semantics as the Albrecht family--one way or another--owns both. So Trader Joe's, which calls itself "Your Neighborhood Grocery Store" is a German-owned supermarket.

On the other hand, the German company employs an estimated 5500 Americans and generated $8 billion in US revenue in 2010. Because it's privately held, information is sketchy. But look how good it is for our country's economy. Look at the people it employs. Look how happy they are in their surf wear. Look at how happy I am, shopping there, getting such good deals. Like I said, complicated.

Second problem: Labeling. Other than the lamb chops, I can't tell where anything at TJ's comes from. Word on the Internet street is that TJ's buys its products from an unknown number of manufacturers here and elsewhere, companies willing to cut them super deals. Same companies--frequently USA companies--then re-package their goods, giving them fun names (happy!) so they'll look like they're TJ's own brands. "Trader Giotto's" penne pasta. "Trader Ming's" teriyaki chicken. "Trader Jose's" cheese enchiladas. Where did these products originate? It's all very mysterious.

Trader Joe's "Neighborhood Grocery Store" tagline got me thinking about my real neighborhood grocery store, two blocks from TJ's; walking distance from my house. It's called Lunardi's. According to the Lunardi's website, in 1950, Alfredo Lunardi, then 20, left his native Italy to settle in San Francisco. There he acquired a "simple" store called "Mother's Market." With the help of his sons Ralph and Paul, Mr. Lunardi eventually opened seven stores, all in the Bay Area. I spent some time on the website. I saw photos of the clerks scroll by the top of the page, as well as the produce, meat and fish people. You know what? I recognized most of them.

Contrast this with Germany's reclusive, private Albrecht family. Think about how Theo Albrecht remained rooted in Germany, undoubtedly loyal to his homeland. Nothing wrong with that. But Alfredo Lunardi--gotta love this guy--left his sweet town of Lucca, threw his life, his future, his everything into San Francisco, his new home. Just guessing, but surely he loved it here in America from the get-go. He reminds me of my grandfather Sol Polito, we called him Pop, who left Sicily by boat at age 16 and never looked back. Landed in New York, worked a Nickelodeon, caught the movie-making bug, was picked up by Warner Brothers Studio and sent to Hollywood. He eventually made over 150 films and earned three Academy Award nominations. Pop was unabashedly in love with this country. Had he stayed in Italy, I wouldn't be writing about him at this moment. He came here, married Nana, had two sons, one of them my Dad. Dad followed in his footsteps. I don't know. It's all very Frank Capra-ish. Gives me goose bumps. Is there anything wrong with that?

So, guess it really isn't all that complicated. It's a matter of principle, this Buy-American resolution. I'm sticking with Alfredo, the Italian immigrant. To see his smiling mug, go to Bet you'll be able to figure out which one is Alfredo, standing there with his son. And let me state this here and now, just so I'm clear: No more Trader Joe's until 2012. Wait till Don gets home tonight and hears about this one. Yikes. Dad, Nana, Pop, and all you angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plain: If you can somehow read this, pray for me.

PS: Yes, Lunardi's carries lots o' products from around the globe. But each product is clearly labeled, so customers can determine its country of origin and make an informed decision. I like that.

PPS: Yes, I love Germans. Love their products (beer! pretzels! chocolate!), love my sister-in-law; love my neighbor who helped me translate this post's title into German. Danke!