Trader Joe's is 50 and its "Fearless Flyer" is 32

I love to hate it.

Let’s not bury the lede here: Fearless Flyer is my actual earthly nemesis. According to this month’s FF, the periodical debuted the same year that I did (1985) and it is self-aware, just like me (see below for printed proof). And just like any star-crossed pairing, we are bound by something deep and vital. Obviously the reason I give this sweet and well-meaning but utterly cringeworthy publication any attention is evidence of my own deepest anxieties about myself and probably my own writing. And also my cheapness.

Like Harry and Voldemort, the “Fearless Flyer” and I are somehow inextricably linked. Whenever the “Fearless Flyer” is somewhere in the vicinity, I begin to have a searing headache. I experience an almost blinding pain, and when it’s bad it’s especially, paralyzingly bad. But also just like Harry, I contain a piece of the evil that lurks within the “Fearless Flyer”; this is why I recognize it, and this is also why I can never bring myself to destroy it (I have every copy I’ve ever written about at the Awl HQ).

Anyway, onto the good shit:  I have been reading FF cover to cover long enough now to know the shtick, and the shtick is this: fill column inches. Say what there is to say about a product—anything really—make it positive, light, fun, definitely not political, and most of all, make it goofy as hell. When in doubt, always list ingredients down to a painful specificity:

Another tried and true technique is repetition: never be afraid to repeat yourself! Many “Fearless Flyer” writeups are fairly repetitive; a lot of them say the same thing over and over for a long string of sentences. To the point where it feels like perhaps they say nothing at all:

Each bag, everything, everyday, every day. I will give them credit for distinguishing between “everyday” (adj.) and “every day” (n.)

OK, something seriously wacky happened in the final stages of production here, and if I had to take a guess, it’s that a paragraph tag got lost in the copy-paste shuffle, or [insert some other coding explanation here for why the styling looks wrong on the upper right-hand entry on p. 5]. The writeup or TJ’s Dry Hopped Red Ale (described as both amber and red, because why use one word when you can use two?) is in what looks like Courier New.

I get the sense from the tone (extremely consistent, unapologetically earnest) that it’s done by one person or perhaps a team of two, but if it’s two they would probably have to be married and still in love. There’s no other way to get copy like this. Moving on. I mentioned above that FF was self-aware. Here is some evidence to speak to that hypothesis. First, the FF knows what it has published before:

I’ve been keeping track, and certainly various items do come up and get repeated (and in fact self-plagiarized), but this is the first issue I’ve seen an issue of “Fearless Flyer” refer to a previous issue of “Fearless Flyer.” How are these corn chips different from the previously listed Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips? The scoop shapes, of course. Also, price: the dippers are $2.29 for 9.75 ounces and the white corn chips are $1.99 for 9 ounces. I’m not doing the math on three quarters of an ounce but I can see that it’s close. STILL. Anyway, I thought that was pretty impressive, but check these out:

It’s almost like someone has seen my columns and said, “Well, dagnabbit, I don’t care if it’s corny, it’s exactly who I am!” I’m not sure that I’ve ever argued that point. Trader Joe’s is what it is, which is somehow mysteriously sui generis despite literally selling generic versions of mainstream products. Trader Joe’s is like some kind of uncanny valley grocery store: everything is cheap as hell, they have organic, preservative-free cereals, but also sell refrigerated break-n-bake cinnamon rolls? And let’s talk for just one second about the sign art—isn’t there something almost maniacally culty about it? Whole Foods does this too, sure, and even though I’ve read plenty of interviews with sign artists across different cities, I can’t help but imagine one crazy calligrapher surrounded by eight hundred precision point Muji pens, hand crafting a zillion shelf labels about cashews with just a touch of salt. The sign thing is part of TJ’s whole “non-corporate vibe” and I have say, it works. I guess so does this cheesy-ass newsletter.

Another huge part of Trader Joe’s instantly recognizable brand is their customer service folks, who I think are maybe called “team members” or possibly “crew members.” If these people seem alarmingly happier than most humans you’d ever find stocking the shelves people are rabidly tearing three-dollar items down from, that’s because they are. Trader Joe’s pays higher than minimum wage (even though minimum wage should really be higher anyway, but that’s for another rant), and they give free dental and vision insurance to anyone who works more than 15 hours per week.

But also I swear to god they put happy pills in the front pockets of those Hawaiian shirts they wear. Yeah, I know, most of them wear more muted cotton T-shirts these days, fine, but my point stands. They are happy. And helpful. And they seem totally jazzed to be working in a giant converted bank-turned-generic-staples warehouse. What the hell kind of personality screening are they doing at Trader Joe’s HQ and is it legal because my goodness it works well. And yes, I know there is a book I’m supposed to read about all this, but I just started It, so give me a few weeks please.


Okay, just a few more observations, for funsies:

“This longtime favorite took an unexpected hiatus from our shelves.” Is it me or does this sound like a veiled sort of threat or like, reference to a deep grudge with a brand-slash-producer with whom TJ had a fight but then quietly settled for an undisclosed amount?


Ginger beer: sure, yes, why not! Love the stuff. Great drink for non-drinkers who want to hold a green bottle at a party, but not like a whole soda situation. And the spiciness helps you drink it with some moderation. Love that Reed’s Ginger stuff, which Trader Joe’s has often stocked…I wonder… But let’s focus on this sentence: “Until recently, no one would have thought root beer to be an alcoholic beverage.” Literally what? Please contact me if you understand. Further down, TJ’s house brand of ginger beer is called a “whale” of a value for reasons I cannot fathom except perhaps some far-reaching reference to the Dark & Stormy and some kind of sea-faring that was then cut for space, except, HAHA, can you imagine cuts? No.

A couple of things on this pages were funny to me: the assumption that we all know a 400º oven is obviously a Fahrenheit measurement and yet the decision to leave it off is more like a thing that makes me chuckle because it’s the kind of oversight you just can’t point out without being a total a-hole. My job is being that a-hole. But now let me get down to my real beef (AHHAHAH OH GOD IT’S CONTAGIOUS) with this page: in the Carne Asada Autentica entry, a “Tip” reads thusly: “Using high heat seals in the flavors of the meat.” In the name of Harold McGee (with honorable mention going to J. Kenji López-Alt), I demand a correction on next month’s (or whenever, since you can never predict a “Fearless Flyer”) issue.

Almost done, guys. How do you gently tiptoe around Arnold Palmer’s grave while writing about iced tea and lemonade? By saying “golf course” a lot. Lemonade! It’s a great summer drink! And a winter and fall drink! Especially with iced tea just like all the golf course people know. Classic Scottish highlands bev. Better study up on that “golfing heritage”!

Until next time