Monday April 01, 2013 | 01:00 AM

In comparing the Portland branches of Trader Joe’s to Whole Foods, is it about two stores vying for the same shopper? Or does it come down to basic apples to oranges assessment?

I thought about this prompted by a note I received from a reader saying how the shopping experience is so much better at Trader Joe’s than Whole Foods.  What did I think?

She explained, “It’s a happier place to shop because the people smile and are perky,” whereas “the experience at Whole Foods comes off as too serious.”  She did admit that the vast selection of foods is better at Whole Foods.

For me it’s also about the efficacy of their respective parking lots that makes me a frequent visitor to Whole Foods over Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe's parking lot: at any moment it could become bumper to bumper

To be fair, Trader Joe’s inherited its inadequate parking nightmare, which at high noon on a Saturday is a death knell of congestion.   Whole Foods had the advantage of developing a site built to suit, which they did very well.

Ultimately the real difference between the two is this: Whole Foods is all about offering natural foods to the exclusion of anything artificially processed.  The shopping experience centers on sight, smell and taste.  Or as one well-known food pundit quipped, “Trader Joe’s vegetables look like they’ve fallen off a truck, compared to Whole Foods hand-picked crops.”

Trader Joe's: a great price for limes,  but you need  to do the squeeze test because many are past their prime

Trader Joe’s, by comparison, relies on their branded products; whether they’re organic or natural is secondary.  Almost all of their products tout the store’s branding, where good quality at a low price is implicit. 

Trader Joe's: squeaky clean greens in sealed bags

Whole Foods:  these are fresh, free of plastic wrap, and information on country of origin and whether they're grown conventionally or organically   

Trader Joe's: a staffer offering free samples of a packaged cookie


Whole Foods: the impressive olive bar

Whole Foods: lots of prepared food made at the store ready to go 

Trader Joe's: free sample food bar; choice changes daily, usually something out of a box.  Here samples of packaged apple turnovers

When I go into Trader Joe’s I feel like I’ve entered a wondrous Wally World.  From the folksy banners and signs, the staff in Hawaiian-print shirts and the constant clanging of the cow bell when cashiers need assistance from a manager, it’s circus time, a weird kind of chaotic bohemian camaraderie.  

Whole Foods: butcher counter, where organic, local, grass-fed and natural meats are custom cut

Lately I’ve come around, however, to buying certain items at Trader Joe’s even though I’m a die-hard Whole Foods shopper.  TJ’s selection of nuts and dried fruits is terrific. Oddly, Whole Foods is amiss there—to wit, they don’t carry golden raisins, only the dark Thompson seedless variety..  

Trader Joe's: the elusive golden raisins  are readily available almost everywhere but Whole Foods

Trader Joe's: shoppers go nuts for these

Other Trader Joe’s items I like include the store’s zesty style of Dijon mustard, which is made in France.  I’ve also discovered their TJ label  mayonnaise, which has a lot of flavor and texture.

Whole Foods: local vegetables are abundantly available throughout the year

As for other products like coffee and olive oil, it’s a toss-up between the two emporiums.  Whole Foods carries a fair number of expensive imported brands from Italy; but TJ’s Sicilian extra virgin olive oil, for example, is quite good and robust and an import that Whole Foods does not offer.

Yet, Trade Joe's doesn't always run a tight ship.  The other day I stopped in to see what (cheap) flowers they had.  There must have been 20 buckets of flowers--all without a drop of water in them.  Buyer beware. 

Whole Foods: when Trader Joe's and its infamous $2-buck chuck arrived, Whole Foods brought out its own version, which I think cheapened their image, but they have a good, broad-based selection of wines in all price ranges

Beyond that there’s no comparison between the quantity and quality foods at the two retailers.  Whole Foods’ meat and dairy products are wonderful--much of it being locally sourced.   Trader Joe’s has no local food lineup.

Saturday before Easter, all the stores, including Hannaford (shown here), were busy; but  Whole Foods checkouts move at the quickest pace

While critics like to site the popular coined phrase, Whole Paycheck, an epitaph meant to portray this definitely upscale  retailer as arrogant and pricey, it hasn’t stopped the crowds from cramming its aisles, making the Portland store one of the most successful in the company.  On busy weekends, the store has unofficial "million dollar days."

That in itself is a pretty powerful fact for Portland as it considers how to direct the city into becoming a more vibrant urbanized port-city center. And perhaps there should be more national stores like Whole Foods—and Trader Joe’s—as new neighborhoods are planned for the peninsula.


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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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