If you’ve ever shopped at Trader Joe’s, you might have noticed that somewhere around the cashiers’ stations you’ll see names posted: supposedly, that week’s winners of the store’s daily bag raffle. One name changes daily to reflect that day’s winner of the bag raffle.
Here’s how you, too, can supposedly win: You gather your groceries, pay, and if you’ve brought your own grocery bag or satchel, your groceries are packed into the bag you’ve brought, and you’re eligible to enter.
Once you’ve filled out your first name and phone number, of course, on a piece of paper, which is deposited into the drawing. Prize: $25 gift card good for purchases in the store, plus a signature TJ’s grocery bag.
I always bring my own grocery bags – which I do wash out afterwards: sanitary considerations uber alles – plus, it cuts down on the number of bags, aka new play things, that I have to wrestle away from my cat, whom I love and adore, but who believes that everything that enters our apartment is fair game and earmarked specifically for her. You know the expression ‘dogs have masters, cats have staff?’ Nonsense: dogs have masters, cat owners have Stockholm Syndrome — but that’s another column.
I am a Trader Joe’s regular, hitting it once or twice a week, in large part due to aforementioned cat, who has a penchant for TJ’s brand cat food and heaven forfend that we shouldn’t have any. Staff, Stockholm Syndrome, tomato, tomahto.
The first time I got the call from Trader Joe’s informing me that I’d won, of course I thought it was a joke. I was in an Uber with a few friends at the time, holiday party hopping. My friend, Leslie, was sitting next to me and could hear my responses to the caller asked, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Trader Joe’s,” I answered. “This guy is telling me that I just won the bag raffle.”
“No one wins the bag raffle!” she exclaimed. “All my friends shop at Trader Joe’s – not one person I know has ever won the bag raffle.”
“Apparently, one person you know just did!” I answered, getting back to the caller and assuring him that I’d stop by in the morning to collect my winnings.
Leslie cut her evening short, bolting from the group after the next party, apparently to go to Trader Joe’s to see for herself whether or not I had indeed won the bag raffle. I know this because she texted me the winner’s board, and sure enough, my name was there.
Typical New Yorker: trust but verify.
In case you’re not familiar with Trader Joe’s, or TJ’s as we call it, it all started in California in 1958 as a chain of Pronto Markets which competed with 7-11 until founder Joe Coulombe traveled to the Caribbean and returned with the South Seas motif, renaming and rebranding. Hence the hibiscus logo, in case you were wondering.
The first official Trader Joe’s opened in Pasadena in 1967.
Coulombe also noticed that Americans were traveling more and returning home with a taste for food and wine that supermarket chains weren’t satisfying at the time, so he did – and found his niche. The chain was acquired in 1979 by Aldi founder Theo Albrecht and has been knocking it out of the park ever since, now boasting over 500 stores in 42 states and the District of Columbia.
That’s a lot of bag raffle winners.
Trader Joe’s is great when it comes to staples – many of which are eponomously named and good quality. They’re also great at introducing new foods and trends, many of which they’ll tell you about in their in-store mag, Fearless Flyer. At times, you do have to be more fearless than at other times, while exploring some of their new offerings. TJ’s is where I first experienced cauliflower gnocchi. They also have chocolate gnocchi, but chocolate and potatoes in the same dish? Chocolate hummus? Pass, but not everyone would agree. Sometimes you just have to wonder on which tropical island or parallel universe were those considered a good idea.
They also carry some outstanding personal care and household cleansing products.
But the first time I won the bag raffle, I decided to check out items I had never purchased before but was curious about. It was found money, after all. So I tried the Crispy Crunchy Okra (awesome!), the pork gyoza pot stickers (been buying them ever since), and the spicy salmon gyoza pot stickers (strong flavor, that’s for sure. They’re good but haven’t hit the must have list). A friend once mentioned that the TJ’s plain Greek yogurt (full fat) is also amazing and while I’m not a big fan of yogurt, good opportunity to check it out. She was right. Again. About both the yogurt and the Unexpected Cheddar Cheese, which I also decided to try and which also, along with the Cauliflower Gnocci, made Trader Joe’s 11th Annual Customer Choice Awards Winners. Both are also now staples at our house.
Considering d) all of the above, environmental considerations aside, that bag raffle is a killer idea.
$25 may not go all that far, but who doesn’t enjoy winning? What to speak of seeing their name on the board and sharing it on the ‘gram. Which always gets reactions since no one believes that anyone ever really wins, much less someone whom they know.
The second time I won the bag raffle, which believe it or not was about a month later, I admit it: I was spoiled. I used my winnings to do my usual shopping, although I did indulge in a bag of the peanut butter-filled pretzels, which are totally addictive. I didn’t have the heart to ping Leslie and tell her that I had won again, but not long afterwards, she pinged me to tell me that she had just won the bag raffle, too!
People do win. TJ’s is not making it up or putting random names on a board.
Some of us even win twice!
Leslie admitted that she was giddy when she finally got the call.
“I felt like I was being rewarded for bringing my own bag,” she said – and used the winnings to do her usual TJ’s shopping, including her personal favorite, Crunchy Salted Peanut Butter with Flax and Chia Seeds, which I have yet to try.
I’ve also noticed that there tend to be more women’s names than men’s on the winners board. Not sure if that’s a function of women being more likely to cook their meals; that women do the bulk of the grocery shopping, or if women tend to be eco-conscious than men.
Maybe I shouldn’t have taken it so much for granted after winning a second time. Despite the fact that I continued to shop at Trader Joe’s once or twice a week, now bringing my signature TJ’s grocery bag each time, a year went by before I would win again, and it might have been because I had ventured out on a horribly cold and snowy New York morning when most people in their right mind would have just waited out the inclement weather – totally with them there – except that my cat was turning her nose up at her food and I was fresh out of TJ’s signature brand.
I went over the next day to retrieve my gift certificate and TJ’s bag.
Great timing! Starting March 1, New York’s bag law goes into effect, becoming the third state to eliminate plastic bags. Any store that’s required to charge sales tax (with limited exceptions) will no longer offer plastic bags. But they will carry paper bags, for which they will charge five cents (in New York City). The idea is to cut down on single-use bags and inspire you to bring your own. While ever eco-conscious TJ’s has never offered plastic bags anyway, they will be charging for their paper bags as of March 1, just like everyone else.
This time, I decided to indulge a bit again, having learned to take nothing for granted, but since I had just shopped the day before, I decided to sightsee a bit and see what was new. Like the Broccoli and Kale pizza crust. Pass. I happen to love cauliflower and cauliflower pizza crust, ok, but I personally don’t understand how kale hit rock star status when, truth be told, Romaine lettuce is higher on the nutrition scale.
E coli recalls aside, of course.
Chocolate covered pretzels? With the peanut butter filled pretzel nuggets, they had me at hello, but chocolate-covered? Just not going there.
We’ll see if New Yorkers who, on a daily basis, carry around various satchels filled with enough items to sustain a family of four comfortably for at least a few days, will add yet another item to their load, or fork over the 5 cents per paper bag once the new law goes into effect. The parade of Trader Joe’s paper bags currently being toted around the streets of the upper west side not long after rush hour is practically a symbol of the official end of a long workday. Will the bag law change that? With New Yorkers, old habits die hard, paper is recyclable after all.
Most importantly, will the new bag law affect my chances of winning the raffle yet again?
I’m not all that worried.
There are days when I’ll walk into TJ’s and quickly pick up the items I need, and days when evidently, I arrived too late and many of the shelves have been picked clean.
As always, it’s the luck of the draw.
After all, there are a lot of people out there who believe that mixing potatoes and chocolate and calling it gnocchi is somehow a good idea.