Afterthoughts: Omiyage (Trader) Joe’s

We always love what we can’t have.
Trader Joe's
Photo: Gary Saito


I was at a checkout counter at Trader Joe’s recently—the location closest to Los Angeles International Airport, not coincidentally—unloading a shopping basket full of snacks. Chocolate-covered cherries, Thai chili/lime almonds, freeze-dried blueberries, sweet ’n’ smoky organic buffalo jerky, strawberry licorice, white-cheddar popcorn, a box of those cookies that recursively squeeze cookie butter between two additional cookies, more chocolate. It was a good haul.


As the checkout clerk scanned each item, the bagger looked over my stash. “So you just got a pile of junk food,” she said, not quite even asking, more making a pronouncement of the situation before her eyes.


“Oh! Well, you know, I’m from Hawai‘i,” I said.


That didn’t seem to clear things up for her, so I elaborated. “We don’t have Trader Joe’s in Hawai‘i, so everybody there loves getting treats whenever someone comes back from the Mainland,” I said. “It’s kind of a thing.”


“Huh,” she allowed, taking in this apparently new information. Then volunteered: “I have a friend who lives in Hawai‘i. She likes to come to L.A. for raves and stuff.”


A real quality conversation. It wasn’t until I was walking out into the parking lot that I thought, “Hey! What if I hadn’t been buying gifts for friends and family back home!? That would have been awkward.”


Fortunately for my pride, I am from Hawai‘i, and not even a snarky TJ employee can discourage me from participating in one of the Islands’ favorite traditions: the Trader Joe’s omiyage run.


If you’ve lived in Hawai‘i for any amount of time, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve almost certainly enjoyed some quality Trader Joe’s snackage brought back from a friend’s or co-worker’s Mainland trip. You’ve probably even done a TJ vacation mission yourself at some point.


Trader Joe’s status as Island gold makes perfect sense. Finding gifts in a new city can be a tricky proposition but, no matter where on the Mainland you are, from California to New York, Trader Joe’s is always right there—full of cookies and candy and chips guaranteed to please the folks back home. The treats are cheap, they’re delicious and they also happen to be relatively compact and durably packaged. The perfect thing to slip into your not-quite-full luggage bag. 


At our magazine offices, TJ treats have become the de facto snack currency, regularly renewed by staffers returning from vacations or conferences. At any given time, it’s a good bet that our mini fridge by the printer is topped by a jar of Speculoos cookie butter and a rubber-banded bag of dark-chocolate-enrobed coffee beans, at the very least.


The sad thing is that Trader Joe’s is even more wonderful than we in Hawai‘i can fully appreciate. The snacks are great, of course, but many of TJ’s best features are the kinds of things that don’t fit easily into our carry-on luggage. Cheap booze, for starters. Being able to buy two-buck chuck and mix-and-match sixers of cheap craft beer locally would be life-changing, but they’re too heavy and humbug to justify lugging onto a plane. And then there’s the whole array of cheap groceries, gourmet frozen meals and fresh take-away food, which don’t really work as omiyage, but would quickly become everyday staples if a Trader Joe’s ever showed up in my neighborhood.


Which it won’t. Honolulu residents have been spoiled in recent years with new Mainland-chain openings all over the town. Whole Foods Market, Target, Victoria’s Secret, Zara, Five Guys Burgers and Fries—there are scarcely any holdouts to complain about any more. But Trader Joe’s is one of the few stores almost guaranteed never to make the jump across the Pacific—its ultra-affordable selection of groceries is predicated on a short, cheap supply chain behind the scenes, and shipping anything to Hawai‘i is the opposite of short and cheap. The Matson tax would kill TJ’s business model.


Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe one day a Trader Joe’s will actually pop up in Honolulu, with every item priced a few dollars higher to keep up with the cost of Island living. It’d still be a runaway success.


But maybe it’s OK if this one stays a Mainland-only thing. I get the sense that people with easy access to the grocery store chain don’t hold it in the same reverence the 808 crowd does. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that. But cheap, convenient, delicious omiyage—now that’s something to treasure.


Read More Stories by Michael Keany