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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
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A happy scene at Madison's new Trader Joe's on Monroe
The entrance to the new Trader Joe's on Monroe Street.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

The woman on her cell phone in the dairy area was shouting "I'm here! The crowd is obscene!"

The crowd at the grand opening opening of Trader Joe's, 1810 Monroe Street, this morning was indeed intense, although not literally obscene. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine a nicer snapshot of a well behaved, happy, upper-middle-class crowd. Although by noon folks were hard pressed to find room to maneuver even the downsized Trader Joe mini-shopping carts through the aisles, the predominant mood was polite and happy. Why?

Well, there was so much fun stuff to buy. Hundreds of kinds of nuts, dipped in many different kinds of yogurt and chocolate and hot spices. Crunchy peapods, which turned out to be a kind of healthy cheez-curl alternative (very crunchy, but not all that tasty). Organic dog treats. Trader Joe-brand coffees and breads. Organic cereals. Clear plastic buckets of yummy cookies. Cider. Arugula. A kind of twisted walnut bread that sold out before this reporter could even lay her hands on a loaf. And the cheeses! And the beautiful fresh flower arrangements! And the organic meats! Organic shampoo for just $1.99. Can you do better?

Trader Joe's, the national chain that features low(er) cost gourmet and organic goods, has aroused intense curiosity in Madison since the first rumors about its interest in the Monroe Street site began to fly. Today, TJ fans could get their fix of their favorite TJ products. Other neighborhood residents were just glad to be able to pop in to a neighborhood grocery store again.

"It's way better than I expected," said a shopper who had been a board member of the fledgling Monroe Street Grocery Cooperative, which earlier in the redevelopment process had attempted to start a west side co-op at the site. "The produce is fresh, and there's really a full range of grocery items here," she said, not just snack and gourmet items. Yet it also appeared to be a place where someone could do "quick shopping for the evening's dinner."

The vibe in the light, airy space seemed more "of-the-people" than at the increasingly cramped Whole Foods on University Avenue -- Trader Joe's closest competitor. "I'm hoping this competition will cause Whole Foods to drop some of its price points," said the former fledgling co-op board member.

Trader Joe staffers, who were, yes, all wearing the chain's trademark Hawaiian shirts, were out in force asking shoppers if they needed any help, offering free samples and manically restocking shelves. The store isn't large, but seems spacious. And staff has wedged in a mind-blowing variety of foods.

Other differences between Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Madison's own Willy Street Co-op? Willy Street has a harder-core organic and health emphasis. Whole Foods seems more gourmet and upscale, with an extensive prepared food "hot bar" and salad bar and deli. Both Whole Foods and Willy Street have a more traditional meat and fish counter, whereas Trader Joe's offerings are all pre-packaged. It's part of what makes it so easy to toss items into your cart. No need to take a number. No wispy produce bag to pluck, attempt to open, and stuff the wet arugula into. It's crisply presented in clear cellophane.

Trader Joe's also jettisons the old-style food-co-op bulk bins (even saying "bulk bin" is a turnoff, isn't it?) in favor of pre-packaged items with nicely designed labels. No more grease pencil and SKU number. And -- how to say this? -- Trader Joe's Hawaiian-shirted staffers at least seem less likely to be sporting piercings or visible tattoos.

TJ's seems to come at the market through the "shopping is fun" angle. And they may well have perfected it. A woman in the produce section almost sang to her friend "Aren't you happy? I'm just so happy." Another shopper in the crowded, but largely fast-moving checkout lines, complimented the clerk: "Fun store." "That's what we like to hear," he replied. There are so many items that seem like fun that it would be easy to stock up on munchies and snacks, without coming home with anything substantial on which to base a meal.

The emotions at the grand opening of Pierce's Northside Market last March seemed to be relief and gratitude, as the Baraboo-based independent at last supplied a neighborhood grocery to the much larger geographic area of the north side. Trader Joe's is more like gravy in a neighborhood with more shopping options closer at hand.

Outside, continuing road construction and new parking configurations created some confusion, yet in the end there was little difficulty in finding an open spot to park. There are a limited number of metered city spots (50 cents an hour) in the covered parking area that corresponds to where the old (free) Ken Kopps' lot was located. There's also on-street parking on Monroe (metered) and 2-hour parking on nearby side streets.

Today a new tenant of the housing units upstairs from Trader Joe's was attempting to direct a Steinhafel's furniture truck to a spot for unloading: "It's their grand opening, and everything's kind of crazy." And how.

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