The crowds were breathless, the parking lot filled to the brim--all this for...a grocery store? That was the scene in Portland today, as Trader Joe's, the grocery chain with the cult following, opened its first store in Maine.
"We've been waiting for Trader Joe's to come to Portland forever and so it's been this great build up. Everytime, I go to Boston, I go there and stock up. So I just wanted to show support so they know they did the right thing by coming here," says Portland writer Maggie Knowles.
A petition started five years ago to convince the California-based chain to open a store in Maine, and Knowles is one of the 2,500 who signed it. Then she joined the 4,000-member strong Facebook page called "Bring Trader Joe's to Portland, Maine!!!"
"It's the atmosphere, it's the people that work here, they usually wear Hawaiian shirts. Everyone just seems happy to be here. It's much more of a party atmosphere, so it's not just going to a grocery store, it's more of an experience that you get. It's just fun!" Knowles says.
The Facebook page now proclaims: Mission Accomplished. We Did It! But fan power alone did not lure Trader Joe's to Maine.
It all started as when one competitor--Whole Foods--offered to buy another--Wild Oats--for $565 million. But the Federal Trade Commission said that would create a natural-food monopoly.
So, Whole Foods settled with the FTC by selling the leases and assets of 19 former Wild Oats stores, including the one in Portland. Enter Trader Joe's.
"Certainly the opportunity presented itself and Trader Joe's took it," says Tracy Acciola, who manages the Portland store. It's larger than your typical Trader Joe's, with high ceilings like a warehouse. But it's been warmed up with seascape murals to make it feel more "Maine-like."
The Whole Foods store sits just a few blocks away, and that's no coincidence, says Mark Hamstra, retail editor at the New York -based Supermaket News.
"Trader Joe's does have a tendency to follow Whole Foods," Hamstra says. "There's a bit of an overlap between their customers there. Trader Joe's kind of can offer more bargain items."
The chain keeps prices low by offering a lot fewer items than other supermarkets. But they sell well--things like pumpkin ice cream and elaborate frozen meals, such as pasta Arrabbiata.
Portland lawyer Kate Knox (right) is a long-time fan of their private label items. "So if you like something like their pizza or their lemon cookies, you can't get it anywhere else, which I think adds to the whole mystique of it--makes it kind of fun."
Perhaps no Trader Joes product is more famous than its Charles Shaw wine, nicknamed Two Buck Chuck, even though it's actually $2.59. Jerry Nadeau was picking up two cases. "It's a really nice flavor of wine and it's very consistent, it doesn't change from one bottle to the next," he says.
Nadeau happens to be visiting from Fort Kent, and says from now on, he'll just get Two Buck Chuck in Portland instead of waiting until his next trip to the Boston area. "I'm tickled to death. I couldn't explain how tickled I am."
Not everyone is gaga over Trader Joe's. Over in the Hannaford parking lot, 22-year-old restaurant server Philip Reed says he couldn't have cared less about Trader Joe's grand opening. "Groceries aren't that exciting, I don't know," he laughs. "They're just groceries."
Others characterize Trader Joe's as just another big-box grocery chain, owned by a multi-national company. But the cult of Trader Joe's marches on: A Facebook campaign is underway to bring Trader Joe's to Bangor.