Bruce Roter

No Trader Joe's, no peace: What's up with Bruce Roter's supermarket activism

I didn't think it was possible, but I finally met a guy who is more obsessed with supermarkets than I am. Well, not any supermarket. Bruce Roter loves Trader Joe's. And not in an abstract, wistful, I-used-to-live-in-Oregon-and-wasn't-it-nice-to-buy-cheap-seasalt-preztel-chips kind of a way.

trader joes bumper stickerRoter wants Trader Joe's here. Bad. In the last year he's amassed a mailing list of 2000 people, organized letter-writing campaigns, gathered his members at post offices for group mailings and cultivated media coverage. Lately there's been a "haiku on the back of an envelope" mail-in, a "call your local leaders" day, and a new bumper sticker initiative. And, of course, there is a website.

The guy is running a pretty serious campaign -- aimed at a supermarket. So what's this really all about?

Over the winter break, I sat down with Roter at his office at The College of St. Rose in Albany where he is an associate professor of music.

CB: Where did you develop your love of Trader Joe's?

BR: I came to know Trader Joe's from my days living in Portland, Oregon. (Roter moved here in 1998 to teach music composition and theory at St. Rose.) We had two Trader Joe's there, and we were just thrilled with the food products they had.

CB: What were your impressions of Albany when you moved here?

BR: There's a very nice life style here. It's easily accessible to camping and the mountains, and there's also a tremendous amount of culture in this area between Tanglewood and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. There's a wonderful amount of art and music going here.

CB: But you weren't so thrilled with the food scene?

BR: Well, we were coming from the west coast where we experienced many fine restaurants in Portland and also a wonderful diversity of grocery shopping experiences. From organic supermarkets to large regular supermarkets, they all seem to coexist together, and we shopped in all of them. But here in Albany we found the variety of shopping experiences to be more limited.

CB: So what is it about Trader Joe's that makes you so focused on that store? There are a lot of stores that aren't here. What is it about Trader Joe's in particular, or could it be any new store? Would you be equally happy if, say, a Whole Foods came?

BR: Probably I would, but I don't have that experience with Whole Foods that I have with Trader Joe's. I know Trader Joe's very well. It is a wonderful store. They sell fantastic food products. They are very health conscious with regard to their items, and their labels are very clearly marked as far their ingredients. I think they would do exceptionally well here. Also I have to underscore that their prices are phenomenal. I've seen comparable items sold here for approximately twice the amount that they sell for at Trader Joe's.

Although some people think of Trader Joe's as a boutique grocery story -- I prefer casual chic -- they sell a lot of the same items that we all use every day, but they do so for less.

CB: There are a lot of causes out there to get involved in. Why Trader Joe's?

BR. I see it as a need, perhaps it was a personal need, but I just love shopping at Trader Joe's. And much to my delight, I've been joined by hundreds of other residents of the capital region who share that passion.

But to dispel any notion that this is what I do ever single moment of the day, that's not the case at all. I do have a real career and my real avocation is that of a composer. I compose orchestral music. I've written music which emulates the Middle East peace process, which celebrates first responders, so I'd like to think that I'm multi-dimensional….I've been commissioned by orchestras around the country including right here at home by the Albany Symphony Orchestra.

trader joes daytimeCB: So when did this Trader Joe's thing start for you?

BR: It began this past summer in mid-August when I was in the park talking to a friend. I was toying with starting a little club like this, and when I mentioned Trader Joe's there was this wonderful reaction on this friend's face. I knew that instantly that there were other kindred spirits in the Capital Region who would also be interested in this campaign.

And I seem to have simply given voice to all these other hundreds of other people including many professionals from our region. I've been emailed by doctors, lawyers, architects, business people, politicians, homemakers. The people who are part of this campaign really run the gamut of the fabric of this society in the Capital District.

CB: So after you got that initial reaction what did you do?

BR: Well we had to decide what course of actions we would take to try and get Trader Joe's attention. We've been involved in various write-in initiatives. We began that in September, where we would gather at various post offices on the same day and we would mail our letters in mass.

Since then we've engaged in other sorts of efforts. We do write to the company on a daily basis. We've divided our ranks up into 31 separate teams and each team on their day sends a letter in, so that it's not just a case of a once a month initiative, but rather trying to generate a constant buzz with the company to make sure we stay on their radar screens.

CB: What does it mean to be a member of your group?

BR: It means that I have your email address and you are part of this cyber club that we belong to. {…} We are definitely an enthusiastic bunch. We do the mail-in campaigns, and I have asked that when our members shop at a Trader Joe's, and they do all over the country, I believe it is important for them to speak to the local managers and let them know what we are doing here.

CB: What else have you done?

BR: We had a Thanksgiving Day initiative where I encouraged every member of the group to donate money to our regional food bank. And for every donation the regional food bank sent a letter of acknowledgment straight to Trader Joe's. We gathered approximately $1,500 for the regional food bank. And in turn they sent letters off to Trader Joe's.

CB: Lot's of people think 'Oh, it might be nice to have such-and-such store,' but they don't necessarily do anything about it. You are bringing a considerable amount of passion to this. Why? Where does that come from?

I think a lot of it is inspired by my membership. In fact, recently I compiled all the initial responses that I received from my members, and there were hundreds of them and I was rereading them, and they were all so passionate to have a Trader Joe's here. I think a lot of the passion that I bring to this is because of them as well as my own personal desire. The Capital Region is growing and changing in many ways, and it can certainly grow and diversify large enough to embrace what a unique store like Trader Joe's has to offer.

CB: What are the changes that you see?

BR: Well, it certainly is growing in its industry base with all of the new forms of technology that are coming into the area. I sense that it is evolving because of the influx of new people from all over the country -- all over the world -- who are coming to the area to be a part of our new industries and of our educational systems here. And to be a part of state government. So with all these new people brings a new perspective to this region. It's a dynamic perspective, it's national and international perspective. So from that standpoint I think this community would do well to have a chain like Trader Joe's here.

CB: What do you think of Price Chopper or Hannaford?

Oh, that's a loaded question.

CB: Yes it is.

BR: (Long pause) I believe that Price Chopper is certainly an important part of the fabric of this community. Price Chopper has done a tremendous amount of good for this community, and I don't think Price Chopper has anything to worry about with the introduction of supermarket like Trader Joe's. Basing this on my experience in Portland, we had Trader Joe's and then we had a wonderful big supermarket there called Fred Meyer, good old Freddies, as we used to call it. And we used to shop at both.

Fred Meyer was great at what it did. It was the larger supermarket that carried everything. If you ever needed anything of a utilitarian nature, you knew where to go. You went to Fred Meyer. On the other hand, if you were looking for that more intimate, chic shopping experience, something that you could really get excited about, you would go to Trader Joe's.

CB: So you don't think Price Chopper can do intimate and chic?

I think that would be something of a sea change for them. I see them as being a very stable and traditionally oriented supermarket. I shop there. Everyone I know shops there or at Hannaford. Those are our only choices.

CB: Do you think there is a marked difference between Price Chopper and Hannaford?

BR: To be honest with you, I do most of my shopping at Price Chopper not at Hannaford. It is just a matter of location. If Hannaford were closer, I would probably do my shopping there. It isn't really a matter of either store attracting me, it is a practical sort of decision.

CB: What do you think of Wegmans?

BR: I love Wegmans. {…} And my constituents, if you will, also are very much fans of the Wegmans supermarket. And there is always this undercurrent of wonderment at why Wegmans hasn't located this far east in the Capital District.

CB: And I know you must have a theory on that.

BR: Well, I do have a theory, but I won't share that with you right now.

CB: Why?

Because I don't have enough basis with which to share that.

CB: I don't know if you are aware of this, but you sound so polished and political when you talk about this stuff. When I listen to you, until you bring up the Trader Joe's again, I think I'm doing an interview with somebody running for city council or something.

BR: It is interesting that you say that. I think there is a political dimension to this as well. This is a quality of life issue for this community. In many ways I do see Trader Joe's, not only as a grocery store, but as a symbol for the growth and improvement and diversity of this community. And there is no reason why anyone in this community shouldn't enjoy the things a store like Trader Joe's has to offer and shouldn't enjoy the price savings. I assure you this is not a yuppie cause that I am involved in. Their prices are far and away better than I've seen elsewhere. Everyone in this community should be able to benefit from that.

trader joes at nightCB: Have you ever considered running for anything?

Yes. And perhaps one day that will be in the future. Right now I am running to be the best president of the "We Want Trader Joe's in the Capital District" club that I can possibly be.

CB: (Laughter) Spoken like a true politician.

BR: Touché. I think it's the campaign season. You start watching all these candidates on the TV and then you start talking like one of them after a while.

CB: So if Trader Joe's called you tomorrow, and said 'OK you've convinced us. Where should we locate?' What would you say?

I don't wish to alienate anyone in my membership. I would advocate for it being located as centrally as possible. If I had to suggest an epicenter of commercial center for the area, it would be maybe Latham, maybe Wolf Road. Several people have suggested the old Barnes and Noble building on Wolf Road that is now available.

(I followed up our conversation with an email yesterday asking for an update.)

CB: So have you heard from Trader Joe's.

As for Corporate, I've been told that our campaign has definitely brought the Capital District to their attention --that they have been "inundated" by our communications. Further, the message I have received is that Trader Joe's is committed to expanding into our area. While no definite time frame is given, indications are that this will happen sooner rather than later. As I have relayed to our members, they are not coming here tomorrow--but as for the day after tomorrow, I believe this is partly dependent upon the resilience of our campaign.

photo of Trader Joe's daytime: Flickr user Allan Ferguson, used under a CC license
photo of Trader Joe's night: Flickr user post406, used under a CC license


Doesn't Trader Joe's sell a lot of packaged, processed foods under its label? I don't know how that would add much to the local food scene.

I'd rather have a Whole Foods.

I like what is happening with this group. I prefer Whole Foods myself, but I believe that having a Trader Joe's in the area will open the door for that. And if there was a TJ's nearby, I would surely shop there. There's something magical about their chocolate covered blueberries.

TJ's does sell a lot of packaged foods, but they are made up of real ingredients rather than chemicals. I enjoy having the option to have a quick frozen meal on a busy work day. It costs less than picking up a take out lunch or dinner.

So bring it on, TJ's! The Capital Region is ready for you!

do we really need more cheap produce imported from china? at least whole foods has made it an increasing part of their mission to actually support local growers/producers/food artisans. trader joes sells cheap, albeit well packaged, product, in bulk.

do we really need more cheap produce imported from china? at least whole foods has made it an increasing part of their mission to actually support local growers/producers/food artisans. trader joes sells cheap, albeit well packaged, product, in bulk.

There's a simple reason why Trader Joe's hasn't, and likely won't, come to the Capital Region: wine.

The store makes a good chunk of its profit selling wine -- especially the popular "Two-Buck Chuck" brand, which it has exclusive rights to -- and New York state liquor laws would prevent them from doing that here.

I don't know that the wine is the deciding factor. The Trader Joe's in Hadley, MA does just fine and they can't sell alcohol either.

they sell wine in union square.....

whatcha got there in your left hand? looks like something I may want to pick up next time I go to MASSACHUSETTS!

That's their Peppermint Joe-Joe's Cheesecake---VERY GOOD!

For those more sophisticated occasions, I also recommend their Opera Cake ("a classic French coffee & Chocolate confection")


That's their Peppermint Joe-Joe's Cheesecake---VERY GOOD!

For those more sophisticated occasions, I also recommend their Opera Cake ("a classic French coffee & Chocolate confection")


Trader Joe's actually stopped importing single-ingredient stuff from China as of January 1, 2008...

I grew up in Albany but have been living in Seattle for the past 12 years. There is a TJ's within walking distance from my house in Capitol Hill and I have to admit..I love being able to get staple items there that are both organic AND cheaper than most other grocery stores around.

While I think having a TJ's in the Albany area would be fantastic, I can't help but scratch my head here. Why TJ's? Why not focus such a great effort and ability to mobilize people on improving Albanys wonderful downtown & center square? Why not rally to support local, small businesses (help to expand and re-locate the honest weight co-op for example)? Why not help the center square/downtown area become vibrant again? Albany has such potential to have an incredible center core that is small business and pedestrian friendly...It needs people to rally for it much more than a Trader Joes.

I am from the Capital District originally, and have lived in Tucson Arizona now for 7 years. We have Trader Joe's here and I have to say it is AMAZING. I love TJ's.

I am moving back to Albany in August with one of the main perks being East coast food! I was disappointed to hear that there is no Trader Joe's, though. It would be the best of both worlds if there was!

I hope they build one soon!

also, I highly doubt Trader Joe's makes most of it's money off of wine. They have fantastic wine at TJ's - that isn't even Two Buck Chuck...they have some quality wine for $6 or $7 a bottle. Better than some of the $20 bottle's i've had. However, people go there for the FOOD! Trust me! It's healthy without all the preservatives and it's also delicious.

Why is there no mention of the Honest Weight Co-Op here? I absolutely adore shopping there! As someone new to Albany, it seems the Co-Op is actually furthering the local and natural food scene here.

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