What might Trader Joes have to do with the development of Helen on 86th St.? Well, a lot, actually.
I'm a professed Trader Joes junkie. Long before TJ's started opening up stores all over the city (I was in the mile-long line the night the Union Square store opened), I was espousing the glories of TJ's peanut butter-stuffed pretzels to anyone who would listen back in Boston. (Ah, that sentence just made me nostalgic for both my Boston days and my days of eating gluten.)
The reason that TJ's is on my mind today, besides the recent opening of the store in Chelsea (been there, done that, on Tuesday), is because my clock radio woke me up this morning with an NPR story on the ever mysterious and secretive, yet incredibly profitable and successful Trader Joes.
I love Trader Joes for a number of reasons. First off, I like to eat healthy, and while I would love to buy everything at Whole Foods or Westerly Natural Market, I simply can't afford it. Trader Joes provides me with lots of the healthy foods I like to eat at a fraction of the cost. Which is not only practical, it also makes me feel like they respect me, and they are "on my side." Strangely enough, it gives me a sort of existential hope that there is a place where it is possible for the average "Joe" (sorry) to buy good, healthy food and not go bankcrupt doing so.
Second, it's a fun place to visit. The clerks seem to actually enjoy their job, are enthusiastic about the products and tend to treat you like an old friend rather than a "customer." The products have silly and quirky names, and there's an absolute lack of pretense about foods that could be considered seriously pretentious. You feel like you are part of this really cool and hip community that is dedicated to flourishing in spite of "the man" or "the system."
Third, they deliver. Most of their products are really good. Some are highly addictive. I know that I'm not alone in having what may be considered an unhealthy attachment to their Chocolate Covered Almonds with Sea Salt and Turbinado Sugar, or their unsulfured, unsweetened dried mangoes.
Finally, and probably the reason that most pertains to Helen's development, I believe in Trader Joes. The fact that they are so successful, not because of gimmicks, billboards or flyers, but because of word of mouth and because they deliver a good (and often great) quality product, makes me want to get on the subway and go there right now...and while I'm at it, spread the gospel of TJ's greek yogurt and their cheddar cheese made with goat's milk.
That's how Robby and I are trying to develop Helen. We don't want to force this show down anyone's throats, but we ardently believe in the story and the work that we have done to bring it to life. And while we want to share that with everyone, we'd like to do it without gimmicks, without having to sell our souls or our vision, and without having to lose the authenticity, simplicity, and quirkiness that is at the core of not only our personal business style, but our piece.
It's not going to be easy. Just like Trader Joes, who has gone from being a West Coast specialty store to being national phenomena, there will be necessary compromises and changes to make along the way in order to fully realize our goal. I just hope that as both Helen and TJ's grow, we are able to maintain the integrity, authenticity, and uniqueness that have made us what we are.
For all you fellow TJ's lovers out there, check out this video: