By Charlotte Aguilar
The murmur never quite goes away, reaching a crescendo at times like this, when a nice-sized, reasonably updated supermarket property becomes available in the Bellaire-West University area. It’s always campaign season when a community is trying to snag a Trader Joe’s Market.
Read social media posts or converse with a Trader Joe’s aficionado, and one would think no single factor could raise property values more effectively than persuading the quirky supermarket chain to locate here. The posts range from lighthearted to entitled and are fueled by a clever ploy employed by the grocer, offering an online form to “Request a Trader Joe’s in My City.”
That link has been posted and shared a number of times on local platforms and message boards, invariably with many “Done!” responses in the comments, along with descriptions of can’t-live-without items from the store, usually an array of snacks and other novelty items — things like cookie butter, Bloody Mary salsa and a growing number of plant-based specialties. And then there’s Two-Buck Chuck, TJ’s legendary California wine.
The approach on the request form is as warm and fuzzy as a Chuck buzz. “There are no guarantees,” the form reads, “but being wanted matters to us.”
The current campaigns here center on the former Bellaire Randalls at 5130 Bellaire Blvd., with a growing interest in the work-in-progress known as Bellaire Place, on 30 acres along Fournace just outside the Loop, where Chevron used to be. That is being developed incrementally as a blend of retail, entertainment and office space.
Occasionally, the ghoulish will wish for the demise of either the Randalls Weslayan or Vanderbilt — to provide another option for a Trader Joe’s.
But potential sites have come and gone with no visible interest from the grocer, despite “being wanted” so feverishly. Past mass suggestions have included the former Belden’s on North Braeswood and flood-vanquished H-E-B on South Braeswood, both in Meyerland, as well the disappearing Sellers Bros. on Stella Link in Braeswood Place.
Trader Joe’s is not a huge chain and grows deliberately and enigmatically, with 559 stores nationwide as of last tally. There are 20 TJ’s in 10 Texas cities but the most in California, where the chain was founded in 1967 and still is based.
When Essentials approached the corporate office for an interview (through a form much the same as the store request), we heard back by email that they don’t do interviews but would connect us to their website links on a number of topics — which we had already found. We’d also gone down a rabbit hole of online articles from financial and lifestyle websites that indicated 1) Our cities’ interest is not unique, and 2) That there’s not much rhyme or reason to where the chain opens new stores.
What we’d also already found was a manager who had once worked at one of the Houston TJ’s but relocated to another chain and was willing to talk anonymously, ranking the Bellaire/West U pluses and minuses.
- Asset: Reportedly, stores are located in areas with high incomes and an abundance of discretionary spending (let’s face it — Trader Joe’s is not the first place a shopper thinks of for a quart of milk and a dozen eggs.) According to Fool.com, the news site of Motley Fool, the most common demographic is Caucasian women 41-57 earning $80,000-plus a year who buy 10 or fewer items during a TJ visit.
- Liability: According to our expert, reportedly the biggest drawback to attracting a Trader Joe’s in either Bellaire or West U is that the two existing locations, at 2922 S. Shepherd Dr. and 1440 S. Voss Road, are close enough, by the fuzzy corporate standards. We checked, and the former Randalls site in Bellaire, for instance, is 4.8 miles from the Shepherd TJ’s and 5.1 miles from the Voss location. Bellaire Place is equidistant to the two, 5.2 miles away from each. The Randalls in Vanderbilt Square would be an even less likely site if it became vacant, just 2.6 miles from the Shepherd store.
- Not promising: While a recent study noted that the chain values “frugality,” the study also observed that “stores are normally located in cheaper parts of expensive areas” — not exactly a description of either Bellaire or West U.
- Another drawback: An oversaturation of supermarkets — including a number with large specialty sections — in Bellaire, West U and southwest Houston. The hulking H-E-B across from the vacant Randalls offers a David-and-Goliath scenario, the expert points out, but Trader Joe’s management is anything but reckless, he said.
- On the other hand, any concerns about Trader Joe’s being a threat to other markets are ill-advised, according to our expert. The spending patterns/habits of Trader Joe’s shoppers leave plenty of room for more traditional supermarkets near them to succeed, he said.
It’s possible that the belief in Trader Joe’s settling in the Bellaire-West U area is a bit like childhood innocence about the Tooth Fairy: It may not be ill-placed, but belief is a positive in a toxic world, and if it creates hope, what is the harm?
‘Hundreds of calls and emails a day…”
“We’ve got a plan, and that plan is based on customer feedback,” Tracy Anderson, Senior Vice President of Real Estate and Construction at Trader Joe’s, said on the Inside Trader Joe’s podcast. “We listen to Crew Members at the store, Regional Vice Presidents. We look at current stores, where things are really hot. We look at accessibility, visibility, parking, and square footage.”
Anderson says she gets hundreds of calls and emails a day about opening new locations, as well as individual community requests. Even though they consider every single location request, it won’t guarantee a new store, but it can increase your chances of finding a new Trader Joe’s near you — so, it’s worth a shot.
—Excerpt from “Here’s Why There’s Not a Trader Joe’s Where You Live,” Allrecipes.com