Aloha, Lower East Side! Trader Joe’s opens huge store on Grand St.

Renee Leibowitz, the captain of the new Grand St. Trader Joe’s, cuts the ribbon to open the store last Friday. Photos by Lesley Sussman

BY LESLEY SUSSMAN | It was carnival time Grand St. style Friday morning as a huge crowd of local residents braved the chilly weather for a first peek at the new Trader Joe’s grocery store in the recently constructed Essex Crossing on the Lower East Side.

The 8 a.m. opening of the basement store at 400 Grand St., at Clinton St., featured live music, banners, giveaways, welcoming Hawaiian lei garlands draped around shoppers’ necks and food tastings. The 30,000-square-foot store is the largest Trader Joe’s on the Eastern seaboard.

Local residents said they had been waiting a long time for the store — known throughout the city for its great prices and extensive array of organic, domestic and imported foods and beverages — to open an outlet in their neighborhood.

One of them, Teresa Soto, said, “I couldn’t sleep all night, I was so excited about this store opening. I didn’t want to miss it.”

Standing beside her, Juliet Goldsand, another Lower East Sider, said she was disappointed with the nearby Fine Fare supermarket, a longtime neighborhood mainstay, and do all her grocery shopping here from now on.

“They don’t take coupons, the cashiers are unpleasant and I could go on and on,” she said of Fine Fare.

Shoppers lined up outside waiting to get into the long-awaited Trader Joe’s. Photo by Lesley Sussman

Shopper Sal Grossman came from Williamsburg to attend the grand opening.

“It’s a great location, and a good store,” he said. “But my only wish is that they had opened the entrance on the Delancey St. side, so that you could jump straight onto the bridge and be in Williamsburg in a few minutes.”

Rabbi Shmuel Lev, who has lived along Grand St. for nearly 30 years, was disappointed there was not a special kosher foods section to cater to the neighborhood’s large Orthodox Jewish community.

“They have a small kosher meats section in their 14th St. store,” he said of Trader Joe’s, “but I was hoping they would have expanded it here.”

A newly employed cashier, who asked that her name not be used, said she quit her job at a nearby supermarket to work at the new Grand St. Trader Joe’s.

“Morale was high, they have the best produce and best meats you will find anywhere, and it will be easier to deal with customers because they won’t have to stand in long lines,” she said of some of her reasons for making the switch.

Shoppers got Hawaiian leis on opening day. Photo by Lesley Sussman

In an earlier interview with this newspaper, Renee Leibowitz, the new Trader Joe’s manager, known as the store’s “captain,” said the location is very well staffed. She said the Grand St. store had more than 100 employees to assist shoppers and 31 checkout counters, in an effort to avoid the long lines that many shoppers complain about in smaller Trader Joe’s outlets. She added that “90 percent” of the employees are from the Lower East Side.

As for why this location was chosen, Leibowitz said, “It was the right time. I’ve been working around the Lower East Side on behalf of Trader Joe’s since July, and I’ve just fallen in love with the neighborhood. And from what I’ve seen since working around here, it’s a booming area.

“It was just magic that they selected this retail opportunity in this great neighborhood and I’m so excited to be working here,” she said. “We have a great real estate location team and where they look begins with our customers and satisfying their desires. People wanted us down here and they’re excited that we decided to do so.”

Terry Keller, right, with cashier Ashley, made the first purchase at the Grand St. Trader Joe’s at 8:01 a.m. last Friday — a one-pound bag of lemons and a one-and-a-half-pound bag of cut and peeled carrots for a total of $3.98. The store is open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Photo courtesy Terry Keller

Asked how she felt about the nearby Fine Fare supermarket potentially being adversely affected by the new Trader Joe’s, Leibowitz said, “We focus on what we do. We don’t look at what the competition may or may not be doing. It’s just about doing the best we can do every day.”

The store captain said she was aware of the neighborhood’s ethnic mix — from a large Orthodox Jewish community to Chinese and Hispanic residents — but that there would be no special food sections, such as a kosher or Chinese foods, to cater to these varied ethnic and religious tastes.

“This store will be like all our other locations, with no specific sections for certain kinds of foods,” she explained. “They will be interspersed with our regular products. Our company philosophy is that we offer our customers a choice, and help people with what they’re looking for in our product offerings.”

Leibowitz added that Trader Joe’s was also well aware of today’s growing demand for health food products.

“When our customers ask for certain products we will look into it,” she said. “Like in the past year we’ve tried to reduce the sodium levels in our products because customers have been asking for that. So it’s really all about what our customers tell us they want.”

Store captain Renee Leibowitz gave The Villager a private tour of the new Trader Joe’s a day before the grand opening. Photo by Lesley Sussman

In a closing remark, Leibowitz noted that all the artwork and the murals throughout the store were done by employees.

“The murals pay tribute to local landmarks and the dynamic spirit of the neighborhood,” she said.

The first customer to make a purchase at the new Trader Joe’s, Terry Keller, said he is proud to have the store in the neighborhood and that it will improve the lives of people who live there. A native Lower East Sider, he worked in and later became a partner for many years in Wolsk’s wholesale dried fruit, nuts, candies and chocolates, at 81 Ludlow St., which closed in 2001. He now also lives part time in Miami.

“I’ve seen the Lower East Side change so dramatically from the 1960s,” Keller said. “I’m very proud of my neighborhood — then and much more today.  Life on the LES is becoming so easy. Especially for older folks having gotten their co-ops many years ago, New York City life is not really very expensive. I now even have my local Equinox gym. LES is the best.”

Trader Joe’s was founded in 1958 in the Los Angeles area and has expanded from one store to 482 located across 41 states and Washington, D.C. There are 10 Trader Joe’s locations in New York City.

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