I had the saddest salad yesterday.
After a morning meeting near the Trader Joe’s in Rollingwood, I stopped by the store for some snacks, flowers for the house and something quick to eat for lunch. I’d been cooking at home for the month of January and was craving one of those prepared salads. I knew Trader Joe’s would have lots to choose from.
I’d forgotten that Trader Joe’s salads are simply awful. I’m sure they don’t start that way, but it always seems that every salad on the shelves is a day away from expiring. Every. Single. One.
I noticed it when I was shopping in the store yesterday and had a sense of deju vu that I’d already learned this lesson before. I continued in my grocery shopping denial and I bought one anyway, the Mexicali with Chili Lime Chicken. It comes with roasted corn and a tangy dressing. The pepita seeds stayed crunchy in a little plastic container, but by the time I opened that salad on my desk, the wilted greens were the very definition of a “sad desk lunch.”
About a year ago, I finally learned not to buy baked goods at Trader Joe’s after a package of English muffins molded the day after I bought them, and yesterday was the moment I think I finally learned the salad lesson, too.
I tried to make the best of it and at least eat the chicken, corn and pepitas, but I couldn’t even choke down half of it. Frustrated that I’d fallen for yet another disappointing Trader Joe’s prepared food item, I asked around online to see if anyone else was ready to give up on TJ salads altogether. Kristin Sheppard confirmed that this isn’t just a one-off experience:
And she’s not alone:
But the question at the top of this post remains: Why are they so bad?
Like many grocers, Trader Joe’s relies on a distribution network with a centralized kitchen. (The closest one to Austin is in Irving, near Dallas.) But unlike many grocers, Trader Joe’s has not figured out how to reduce the time from that kitchen to my shopping cart.
My gut tells me that the Austin grocery market is saturated, which leads to lower turnover rates at some stores and more stale salads on the shelves. But I also think that enough casual Trader Joe’s shoppers like me just aren’t buying their salads anymore.
The store always seems to display the just-barely-not-expired salads first. Yesterday, every single salad expired today. I imagine that the store had fresher salads in the back, but in an attempt to sell the back stock first, allowed those fresher salads to sit out of reach.
The good news is that all the local Trader Joe’s stores donate the still-edible but not sellable food to Keep Austin Fed, so all those salads are being donated. But let’s be honest, an expired salad is an expired salad. It can be a health risk, especially for people with compromised immune systems.
Trader Joe’s has a passionate shopping base and doesn’t seem to be struggling for sales, but they really need to fix this salad problem. I threw out half of what could have been a really great lunch yesterday, and I’m less likely to visit the store, in general, if I can’t trust the freshness of the goods.
Next time, I’m grabbing one of those Bistro Ready Pac salads from HEB’s produce section, which are usually at least a few days and up to a week from their expiration date. In general, high-volume grocery stores tend to have the freshest produce, prepared foods and meat, so if you’re at a low-volume store or an uber-thrifty one like Trader Joe’s, pay extra close attention to the expiration date on all your foods, including milk.
It’s worth noting that Trader Joe’s parent company is Aldi Nord, which now has an Aldi in Pflugerville. I’m not familiar enough with that store to know if they have similar expiration date problems on fresh produce, meat, dairy, etc.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve figured out how to get fresher salads at Trader Joe’s or if Aldi or other local stores have similar issues.