By Greg Dawson
Illustration by Dana Summers

You know you’re getting close to Trader Joe’s in Winter Park when traffic starts backing up on U.S. 17-92 near Morse Boulevard because vehicles with blinking turn signals are waiting to enter a parking lot that’s already packed and gridlocked. 

These are lemmings who have marched off the cliff before, somehow survived, and keep coming back to do it again and again.

They would do it even if there was a neon sign at the entrance flashing, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” As many highly literate Winter Park Magazine readers can tell you, that same motto is inscribed above the gates of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Who knew Florence had a TJ’s in the Late Middle Ages?

“Through me you pass into the city of woe,” Dante wrote. “Through me you pass into eternal pain.”

Yes, but. Have you tried Trader Joe’s Oven-Baked Cheese Bites with Summer Black Truffle? Or its Dried Mango, Garlic Achaar Sauce, Kale Gnocchi, Mandarin Orange Chicken, English Cheddar with Caramelized Onions, Persian Cucumbers, Norwegian Crispbread and Steamed Pork and Ginger Soup Dumplings, among the many beloved TJ’s private brands?

To die for. 

Or at least to wait for until a space becomes available in the postage-stamp sized lot. If TJ’s parking was legal tender, it would be stronger than the U.S. dollar. On one of my visits, I backed out of my space as a woman in an SUV waited to snag it. As I pulled away, she waved and flashed a smile of such overwhelming gratitude that it was like I was donating a kidney instead of a place to park.

A more typical interaction was this one posted on social media by a customer at one of the more than 560 TJ’s nationwide: “I just got flicked off by an 80-plus-year-old grandma when driving in the Trader Joe’s parking lot.” And this: “Jeez, do people put on their ‘Drive Like a Maniac’ hats when coming into the Trader Joe’s parking lot?”

It goes to show what happens when cult-like popularity meets clueless city planning. The Winter Park TJ’s opened in June 2014 with “several hundred people willing to bear long lines and dubious parking” to be first in the store, reported the CitySurfing Orlando website. 

By August, city commissioners were deluged by complaints and mulled a plan to add 10 spaces. Never happened. Neither, thank God, did a plan to add an additional 21 spaces on the other side of the hectic highway, which would have pitted patrons laden with Carne Asada, Vegan Tzatziki Dip, Chocolate Hummus and bouquets of fresh-cut spring flowers against autos, buses, motorcycles and concrete mixers.

The number of spaces that TJ’s “shares” with a dozen other Lakeside Plaza businesses, including Shake Shack, is the same today — 169 — as it was the day it opened. And that’s two more spaces than required by city code, notes Jeffrey Briggs, planning and transportation director. 

Such technical compliance is no consolation to legions of TJ’s parking lot hostages who wonder, “What were they thinking?”

They weren’t thinking because they weren’t supposed to think. They were following code, no questions asked. “Cities and counties don’t have the luxury of saying we’re going to treat this grocery store differently than other grocery stores,” says Briggs. “They’re entitled to build if they meet the parking requirement.”

Yes but. This is Trader-freaking-Joe’s! The 1,000-year flood of urban planning. And it didn’t come out of the blue. In 2013, the year before the store opened in Winter Park, there were more than 400 TJ’s in 38 states, and the parking lots just about everywhere were already legendarily awful — the stuff of countless internet jokes:

“My daughter was being annoying, so I threatened to make her practice driving in a Trader Joe’s parking lot.”

“If you didn’t have a near-death experience in the parking lot, did you even go to Trader Joe’s?”

“My car insurance doesn’t cover Trader Joe’s parking lot.” 

Hyperbole, yes — but also a useful reminder to check your insurance to make sure it covers not only property damage but bodily injury before you challenge the unregulated mayhem outside the store. Picture a bumper-car ride where all the drivers are 6-year-old boys.

Making matters worse is the abundance of humongous vehicles blocking sight lines and protruding from spaces, making the lot seem even smaller. These behemoths have faintly combative names like Armada, Bronco, Rouge, Titan, Wrangler and Range Rover. Shouldn’t we be sending some of these to the Ukrainian military?

Parking was an issue when the first TJ’s opened 46 years ago in Pasadena, California. It’s been an issue ever since as TJ’s kingdom inexorably expands. There’s a pattern here and it’s called the TJ business model: Small stores with less parking equals lower overhead, allowing it to underprice such competitors as Whole Foods, Fresh Market and even the ubiquitous Publix.

The TJ’s phenomenon has turned conventional wisdom on its head, including Yogi Berra’s famous observation about a restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” 

Everybody goes to Trader Joe’s. Nobody cares that it’s too crowded. And low-ish prices can’t be the only reason that the lemmings — yes, including me — keep returning. If it were, we’d all be at Walmart.

No, the reason clearly is Trader Joe’s private brands, which seem to anesthetize its chronic, er, loyal patrons against the stress and trauma and dashboard-pounding rage induced by the parking lot from hell.

“I hate it,” Jennifer, a shopper from Oviedo, told me as she loaded TJ’s bags into her car. “It’s very difficult to navigate and you get stuck at the light trying to turn left [onto U.S. 17-92], so I have to turn right and make a U-turn.” 

So why does she keep coming back? “The tomato soup,” she said. “It’s the only kind my kids will eat. And frozen items, like turkey meatballs.”

Lu, a TJ’s devotee from south Orlando, was stuffing the back of his SUV parked in front of Shake Shack. “It’s a [blank] show, a complete [blank] show,” he said of the lot. 

Is it really worth it, I wondered. Isn’t life too short? “One hundred percent worth it!” Lu said. “Life’s not too short. It lasts longer when you eat good food. Have you tried this?” He held up a frozen pack of 5-Cheese Greek Spiral. “Better than crack!”

Jeffrey Briggs says he doesn’t shop at TJ’s, but his partner is a fan. “She gets me corn chips,” Briggs explains. “They’re the best on the planet.” How, then, would he respond if his partner came home one day, having escaped parking purgatory at TJ’s, and asked, “What were you thinking?” 

Shruggs Briggs: That’s easy. “I would say, ‘Where are my corn chips?’” 

Greg Dawson is a journalist and author. He has worked as a reporter, a television critic, a metro columnist and consumer columnist. His most recent book, with Susan Hood, is Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis (HarperCollins, 2022). Dawson is a contributing editor for Winter Park Magazine.

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