Friday, December 30, 2005 | Forget grandma’s house, the tree farm, the mountain cabin. Those who sought a real dose of holiday cheer, straightened their Santa cap and headed right for the warm, happy environs of … the grocery store?

OK, so it might not carry Fritos or Mr. Clean, but it is still, technically, a grocery store. And come Christmas time, Trader Joe’s gets as busy as an elfin workshop, with lines of red carts snaking through the aisles like a defective candy cane. But unlike at other grocery chains, where seasonal stress and unmitigated rudeness can have shoppers fuming in no time, customers know the rules are different at Trader Joe’s.

One makes way for other people shopping carts. Graciously.

One makes cheerful conversation with the cashier.

On occasion, when necessary, one even (gasp!) bags one’s own groceries.

It could be the chain’s tropical ambience that calms people – employees are known as “captains” and “crew members” and wear funky Hawaiian shirts in all weather. Or it could be the employees themselves.

Pay for entry-level part-timers is above union at $8 to $12 an hour, and salaries for first-year supervisors are upwards of $40,000, making for cheerful workers only too happy to discuss your dinner menu in full detail. Business Week reports that Trader Joe’s contributes an annual 15.4 percent of each worker’s gross pay into a company-funded retirement plan – in addition to medical, dental and vision insurance, annual bonuses and a 10 percent employee discount.

The store’s emphasis on customer relations, paired with its focus on selling upscale foodstuffs at discount prices (two-buck chuck!) have people across the nation clamoring for stores in their area. When the planned Chula Vista location opens in 2006, San Diego will be home to nine Trader Joe’s. But residents from the Florida Panhandle to California’s Redwood Curtain continually petition their cities for a TJs.

After even a single visit to the store, fans can become cultish in their admiration.

Mike Kaltschnee, author of the popular “Hacking Netflix” blog and a customer of Trader Joe’s, recently started a blog about the grocery chain called “Tracking Trader Joe’s” – an unofficial newsletter of sorts that alerts fans to new products, store openings and company news such as Trader Joe’s decision in November to purchase only cage-free eggs for its store brand.

One group in Seattle loved the store so much they went so far as to start a singles group called “Trader Joe’s Love” (for men who cherish frozen mango slices and the women who love them).

Then there are the people who just don’t get into it. The stores are tiny, cramped, unbelievably crowded at times. There’s nowhere to park. Items are discontinued at random. The lines at the cash register look like something out of Communist Russia.

But, ironically those lines at Trader Joe’s probably got to be so long because of a business model the company refers to as an “economic food democracy.” You won’t find a lot of national brands or a large selection of low-profit margin items like flour, milk or sugar at the store. Instead, it stocks things like pine nuts, pomegranate juice and 2,000 other pun-laced products (Rosencrunch and Guildenstern is a personal favorite).

“You never know what new delicacy or convenience you might discover,” says Shelley Herron, a mother of three from La Mesa. “Like brown rice or yogurt cheese or chocolate-covered pretzels. Going to Trader Joe’s is actually fun, an adventure.”

It’s a business model that’s proven to rake in the cash: The Food Institute reports Trader Joe’s sales in 2003 were about $2.1 billion, or $1,132 per square foot – twice that of normal supermarkets.

To be fair, that number might derive from the fact that Trader Joe’s stores tend to be on the claustrophobic side – to keep costs down, the stores usually move into abandoned retail stores in second-rate locations averaging only about 10,000 square feet.

Such cost-cutting measures have allowed the store to quintuple its store count from 1990 to 2001, while increasing profits tenfold. But success hasn’t come without inconvenience. Parking is reportedly scarce at most Trader Joe’s 200 locations nationwide, and residents of Chula Vista originally opposed a proposed location near Southwestern College, saying it would only increase traffic in an already busy area.

And they have a point. Anyone who has made the mistake of visiting a Trader Joe’s the afternoon of an NFL football game knows it is futile to resist the teeming masses. Better to assume a meditative trance and allow yourself to be buffeted by the teeming masses. You’ll get to the hummus eventually.

And those 15-point turn maneuvers you perfected in the parking lot? They’ll come in handy while navigating your cart through the produce aisle.

Tiffany Lee-Youngren is a San Diego-based writer.

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