Update: Since this story broke, Trader Joe's has announced that it will soon remove such labels from it's packaging.
Trader Joe’s has long built its business catering to a certain demographic: the “woke” over-educated consumer who’s really curious about food from around the world but doesn’t necessarily have the coin, or time, to cook such creations from scratch. It’s a palace of gastronomy for those with Dom Perignon taste on a Two Buck Chuck budget.
But to some, the Polynesian schtick and irreverent packaging that has made Trader Joe’s a fan favorite since the chain started in California during the late 1960s has worn thin. In the wake of the protests over the murder of Black Americans by police officers, which sparked the sunsetting of brands including Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s, and even the last Sambo’s breakfast restaurant, some believe it’s time that Trader Joe’s rethinks its labeling.
The problem is some of the catchy packaging found on various foods throughout Trader Joe’s. Trader Giotto’s made 99-cent bags of pasta a pantry staple; Arabian Joe’s helped put flatbread on the U.S. map; Trader José offers a rainbow color palette of salsas and Mexican food; Trader Joe San and Trader Ming’s gave wallets a break by curbing the urge to order Chinese or Japanese take-out.
But what may seem cute and flippant to some consumers is offensive to others. Critics say this is yet another example of white people fetishizing cultures deemed different than their own. To that end, a group recently launched an online petition demanding that the grocer remove what it says is “racist branding and packaging” from its stores.
The petition also noted that the store’s branding itself is based on its founder, Joe Coulombe, who took inspiration from a book (White Shadows in the South Seas) and an amusement park ride (Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise Ride), both of which have their own problematic views toward how they portray Indigenous cultures.
For those who are weary of what they say is at a minimum a tone-deafness of Trader Joe’s branding, the retailer's cultural appropriation is nothing new. After all, many of us may remember our parents or grandparents referring to Asians as “Orientals” – and that word in turn was often our great-grandparents’ and their ancestors’ term to refer to people living in the Middle East. Over 40 years ago, Columbia University professor and author Edward W. Said laid this all out in his book Orientalism, which in a nutshell describes how centuries of colonization in the Middle and Near East have given much of the world a warped vision of those regions.
Whether or not one views this packaging as racist, the reality is that some of Trader Joe's branding definitely does make some people feel like an "other" — and some, frankly, just aren't having it anymore.
The online petition, which as of press time is close to reaching its modest goal of 1,000 signatures, is not the first time Trader Joe’s has been called out on its branding. After one blogger contacted the grocer’s public relations department asking about the “Trader Ming” packaging, the company’s PR director replied, “Some time ago, we made the decision to use only the Trader Joe's name on our products moving forward.”
Trader Joe’s sent a similar reply to SFGate after its food and drink editor ran a story on the online petition.
At a higher level, the renewed talk of Trader Joe’s labeling shows that, as is the case with other grocery chains, it has a challenge appealing to people of color. The company gives off the vibe that it’s a haven for white hipsters (who may not have the budget for Whole Foods or Harris Teeter), even though the company has it share of Black fans. And at a time when food deserts are on the radar again during this national reckoning on racial equity, Trader Joe’s has long had a reputation of avoiding communities of color – until the evidence suggests gentrification led by white people is well underway.
Image credit: Mx. Granger/Wiki Commons
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.