Lexington celebrates grand opening of Trader Joe's

bfortune@herald-leader.comJune 29, 2012 

It was a sunny, festive scene at Trader Joe's on Friday morning as the bluegrass band Driving Rain played and about 150 passionate fans of the gourmet grocery chain lined up for the 8 a.m. grand opening of the new Lexington store.

Marilyn Kitchens Cecil of Versailles took the day off from work for the opening, probably one of Lexington's most eagerly anticipated retail arrivals in years. She arrived at 7 a.m. and was 11th in line.

"My supervisor's from Columbus (where there is a Trader Joe's), so she was sympathetic," Cecil said. "I've waited years for this day. I shopped at Trader Joe's years ago when I lived in California."

Arriving even earlier was Crystal Cavallaro, who showed up with her bedroll at 3 a.m. to be first in line. She wasn't afraid of the store running out of items; it was more for the fun experience, Cavallaro said.

She had never even shopped at a Trader Joe's before.

"I'm excited. I read about their products. They carry a lot of vegan items," she said. "I'm vegan, and it's hard being a vegan in the meat belt."

Cavallaro lives near the store, which is at 2320 Nicholasville Road. "I can ride my scooter over here. This is the best," she said.

Another early bird was Carmen Covert. "I got here at 5:45 a.m. It was a little spooky when I first came, but you make friends at Trader Joe's. It's like family," she said.

Behind her stood Kay Swain, a self-described "passionate Trader Joe's fan. "I've shopped at Trader Joe's all over the country. They have high-quality food at great prices," she said.

The grocery store, on the former site of Joe's Crab Shack, has a devoted, even rabid fan base, many of whom first shopped at "TJ's" in California, where the chain started.

"Only people from California would see this like a rock concert," said Paula Wehrly, who drove 45 minutes from Georgetown with her daughter to be one of the first in line.

Trader Joe's is a national chain of neighborhood specialty grocery stores. Just think: a national chain of mom-and-pops. Stores are small in comparison to typical supermarkets. Kroger on Tates Creek Road is 59,000 square feet. Lexington's Trader Joe's is 12,000 square feet, with an adjacent 3,000-square-foot wine shop.

The Monrovia, Calif.-based company has more than 370 stores nationwide. Many Lexington residents hoped the chain would arrive years ago. Before Friday, Louisville and Cincinnati were the closest stores. Before those stores opened in recent years, Trader Joe's fans were known to drive as far as Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio, to get their fix.

The stores are known for their quirky atmosphere, laid-back attitude, exotic food selections and relatively inexpensive prices.

Among the most notable cheap items is the chain's well-regarded line of Charles Shaw wines, nicknamed "Two-Buck Chuck" for its $1.99 price tag. However, in Lexington, it will probably be dubbed "Three-Buck Chuck": The wine sells for $2.99 to account for shipping costs.

At the stroke of 8 a.m., George "Bucky" Sallee, Keeneland's bugler for the past 50 years, played the call to post to signal the ceremonial lei cutting. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and Richard Flanagan, the "store captain" (Trader Joe's equivalent of a store manager), snipped a Hawaiian lei strung across the front door.

Whoops and whistles went up from the crowd. Trader Joe's in Lexington was open.

The gala atmosphere moved right inside.

Store employees, many wearing Trader Joe's signature colorful Hawaiian shirts, were lined up inside on either side of the door, cheering and handing a colorful lei to each customer as they entered.

First to make a purchase was Emma Stern, 8, of Lexington, who bought a bag of chocolate-covered blueberries. Flanagan waved a dollar bill, shouting, "Our first dollar!" More cheers from shoppers.

Emma's mother, Eve, became Trader Joe's-addicted in California. She called the company several times, asking them to open a store in Lexington. "I moved here 12 years ago. I have been waiting 12 years for Trader Joe's," she said.

Within minutes of the opening, the store was crowded with blissful shoppers.

Holly Grayson was looking for cookie butter.

"It's like peanut butter, but it tastes like cookies. It's fantabulous," she said. Grayson is going on a girls' trip in two weeks and plans to take a jar for each friend.

But talk about love and devotion. Ann Townzen and her husband take a lot of car trips and have put Trader Joe's into their GPS. "Wherever we go, we stop at Trader Joe's and load up the car," she said.

One of her favorite things to do at Trader Joe's is "treasure hunt, find hidden gems like these," she said, picking up a package of Angelcots, described on the package as "heavenly white apricots." "There are treasures like this everywhere," Townzen said.

The atmosphere at Trader Joe's is "so warm and fuzzy," Townzen said. "I feel so loved here." In fact, she doesn't buy everything she needs at one time, "So I have an excuse to come back."

Pausing, Townzen said, "I'll be a complete person if we ever get a Costco in Lexington."

Remember Cavallaro, the early bird?

A little after 9 a.m., Cavallaro was in the checkout line. Her basket was full, and she held more bags and boxes in her arms. "I've already been to the car twice. This is my third trip," she said, happily.

Did she find vegan items? "Oh, yes," she said. Cavallaro held up a box of mango passion granola. And for her son, she bought a package of Trader Joe's chocolate with vanilla bean cream cookies. They fall within vegan guidelines.

"He's vegan, but he has to have treats," she said. "This is not really junk food."

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.

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