After years of hopes followed by months of anticipation, Trader Joe's will open a Lexington store at 8 a.m. Friday.
The gourmet grocery, on the former site of Joe's Crab Shack at 2326 Nicholasville Road, is expected to be wildly popular, and those unfamiliar are in for a unique shopping trip, industry observers say.
"Walking into a Trader Joe's is an experience, ... because you don't know what you're going to come across," said Mark Mallinger, a Pepperdine University professor who has followed the privately held company for years. "New products come and go.
"They're just unique."
Many Lexington residents hoped the chain would arrive years and years ago. Mallinger said the Monrovia, Calif.-based company, which has more than 370 stores nationwide, is "very cautious about the locations they select."
Before Friday, the closest Trader Joe's stores were in Cincinnati and Louisville.
Trader Joe's spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki declined to disclose the selection process, saying only "that Lexington is filled with foodies and seems a great fit for us."
"We consider ourselves the neighborhood grocery store and feel the Lexington location is a great fit," she said.
Mallinger said his tracking of the company reveals three criteria for site selection:
Dense population: Trader Joe's puts stores in areas with large surrounding populations. With its many nearby neighborhoods, Nicholasville Road was a good fit for that criteria, said Lexington commercial real estate broker Tim Haymaker of Haymaker/Bean Commercial Real Estate. Its location closer to downtown rather than near Man o' War Boulevard is "a win for the city," said Chris King, director of planning for Lexington city government, because it helps redevelop an existing corridor.
Highly educated population: "What they've discovered is those who are more educated tend to travel more, and those who travel more tend to be more adventuresome in their food and drink choices," Mallinger said. As the home of the University of Kentucky, Transylvania University and several other colleges, Lexington has a high percentage of residents with college and graduate-level educations.
Easy distribution: Mallinger said Trader Joe's differs from major supermarkets that have their own distribution warehouses and trucking operations.
"They are strictly a retail grocery store," he said. Suppliers send the merchandise directly to the stores.
Overall, the Trader Joe's business model is unique, Mallinger said.
"Compared to a supermarket that has maybe 35,000 items, they have maybe 2,500," he said.
They're also small by comparison. Lexington's Trader Joe's grocery will be 12,000 square feet with an adjacent wine shop that is 3,000 square feet. By comparison, the Kroger on Tates Creek Road is 59,000 square feet and is being expanded to 92,000 square feet.
"Trader Joe's is a national chain of neighborhood specialty grocery stores," Mallinger said. "If you really deeply understand that one sentence, you understand Trader Joe's.
"They want to be a national chain of mom-and-pops. That's what it's saying."
That's why, he said, you won't empty your own cart when you chat with the cashier, who unloads it for you.
It's also why you won't see advertisements for them in publications; Trader Joe's mails newsletters, called The Fearless Flyer, describing products.
What else is unique?
There aren't sales, and products tend to change quickly.
Since "we introduce 10 to 15 new products a week, we have to eliminate 10 to 15 items in order to give our newest items a fair chance," the company says on its Web site.
Employees often wear Hawaiian shirts to emphasize that they're "traders on the culinary seas," according to the site.
So will the company's success in Lexington be as wild as its employees' dress?
Observers say yes.
"It will do phenomenally well in Lexington," said Burt Flickinger III, managing director of retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group in New York. "It will really rock the market."