Trader Joe Says “No”

I’m one of those fancy guys who bought real maple syrup to put on my pancakes. It wasn’t because I didn’t care for the marketing of the fake stuff, but I liked the real stuff better. It was usually named something like “Real Maple Syrup” so I would know what I was buying. What it was not named was “Aunt Jemima,” and if Aunt Jemima syrup disappeared from supermarket shelves, it wouldn’t bother me a bit.

But did the brand name hurt you? Did it make you cry? Did you feel traumatized, attacked, even belittled? Maybe, and if so, you didn’t have to buy it and you were free to let Quaker Oats know that the 131-year-old brand offended you. If enough people refused to buy Aunt Jemima syrup, then the magic of the marketplace would have its way.

Quaker Oats had one of the best established brands around, yet in the face of viral complaints, decided to “retire” the brand “to make progress toward racial equality.” Eradicating symbols of slavery has gotten traction, and Quaker Oats chose not to get on the wrong side of the social justice crowd by sticking with its brand and being branded a racist company. In the scheme of marketing, it preferred to let Aunt Jemima go rather than be rebranded as the company that refused to be sensitive to racism.

Not everyone approved of the decision.

“This is an injustice for me and my family. This is part of my history, sir,” Larnell Evans Sr., a great-grandson of Harrington, told “The racism they talk about, using images from slavery, that comes from the other side — white people. This company profits off images of our slavery. And their answer is to erase my great-grandmother’s history. A black female. … It hurts.”

Food chain Trader Joe’s had taken a different path in marketing its products. It gave its “foreign” foods a cute foreign-ish name playing off its trade name, Mexican food was sold as Trader José’s, Chinese food as Trader Ming’s, Italian as Trader Giotto’s. It was all kind of fun until the winds shifted and people beat the bushes for things to be offended over that they ate the night before with relish.

A petition appeared demanding that Trader Joe’s change its “racist” packaging.

The Trader Joe’s branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures — it presents ‘Joe’ as the default ‘normal’ and the other characters falling outside of it — they are ‘Arabian Joe,’ ‘Trader José,’ and ‘Trader Joe San,’ the petition states. “… The common thread between all of these transgressions is the perpetuation of exoticism, the goal of which is not to appreciate other cultures, but to further other and distance them from the perceived ‘normal.

As long as there was one person who felt “othered” by this exoticizing of names, it had to go. And Trader Joe’s immediately bent over to acquiesce and beg for absolution.

While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect— one that is contrary to the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day,” said Kenya Friend-Daniel, national director of public relations for Trader Joe’s. “With this in mind, we made the decision several years ago to use only the Trader Joe’s name on our products moving forward. Since then, we have been in the process of updating older labels and replacing any variations with the name Trader Joe’s, and we will continue do so until we complete this important work.

The “national director of public relations” was just doing her job, catering to the whims and demands of the grievance searchers, incentivized by the rush and ease of businesses to acquiesce to their will. It’s good to be so powerful that just pointing and yelling “racist” can get a business to fall to its knees and beg for mercy.

Then something happened. Maybe it was an epiphany. Maybe it was someone with a bigger office than Kenya Friend-Daniel. Maybe it was just someone who had the clarity of thought to say, “Are you out of your mind?” Trader Joe said “no.

A few weeks ago, an online petition was launched calling on us to “remove racist packaging from [our] products.” Following were inaccurate reports that the petition prompted us to take action. We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions.

Decades ago, our Buying Team started using product names, like Trader Giotto’s, Trader José’s, Trader Ming’s, etc. We thought then—and still do—that this naming of products could be fun and show appreciation for other cultures. For example, we named our Mexican beer “Trader José Premium” and a couple guacamole products are called “Avocado’s Number” in a kitschy reference to a mathematical theory.  These products have been really popular with our customers, including some budding mathematicians.

And so?

Recently we have heard from many customers reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended­—as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing. We continue our ongoing evaluation, and those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves.

Those desperately seeking outrage will find it. Those desperately seeking Trader José Premium beer will find it too, on the shelf at Trader Joe’s. You know what you won’t find at Trader Joe’s? Paul Krugman.

If you look to Krugman for your celebrity endorsement, then you might choose not to buy from Trader Joe’s. As for me,* if their Trader Hymie’s gefilte fish is delicious, I would buy it, along with Trader Joe’s horseradish. Yum.

I didn’t buy Aunt Jemima syrup because I preferred real maple syrup to the fake stuff. The name has nothing to do with it. Then again, I don’t stare at product names in search of reasons to be offended. I’m offended by cops needlessly killing people, not food names, and it requires no rhetorical word salad nor magnifying glass to find a real reason to be outraged.

*I’ve never been to a Trader Joe’s, as there isn’t one close to where I live, but friends have told me they love the store and, somehow, have never been offended by their brand names.

13 thoughts on “Trader Joe Says “No”

  1. delurking

    I have relatives named John, Johannes and Ioannis, and friends named Ian, Ivan, Evan, Sean, Hans, Juan, and Jan. I’d better hide.

      1. delurking

        Someone should just one-up the petitioners and demand that Trader Joe’s, an American company founded by white people in Pasadena, CA, stop selling Tacos and Soba noodles. It’s cultural appropriation, don’t ya know.

  2. Lawrence Kaplan

    A “Hymie “ is sometimes used derogatorily as an epithet for a Jew. The real analogy, which Krugman does not use for it clearly would not be offensive is “Trader Yossel.” I don’t think any Jew would not buy the product because of the name. Most I think would smile.

  3. B. McLeod

    After 130 years, I hope they at least set Aunt Jemima up with a nice pension.

    I don’t think any true Scotsman would be offended by “Trader Jock’s” or “Trader Mac’s.”

  4. John Barleycorn

    Does this mean we are gonna get a post about the eight dapper looking dudes in the SJ banner?

  5. Hunting Guy

    Not being an oenophile I’m going to support the store by buying another case of their 3 buck Chuck wine.

    Nothing wrong with their chardonnay over ice in my Yeti glass. It’s suppose to hit 112 here today.

  6. kemn

    I’ve been shopping at TJ’s for years…and would probably giggle at Trader Yossel’s Kosher Meats…I mean, I love “jewish” jokes..if you can’t laugh, why are you living?

    I also buy “Soy Vay Very Teriyaki” Sauce…and I cook tacos and “chinese” style food. Should I stop doing that? I’m not sure if I’m committing cultural appropriation by doing that. And what about that pot of Gumbo I’m making for this weekend.

    I’m going to hate it if I’m just stuck making white people’s food.

  7. j a higginbotham

    I for one am highly offended by TJ’s statement. “Avocado’s number” has absolutely nothing to do with mathematical theory or mathematicians.

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