Trader Joe’s isn’t where I go to make smart financial decisions. It’s where I go to buy frozen meals when I’ve procrastinated too much to have time to cook, restrain myself from stockpiling seasonal novelties and roam the aisles fantasizing about an employee who looks like their main food group is granola.
All of this aligns with Trader Joe’s mission statement of wanting shopping in its stores to be “rewarding, eventful and fun.” But I didn’t know I had the same version of fun as the fraternity-T-shirt-and-Crocs-with-socks-clad bros I spotted perusing the cheese section.
The first time I caught a frat guy in Trader Joe’s, it was like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I wasn’t sure if it was some sick joke or a glitch in the Matrix, but later, I’d discover this is a frequently spotted specimen native to the Trader Joe’s on University Drive and Rural Road, just blocks away from the Greek Leadership Village.
I stood frozen in horror as one picked up my favorite lemonade — Italian blood orange — and chucked it in the cart he shared with two other frat guys. What were they going to do with it? Be refined and pair it with a spicy vodka pasta or charcuterie board, as it should be? Or use it for mixed drinks and chasers?
I subtly tracked them from the corner of my eye as we happened to wander down the same aisles, trying my best — and failing — to remember my mental grocery list. But at one point, probably when one of them shouted, “No way, I love sourdough!” I stopped pretending this display of what I can only call “modern hunting” didn’t spark my keen scientific interest.
I felt like Steve Irwin marveling over a colony of wild crocodiles — not that I’m comparing bros in frats to modern-day dinosaurs. But for all my observing, I was only left with more questions than answers.
Do they like Trader Joe’s because of their relatively cheap, yet tasty, frozen meals, or is it simply the closest grocery store nearby? Do they adore the seasonal pumpkin bread too? Or is it a matter of nostalgia — do they feel comforted by this place because it reminds them of when their parents used to drag them to the store?
Once I noticed my intended 15-minute shopping trip had stretched into half an hour, I tore my eyes away from the pack of frat guys on the prowl. But of course they ended up behind me in the same checkout lane, all but forcing me to eavesdrop on conversations about how the Chili & Lime Flavored Rolled Corn Tortilla Chips (TJ’s superior spin on Takis) “slap” and how the lemonade I had seen them pick up earlier would make an excellent chaser — they have taste, I’ll give them that. But does it really even matter when it’ll just be used to wash down the most vile vodka you can buy at El P’s?
When it was finally my turn to have my food scanned and bagged, the checkout clerk with a sleeve of watercolor tattoos and I quietly shared a grimace. It’s clear rowdy college men were not who she thought she’d be helping when she was hired — but working at Trader Joe’s isn’t just restocking endless holiday novelties and frolicking by the flower section, it seems.
Once I escaped the store, I thought my character studies and scientific endeavors were finally over. That is, until I saw the scooters parked outside. Two electric scooters for three fully grown men to lug their bounty back to the GLV.
I watched in shock — and, admittedly, some awe — behind the safety of my car’s window as two of the men jumped on one scooter Jack-and-Rose-on-the-Titanic-style and balanced their double-bagged groceries on the handlebars. Then, they set off into the sunset to, I assume, do what we all do after a Trader Joe’s run: feast.
Until then, I won’t lie, I never would’ve thought frat bros were the ideal demographic for a grocery store that’s long been praised by women of varying age groups as their idea of a fun night out. Now, I say, they absolutely are.
I can explain, I swear.
I’ve returned to this Trader Joe’s several times since this first encounter. Call it morbid fascination or scientific research, but I had to test my hypothesis.
While it might be horrifying for the Birkenstock-wearing community to enter their supposed safe space — a store with cartoon turkeys painted on the windows — and see frat bros chucking organic bananas into their carts, this is what’s best for society.
First, even frat bros need a break from basement beer pong and cannonballing off roofs. They, too, should be allowed to sip kombucha and daydream about escaping to the woods to open an organic farm.
Trader Joe’s is also their escape from the straight, cisgender, male paradise they inhabit. Instead of basking in the glory of the latest Tempe Barstool post they were featured in, they have to talk about loose-leaf tea blends with an elderly woman named Crystal and her emotional support bichon frisé, Winston. I’m not saying Trader Joe’s is where to go to be immersed in a different culture or community, but it is a good stepping stone to realize there’s a whole wide world beyond the GLV and Tempe.
Beyond that, these three men who most likely spend their weekends drunkenly roaming Mill Avenue decided to embark on a sober group shopping trip. Instead of chugging buckets of booze at C.A.S.A., they were squabbling over whether to buy the dark or milk chocolate peanut butter cups. They chose to do this with their free time, and that’s a triumph in itself!
None of their parents or partners forced them to be there. They didn’t take the lazy way out by having a cute Starship robot or an overworked DoorDash driver deliver their meals. They’re growing up.
It’s the bare minimum for them as full-grown adults, and quite frankly, the fact they get to have a fun time shopping is an unacknowledged privilege. They should be grateful that they can afford to buy groceries from Trader Joe’s when some people find shopping stressful because they have to count every penny.
But progress is progress, and in the long run, this might even be beneficial for their development.
Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool. It helps teach kids to read, train dogs to sit and, in this case, turn Crocs-clad boys into future grocery warriors.
Here’s my finding, which I’ve meticulously deduced after hours of field observation: If frat bros form a positive association with grocery shopping and it becomes fun and exciting for them, they’ll jump at the chance to do it in the future — say, when they’re married and their partner asks them to grab a couple things on the way home.
Who wouldn’t want a husband who uses reusable bags and doesn’t blow up over a request as simple as a grocery run?
If they can be trained to love grocery shopping, what else can they be conditioned to love doing? Dishwashing, folding laundry, vacuuming? The possibilities are endless. The key to building the perfect husbands might be to introduce these tasks to them as a competitive game or team mission. My findings indicate it may be helpful to even incorporate scooters somehow, but that’s a question for later research.
When Trader Joe’s opened its location by the Tempe campus, it knew it would be a moneymaker, but I don’t think it could have guessed the store would turn into a training ground for immature boys to turn into men who know where to buy the most gourmet lemonade.
So if you’re looking for a way to get the behavior of frat bros in your life under control, start by inviting them to meet you at Trader Joe’s, but then show up late. Leave them to their own devices. Let them explore the environment, experiment and learn on their own, but step in when guidance is needed. This will most likely happen at the register when the cashier with dip-dye hair and a septum piercing starts making friendly conversation with them. After that, life becomes easy.
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen
This story is part of The Immunity Issue, which was released on Nov. 29, 2023. See the entire publication here.
Editor's notes: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from State Press Magazine or its editors.