Will being so secretive backfire?

By Beth Kowitt
August 10, 2017
August 10, 2017

One of the keys to Trader Joe’s success has been in making private label cool.

While consumers for years have historically turned their noses up at grocery store brands, Trader Joe’s bucked the odds by creating a highly coveted in-house label.

Eater has a new story out that reveals some of the makers of these products for Trader Joe’s: Wonderful Pistachios, Tribe Mediterranean Foods, Naked Juice, Tate’s Bake Shop, and Stauffer’s, to name a few.

This is not a huge surprise. For years, Trader Joe’s super fans and reporters have pulled back the curtain on some of its suppliers.

During an investigation on the company’s business practices in 2010, I also discovered some of these connections. What I pointed out, and what Eater notes in its piece, is that many Big Food brands are behind Trader Joe’s products. This is, after all, the way private label works. But as I wrote then, it seems in conflict with the values of the type of customers Trader Joe’s is trying to attract:

Trader Joe’s business tactics are often very much at odds with its image as the funky shop around the corner that sources its wares from local farms and food artisans. Sometimes it does, but big, well-known companies also make many of Trader Joe’s products. Those Trader Joe’s pita chips? Made by Stacy’s, a division of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay. On the East Coast much of its yogurt is supplied by Danone’s Stonyfield Farm. And finicky foodies probably don’t like to think about how Trader Joe’s scale enables the chain to sell a pound of organic lemons for $2.

Staying hush-hush about who is behind your private label is standard practice for the industry, but Trader Joe’s takes it above and beyond. That’s in large part because it does the majority of its business under its house brand. Knowing that big-name companies are making some its quirky good only deflates its image.

But in 2017, this seems like an outdated way of operating—a point I covered in 2015 when Pepperidge Farm filed a lawsuit against Trader Joe’s, alleging that its private label Crispy Cookies infringe on its “famous and unique” Milano cookie trademark:

At one time that secrecy added to Trader Joe’s brand mystique, but that’s a tough line to walk in the age of transparency and authenticity in food, particularly for a store whose appeal rests in part on the fact that it’s not the standard corporate-brand supermarket. Consumers want to know who’s behind their food and where it comes from. In this new era, it may serve the super-secretive retailer to become a little bit less secretive.

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