Meet Pirate Joe, the man who (legally) smuggles Trader Joe's goods across the Canadian border
Janill Gilbert stashed this in Food
Just one example of the resourceful Canadians, when businesses don't cross the border.
For three years Michael Hallatt has been bringing thousands of dollars’ worth of Trader Joe’s products across the border into Vancouver. Our reporter spent a day embedded with Pirate Joe’s ‘cats’ and got an inside look at the cultlike following the pirate brand has captured from the US corporation
In a darkened parking lot in Bellingham, Washington, less than 50 miles from the Canadian border, two cars pull up alongside a ramshackle white van. It is a weekday night. The drivers of the cars will not provide their last names, or appear in photographs. One is wearing a costume — a $4 thrift store trench coat and styled hair.
Inside the van, a black-clad man crouches, loading cargo which the drivers collected and which he will soon carry across the border. The load is tucked inside brown paper bags and reusable canvas totes; it ranges from dish soap to black bean quinoa chips. Nothing costs more than $10, and it all comes from the same place: Trader Joe’s.
“I’ve been in situations that were dangerous before,” John L, the man in the trench coat, told the Guardian. “But this is not one of them.”
Trader Joe’s is a grocery store. It has a cultlike following which in New York City drives people to queue, even in freezing temperatures, outside its packed locations. It has inspired a cookbook based on its products. Celebrities and at least one supreme court justice shop there. But there are no Trader Joe’s stores in Canada.
Enter Pirate Joe.
That’s the nickname of Michael Hallatt, who for three years has been bringing thousands of dollars’ worth of Trader Joe’s products across the border into Vancouver every week. Trader Joe’s, despite making nearly a million dollars in sales from the operation, wants it to stop.
The courts, however, have ruled that Trader Joe’s cannot prove that Pirate Joe’s is causing it harm. Pirate Joe’s is therefore legal.
In the early days, Pirate Joe’s was the unofficial name for the enterprise, which Hallatt operated covertly from what looked like a rundown bakery. In February 2012, Trader Joe’s sent a cease-and-desist order. Hallatt refused to stop, so the California-based company sued. It lost. The case is now in the ninth circuit court of appeals and Pirate Joe’s is operating with more gusto than ever before, making Hallatt a prime target of a company that is generally known for its progressive values.
“To be fair to TJ’s, if they were a guy or a gal, then they would have every right to be pissed off,” Hallatt said. But because Trader Joe’s is a corporation denying its products to interested consumers, he says, he is not ashamed of his business. Nor is he bothered by the hate mail.
“I hope Karma shines on you forcing you to go out of business,” wrote one incensed stranger in an email.
Hallatt has been kicked out of many stores, many times. He now pays an army of shoppers — he calls them “cats” — to buy groceries at the Trader Joe’s Bellingham store. Some cats make runs in other Washington stores; Hallatt himself is safer in territory farther south. His shoppers have operated in stores in Portland, Oregon, and in at least five in Los Angeles.
The cats who shopped in Bellingham this week said many store employees are familiar with Pirate Joe’s and will turn a blind eye to suspicious carts that contain things such as two bags each of four types of rice. The cats create alibis, preparing themselves to say their unusual load is for bible retreats, camps or catering.
John L broke his shopping record this week with a $950 receipt. He found out about the gig from his wife, who became involved after seeing a posting on Craigslist. They do it to earn cash on the side. Sometimes, they bring their children.
“I’ve got no qualms about lying to a corporation, because a corporation is not a person,” John L said.
To get the goods, Hallatt typically supplies his cats with lists he makes while walking around the Pirate Joe’s store, which moved from the bakery to a Vancouver storefront, where its mission is openly displayed: it is an “unaffiliated, unauthorized re-seller of Trader Joe’s products”. Hallatt walks round the store, identifying gaps on the shelves, then dictates the product name into his phone. This means some shopping lists ask for “speculum” cookies instead of speculoos.
What ends up in a cat’s cart is testament to the fervor Trader Joe’s can inspire. In Canada, people are willing to pay a markup of $1.50 or more for dark-chocolate-covered edamame, gorgonzola cheese crackers and salt-and-pepper pistachios. This week, rice, noodles, peanut butter and popcorn were also on the list.
With Hallatt on the road, Barry Hogan mans the shop. He has been at Pirate Joe’s since 2012 — he showed up for his first day wearing a pirate hat. Before that, he was a runner for a gambler in Dublin.
“I don’t see it [Trader Joe’s] as the neighborhood store that a lot of other people do,” Hogan said.
That may be because it isn’t. The German Albrecht family, which owns the supermarket giant Aldi, has owned Trader Joe’s through a trust since 1979.
In an August 2010 profile of the company, based on interviews with dozens of people who asked to be anonymous, Fortune magazine said Trader Joe’s management was “obsessively secretive”. Fortune found that the company keeps fewer varieties of products, like peanut butter, than other grocers, instead focusing on the best-tasting goods and giving them its own kitschy labeling. This simplification allows Trader Joe’s to work out deals with manufacturers, resulting in the low prices for which the store is known.
These are the goods people seek at Pirate Joe’s. One morning this week, a couple visiting from Nova Scotia picked up coconut cashews for their son, who lives down the street. One woman bought soups she had never tried. A man left his phone number, so the store could call him when a seasonal tin of Danish cookies was finally in stock.
More than 40% of credit-card transactions at the Trader Joe’s Bellingham store are made by non-US citizens, according to a complaint Trader Joe’s filed against Hallatt in May 2013. The company did not provide comment for this story.
One former Trader Joe’s employee, who stopped working at the store this summer but asked to remain anonymous in case he wants to work there again — the chain is often praised for its wages and benefits — said the Bellingham store was one of the top-selling in the US.
While he was on the inside, the worker helped with Pirate Joe’s operations. “I felt like I was doing the people of Vancouver a service instead of a disservice to an American corporation,” he said.
Hallatt estimates that Pirate Joe’s spends, on average, $25,000 per month at Trader Joe’s. This is why many have called him one of the store’s best customers. For Hallatt, however, there is not much in it financially.
“This is not a business I should be doing from a personal profitability standpoint,” he said, adding that he was living off about $50,000 to $60,000 a year through Pirate Joe’s, while supplementing his income with a rental property in Mexico.
Hallatt’s past includes working as a senior producer for Ask Jeeves, a summer spent windsurfing, building a few houses and opening a still-standing Vancouver bagel shop. He likes to time his 106-mile round-trip runs to Bellingham so he can be back for his 10-year-old daughter’s basketball practice.
He likes Trader Joe’s, believes its mission is an honest one and says he will stop Pirate Joe’s if the company opens a Vancouver store. While the policy for cats who are questioned by Trader Joe’s officials is “deny, deny, deny”, Hallatt said he never lies at the border, where agents make polite conversation with the pirate they have encountered many times before.
After the bags of groceries are waived across the border, meticulously logged in the Canadian customs system, it is time for “harvest” day. There is no alert that the produce has arrived at Pirate Joe’s; the rows of Trader Joe’s bags in the store walkways simply lure in even more people than usual.
Faye Pratt shopped at the original Pirate Joe’s, having taken a bus with her senior group to Bellingham. The group made a stop at Trader Joe’s, and even brought freezers along. On Thursday morning, she had just learned that Pirate Joe’s had moved. She brought a friend along.
“It makes it more fun to think we’re doing something illicit,” she said. “It adds to the taste.”
He had me at the name "Pirate Joe". I like that name!
I fail to see how Pirate Joe is causing them harm.
Why doesn't Trader Joe's ship their food anywhere???
Or open some stores in Canada, otherwise they should just be happy this guy is buying their products.
Agreed. Today I Learned that they sell NOTHING online:
No. At this time, we don’t sell any products (gift cards included) online, only in our brick-and-mortar stores. We set up our stores with care, finding just the right crew and adding a flavor of paradise. After considering the options, we're still just big ‘ole fans of the neighborhood grocery store where we can say hello when you're looking around wondering – "what's for dinner?"
I didn't know that!
Me neither. They basically deny anyone not within driving distance of TJ's.
Canadian hostiles! (I know - seems like an oxymoron.)
Whoa, these are fighting words!
I have been totally underwhelmed by Trader Joe's. I just don't get it. You buy some other companies product that Trader Joe's has slapped their sticker on. Most of the products they sell are easily found in most regular grocery stores in Canada. My friends in L.A. took me to one to show me how great they were. The reason they thought it was great, was you could get " imported " stuff that wasn't at their local Safeway. MEH. That stuff was all over Canadian grocery store shelves for the most part. The cheap wine wasn't of course, but perhaps I'm a snob when it comes to certain things, but 2 Buck Chuck isn't a wine I'd recommend.
2 Buck Chuck is awesome!