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Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Times Free Press columnist Mark Kennedy found shopping at Trader Joe's to be a curiously satisfying experience.

I expected to dislike Trader Joe's.

Wait, that's too soft. I wanted to dislike Trader Joe's — which is a really harsh mindset.

What can I say? I'm old and borderline crotchety.

By the time we here at the Times Free Press had published dozens of stories over the years saying that Trader Joe's parent company might, conceivably, someday, fingers-crossed, if-we-were-extremely-lucky, decide to build a store in Chattanooga, I was in the camp of skeptics thinking, "Come on, now, what's the big deal? It's just a grocery store."

The whole Trader Joe's phenomenon had started to sound a bit cultish to me.

Then, once a store near Hamilton Place was confirmed and the countdown began, it seemed we couldn't go a week without publishing a Trader Joe's update in the newspaper. Just in the last month leading up to the late-August store opening, the Times Free Press carried stories with these headlines:

"Trader Joe's moves closer to opening local store"

"Trader Joe's sets Aug. 25 opening date"

"What food will you have on your shopping list when Chattanooga's Trader Joe's opens?"

"Trader Joe's called a 'food adventure'"

"More than 200 wait in line for opening"

Oh my gosh. People were ecstatic. Some people were vibrating they were so excited.

It should be noted that readers ate up all this coverage. Every time we posted a Trader Joe's story online, it showed up immediately on the "popular stories" list.

Finally, one day last month I drove by the East Brainerd store expecting to see some gleaming shopping cathedral on a hill. Instead, it looked small and unassuming, like a small-town, neighborhood market. And the Trader Joe's logo on the front of the building looked like a font from a coloring book, I thought.

I, for one, couldn't see myself falling in love with any store that didn't carry Mayfield ice cream, Little Debbie snack cakes or Spam. I do most of the grocery shopping for our family, and I'm completely comfortable in the aisles of Food City and Walmart. My go-to brands are Pillsbury, Coca-Cola, Hostess and Jimmy Dean's.

As the countdown to opening day continued, I began asking people I trust, "What's the deal with Trader Joe's?"

"It's a wine and snack store for affluent women," my 19-year-old son said, which only fed my suspicions.

After the store opened in East Brainerd, I invented a game called "Find the Dude." I'd look at Facebook photos taken inside Trader Joe's here and try to find a man. It was like finding Waldo in a cartoon.

"There's a guy in a wild shirt!" I'd think. "No, wait, he works there."

Last weekend, I asked my Sunday School class, "What's the deal with Trader Joe's?"

Almost everyone in the class had a bubbly impression and wanted to tell me their favorite Trader Joe's snack. I told them that in my humble opinion it was overrated.

"Have you been?" asked one of my buddies, calling my bluff.

"Well, no," I said, feeling duly chastised.

So, full of attitude, I showed up at our new Trader Joe's last Monday afternoon. It was five days after the grand opening, but the parking lot was still nearly full. Miraculously, I found a parking space by the front door.

"My lucky day," I thought.

Entering the store I was struck by a wall of fresh flowers. Just as I was thinking, "What's with the flowers?" a female customer ahead of me loudly announced to the whole store, "My thing is flowers! I'm going to want to buy every flower in here!"

I snagged a red buggy and began walking around the store making notes and wearing a full-body smirk.

Some of my jottings:

"OMG, 13 flavors of hummus."

"Frozen food aisle = Ridge cut at rush hour."

"Who knew bagged nuts were a food group?"

"80% women, 20% men, and most of the guys are trailing a girlfriend, wife or mother."

Then I picked up a package of Brookies, half brownies-half cookies, and I felt something shift inside my brain.

"Hmm, my 14-year-old would like those," I thought, and dropped them in my buggy.

I passed on the Organic Turkish apricots ($4.49), but immediately began to contemplate the Organic Dried Cranberries ($3.99).

"Those might taste good on my Cheerios," I thought. Plop, in the buggy they went.

Ditto the smoked salmon dip (I could put this on a bagel!), the mini, non-dairy ice cream cones (Adorable, they're no bigger than my thumb!), the frozen chili chicken wrap (I could make this for supper tonight, and it won't hurt my stomach!), a mini watermelon (This is so cute!), a flatbread pizza with caramelized onions (I looooove caramelized onions!).

Suddenly, I imagined all these people around me hearing the same cooing voices in their heads.

Just as suddenly, the comments in my reporter's notebook turned positive.

"Love the local murals on the wall."

"A framed UTC football jersey and a Red Wolves shirt! Nice touches."

"Workers nice but not too sugary."

OK, so maybe I was wrong about Trader Joe's. Maybe it's an acquired taste. Maybe I should just shut up and shop.

A cashier rang me up — $35.

"Wow, I thought that would be at least $50," I mused.

"Would your like your salmon dip in your freezer bag?" the cashier asked.

"Yes!" I said, thinking, "How did she know that was exactly what I wanted?"

In that instant I understood the secret of Trader Joe's: It's the store that can read your mind.

If you don't believe me, give it a shot.

Take it from a Joe Shmoe like me, Trader Joe's knows what you want before you know it yourself. And that's a strangely satisfying sensation.

Email Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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