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The We Want Trader Joe's Committee wants to bring good snacks and good jobs to Fortuna

Attending a session of the We Want Trader Joe's Committee can make a girl kinda hungry. They meet Wednesday afternoons inside Fortuna's branch of Redwood Capital Bank in Strongs Creek Plaza on the south end of town -- but, so you know, the bank has no official interest one way or the other in whether Fortuna gets a Trader Joe's store, which is the goal of this committee.

That said, several of the women on the committee -- occasionally a man attends a meeting -- happen to be bankers, real estate agents and other community stalwarts. And when they meet to talk strategy for coaxing TJ's hither, they tend to have additional mover-shaker agendas they segue into and out of. For instance, at the meeting I went to, they first had a planning session on another campaign they're pushing: the Supply Our Schools (SOS) drive for school supplies to augment the budget-squinched Fortuna schools' thin cupboards.

The point is, they're all business, no snacks, and when the meeting's over they rush back to their jobs or yet more meetings. Which made last Wednesday's meeting tough on my empty stomach. I asked the women, why a Trader Joe's?

"Chocolate covered sunflower seeds," said Jennifer Budwig, a banker. "Two-buck chuck [that cheapo-good wine from Charles Shaw]."

"Chocolate-covered espresso beans," said Sally Conley, a realtor.

"Their chocolate-covered bing cherries are incredible," said Elan Puno, a mortgage banker.

"It's just a unique experience," said Jan Belisle, a banker.

"You can get certain Chai teas that nobody else has here," said Delores Reeves, a mortgage consultant.

"The cinnamon-sugar pita squares are to die for," said Budwig.

"And they have things from all over the world," said Conley. "I don't think you can go to Trader Joe's and get Lay's potato chips. But I think you can go to Trader Joe's and get 10 different other kinds of chips that you've never heard of before. Am I right?"

"Mm-hm," the others answered.

"There is no parallel to a regular grocery store," Conley said. "Not at all."

Trader Joe's is a chain of quirky markets that carries reasonably priced snacks and coffees and other stuff from all over the world, much of it marketed under Trader Joe's own label. Its employees wear Hawaiian shirts. It was started by Joe Coulombe in 1967, who sold it to a German market magnate in 1989. Belisle said TJ's has a unique sales tactic she really likes: "I have never been to another grocery store other than Trader Joe's where the clerk leaves her station after checking you out and takes you back to find something she thinks you'd like judging by what you put in your basket. One clerk, this was in Chico, said to me, ‘I think this is something you'll really love,' and she was right."

With so many mills closing in the area, said Budwig, and associated economic problems in Fortuna and the county, a new tasty grocery option might improve matters beyond just tasty snacks. For one thing, said Budwig, Trader Joe's doesn't buy its real estate but leases it -- a good thing for local developers, she said. And, added Puno, there'd be about a hundred new jobs.

"And you only have to work 20 hours a week to get full benefits," she said. "So, a hundred jobs in Fortuna, with full benefits, would be very, very, very nice."

These jobs, added Conley, pay better than minimum wage, she's heard.

The committee's been getting a lot of its TJ's facts from the manager of a Bay Area TJ's who lives part-time in Fortuna. Conley said this man -- who didn't return my phone calls -- moved to the Friendly City a few years ago in anticipation that he'd be managing a new Trader Joe's there. But, said Conley, TJ's "lost the building they wanted because another business got in before they did. And then they looked at the demographics and said, ‘Gosh, I don't know if we can do this or not.'"

Fortuna may be too small to support a TJ's, but the committee believes the whole county is big enough -- they know people who make day trips to Santa Rosa and Redding to shop at TJ's. And they've got some local support: more than a thousand signatures on a petition; people cheering on their TJ's float in the recent Fortuna Rodeo parade; letters of support; even enthusiastic Safeway employees, said Conley.

But a call to TJ's HQ in Monrovia yielded very little from spokesperson Alison Mochizuki, who was sweet if terse, like a chocolate-covered brick wall. She wouldn't say how they choose a location, what they pay, or who their vendors are. To boot:

"Fortuna is not in our two-year plan for opening a location," she said.

The committee members said they'd still shop at other local stores for the things they've grown fond of which, they said, TJ's might not even carry. And, reached by phone last week, David Lippman, general manager of the Northcoast Co-op, didn't sound too concerned about competition from a TJ's.

"They have cool stuff," said Lippman. "I shop there when I'm traveling. But TJ's is very corporate. They are very formulaic. If a shopper gets in his car and drives to Fortuna to go to Trader Joe's, they're not going to buy Humboldt grassfed beef. We are extremely local-oriented, and many of our shoppers are interested in local, organic food. We have reduced packaging, we have a reduced carbon footprint from trucking. It's just a different business model."

But will the committee succeed in luring TJ's here?

"We don't know," said Conley. "Here's what I can tell you for sure. It will not happen if we don't try."

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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