One of my earliest memories occurred when I was just a few years old, clutching the wrapper of a half-eaten apricot fruit leather, toddling through the wine aisle of my local Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles, California.

Yes, you read that right — the wine aisle.

In between bottles of Two Buck Chuck and TJ's signature Reserve, my 4-year-old self started to panic. As I chewed the dried fruit, the sweet and tart apricot sticking to my baby molars, it hit me that we were still in the store and had not yet paid for the snack. Overcome with guilt — I was old enough to know that stealing was very bad — I asked my mom how the TJs employees, dressed in their Hawaiian shirts and cheerful smiles, would know that we bought it. My mom asked the girl stocking the freezer aisle if I could eat fruit leather, and assured the crewmember that she would have the cashier scan the wrapper. The employee laughed and said that, of course I could snack while my mom shopped, before leading me to a register where she tore off a long line of stickers for me.

That apricot fruit snack was one of many Trader Joe’s snacks of my childhood, and the first of many memories associated with the grocery chain. I remember admiring the cow on the front of the Vanana Yogurt container as I ate it straight out of the pint in my high chair. Many of my Sunday mornings were spent mastering the technique for reheating TJ's frozen blueberry waffles (30 seconds in the microwave, then the toaster oven) and topping them with an infamous 19-cent banana and peanut butter before a soccer game. I ate a Lemon Chicken & Arugula salad everyday of my summer internship shadowing in a hospital. I even went on a first date at a Trader Joe’s. And, more recently, I picked out TJ's appetizers for my high school’s senior prom, assembled seasonal bouquets for my high school graduation party, and fueled up with Overnight Oats before dorm move-in and my first day of college classes.

When it came to choosing a college, I was torn in every possible way: public or private? Bustling student and faculty population or something smaller? Big city or a subdued suburb?

One thing was clear when making my decision: wherever I went for school, it would have to be an Uber’s-length away from a Trader Joe’s.

Kennedy Dierks

I remember the big debate ultimately came down to how far I was willing to be from Los Angeles. I have always considered myself to be an East Coaster at heart, and felt pulled to attend school there. As a wise relative told me, college is the one time in your life you can pick up and just move. And even if you hate it, you’ll realize exactly where you should be.

For me, that “where” was Seton Hall University’s local Trader Joe’s in South Orange, New Jersey. I remember the first time I roamed the aisles, disoriented by the different store arrangement (it’s a thing), yet comforted by the familiar sights: Joe’s Diner macaroni & cheese in the frozen aisle; Unexpected Cheddar at the sample station; dollar packs of my mom’s favorite Dark Chocolate Covered Almonds in front of the infamously friendly (maybe even flirty) cashier; and, of course, the hand-drawn sign advertising 19-cent bananas.

Kennedy Dierks

One thing is clear when you enter a Trader Joe’s: it’s totally unclear how booming of a business they have. With their cozy stores, carefully crafted signs and price tags, and “crewmembers” willing to chat about everything from how to cook Cauliflower Gnocchi (pan fry) to the best way to eat Cookie Butter (a spoon), the Trader Joe’s experience is all about the customer. It’s a small-business, mom-and-pop feel that creates an environment that feels like home, whether you’re in sunny Southern California or 2000 miles away in your first New Jersey snowfall.

Trader Joe’s boasts an almost cult-like following that spans across the nation — I’ll be the first to admit that I’m in a Facebook group entitled “Trader Joe’s Meals For Busy Moms,” before convincing my young adult, kid-less friends to join it too. The kid sitting in front of me in my Genetics lecture may not know what “Animal Style” means, but the odds he’s heard of Everything But The Bagel Seasoning are high.

Kennedy Dierks

As a Freshman Peer Advisor, one of my go-to icebreaker questions is “What’s your favorite Trader Joe’s product?” After all, TJs is a national chain with an insightful catalogue; if you like the Elote Corn Chip Dippers we’re bound to be best friends, but I don’t trust anyone who says that Watermelon Jerky is their favorite product. Furthermore, Trader Joe’s products are private-label, meaning that you’re getting a few, carefully curated and rigorously taste-tested options. At your local neighborhood Trader Joe’s, there’s no generic vs. brand-name to contend with — nevermind the four different brands to choose from.

Kennedy Dierks

Today, the Trader Joe’s memories of my childhood are even more special, and have evolved with me as I navigate college life. Bonding with my mom over dinner plans has shifted to bonding with my “adopted” NJ family over our mutual love for TJs as a family-friendly sustainable retailer. Sharing Scandinavian Swimmers in the senior lunch area at my high school has pivoted to keeping in touch with my friends back home via Instagram DMs of TJ’s new “Just the Lobsters” and other products recommended by @traderjoeslist and @traderjoesfoodreviews. No matter how old I get, I will always eat a “This Apple Walks Into A…” Cereal Bar, but now it’s in the backseat of my friend’s Nissan on the way to a Seton Hall basketball game instead of in the backseat of my dad’s Toyota. There was even another first date.

Before I knew it, I was across the country, going to a school that I hadn’t really heard of and living with roommates I had barely met, away from a family whose love and support I’d come to rely on. Though I quickly realized that a lot can change, I know that I will always be welcomed by the crew at my local Trader Joe’s (wherever “local” may be) with a smile, a product recommendation, and of course, a great deal.

In a world where everything seems uncertain due to Coronavirus, virtual learning, and the ever-looming presence of post-graduation plans, I’m grateful that, wherever I may go, I can count on one thing to be consistent: the price of a single banana