Does Trader Joe's exploit small brands for its private label products?

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Claims of Trader Joe's targeting emerging brands is an open secret as the company copycats the products and slaps on their own label. Photo by Elina Shatkin/KCRW

Trader Joe's is a goldmine for anyone who likes unique snacks, condiments, and ready-made foods. Their products are creative and reasonably priced, and the company always seems to be putting something new on shelves. But all that variety has a dark side. Food writer Adam Reiner recently investigated how the company develops its private label products for a story in Taste — and what he found wasn't so delicious.

In the story, several small business owners allege that Trader Joe's targets emerging brands so they can copy their products and mass produce them. Reiner spoke with Jing Gao of Fly by Jing, who claims the company strung her along then ghosted her. In another case, Chitra Agrawal of Brooklyn Delhi, which manufactures Indian pickles and chutneys, heard from friends that Trader Joe's was selling her goods. In reality, the company had produced their own achar, a condiment of fermented fruits and vegetables mixed with spices, and created a label similar to Agrawal's with the same spelling of "achaar" (adding an extra "a"). "Ethnic" foodstuffs and brands appear to be at the center of the copycatting. 

Founded in 1967 in Pasadena, Trader Joe's has boomed in the last two decades. Its first private label product was a proprietary granola that sold for less than competing brands. Today, approximately 85% of Trader Joe's inventory is private label brands.