If you’re like countless food lovers across the country, your favorite supermarket is Trader Joe’s—a nationwide “neighborhood grocery store” specializing in gourmet, organic, vegetarian, frozen and “alternative” food items. The chain has more than 400 stores in 39 states and the District of Columbia, and a fiercely loyal following of dedicated customers.
Two of those customers, Deana Gunn and Wona Miniati, are so devoted to the store that they’ve established their own cottage industry around it. Their work includes a popular website full of recipes, product reviews and kitchen how-to’s. They’ve also written nine successful cookbooks on how to cook all things Trader Joe’s.
Recently, we caught up with Gunn to talk about how she and Miniati turned their love of Trader Joe’s into a successful venture.
BookTrib: Fill us in about the generation of the cookbooks and the website. What led the two of you to write the cookbooks?
Deana Gunn: Wona and I didn’t start out writing cookbooks and our career didn’t start in the culinary or publishing industries. We met in engineering class at MIT. We were nerds! I ended up getting a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and worked at a series of high-tech startups; meanwhile Wona got a business degree and worked in high-tech marketing.
Our careers were intense and the heat got turned up once we started having kids. Life was pretty busy between juggling work and our families. We always loved eating well and eating healthy and having friends over for homemade meals, and we soon realized that we needed to cook smarter and faster in order to keep to those standards.
Trader Joe’s was the answer! It happened very organically—we slowly found smart shortcuts at Trader Joe’s and incorporated them into our cooking: shortening previously long recipes, designing new ones, and eating better than ever. Friends would ask us for recipes, and a few times even strangers approached us in the aisles at Trader Joe’s asking what to do with TJ’s curry sauce or how to use TJ’s steamed lentils. I found myself thinking, “Why isn’t there a Trader Joe’s cookbook?” And voila, the idea was born.
I called Wona that night and asked her to drop her high-paying consulting job in order to write a cookbook with me. Fortunately she was just as crazy and replied that yes, she would! We decided to write and self-publish a Trader Joe’s cookbook, and we left our careers to make it happen. Nine months later (from the conception in January 2007 to the books arriving at our door in November 2007), we were filling orders.
It was a very grassroots movement, growing by word of mouth and fueled by newspaper articles and other press mentions. Pretty soon we were writing cookbook number two. And this summer we’ll come out with number 10! The series includes our general cookbooks as well as vegetarian, gluten-free, vegan, diet, and lunchbox titles.
BT: Why Trader Joe’s? What is it about the store that’s led to the cottage industry you’ve built?
DG: There’s really no other store like Trader Joe’s. It really has a loyal following and people love to talk about their favorite products and newest discoveries. For us, it’s one-stop-shopping at its best. No more running around from store to store gathering a long list of ingredients. Trader Joe’s pretty much has everything we need.
BT: How has Trader Joe’s reacted? Have they been cooperative? Have they worked with you at all? If so, how?
DG: We really have no interaction with Trader Joe’s since we’re independent authors and the cookbooks are completely independent. We’re not affiliated with Trader Joe’s at all; we’re just madly in love.
BT: If I were to come to you and say that I desperately needed a quick, easy and incredible dinner for my family tonight, what would you suggest? What’s the first one that pops into your head? What’s the go-to dinner?
DG: The first one that pops into my head is the one that my kids requested tonight: Black Bean Soup. Canned black beans, sautéed onions, cumin, salsa, and lime juice. It’s ready in about 15-20 minutes and has so much depth of flavor from the cumin, salsa, and lime. My kids love eating it with cornbread.
Another favorite of my kids is our Peanutty Sesame Noodles. The sauce is like the peanut sauce you’d find in Thai cuisine, made in a snap with Trader Joe’s Soyaki Teriyaki sauce, peanut butter, and sesame oil. Toss spaghetti noodles with the sauce, and add pre-shredded carrots, slices of Persian cucumber, chopped green onion, and leftover or cooked chicken or tofu. My kids love this, and when I make and sample this at cooking demos, people always come back and ask if seconds are OK!