Trader Joe’s decides to keep “racist” brand names like “Trader Ming’s”

August 2, 2020 • 11:00 am

A while back I watched one of Mike Chen’s fantastic food/restaurant review videos (he’s one of the best food “vloggers” around), and, since he’s locked down and can’t travel or visit restaurants, he’s been devoting his videos to reviewing take-out foods and purchased foods. One was a review of all the dumplings available at Trader Joe’s, and many of the Chinese one were labeled not as “Trader Joe’s Dumplings,” but as “Trader Ming’s” dumplings.  Chen, who was born in China, noted the name but didn’t seem offended at all.

But others have been, as we’ll see below. Besides “Trader Ming’s”, the chain labels several of its ethnic foods with other ethnic names. To wit:

Trader Joe San (Japanese):

Trader Giotto’s (Italian)

Trader José (Mexican):

Trader Ming’s (Chinese and East Asian):

By the way, while I’m here, I’ll recommend the Trader Joe’s frozen pork/scallion dumplings and chicken dumplings. They’re cheap, filling, not calorific, and very good, especially if you steam them. But give the Thai basil eggplant a hard pass! Oh, and I recommend, among the Indian foods, the palak paneer or sag paneer (spinach and Indian cheese), which I’ve found pretty authentic and tasty. (And no, it’s not “Trader Ravi’s.”)  I’d never bought anything at Trader Joe’s until the lockdown (they have “senior hours” when it’s easy to shop), but some of the frozen Indian and Chinese foods are pretty tasty.

But onto the theme. Although these names have been around for a while, you can imagine what happened in the new era of wokeness. People objected, saying that the names were racist, and Field Marshal Anna Slatz predicted that reaction:

And of course the opprobrium descended in spades, with the expected cries of racism. As the New York Times reports below (click on screenshot), last month the company announced that it would ditch all of these labels, which were apparently designed to be inclusive.  Now, in a stunning and unexpected reversal of course, Trader Joe’s says it’s going to keep the names.

A quote:

Weeks after admitting that some of its international-themed product labels might have fallen short of an “attempt at inclusiveness,” the grocery store chain Trader Joe’s is rejecting criticism of the labels — some with names like Trader José and Trader Ming’s — as racist.

After an online petition denounced the company’s use of labels such as Arabian Joe’s, Trader Giotto’s and Trader Joe San as racist because it “exoticizes other cultures,” Trader Joe’s announced that it would keep names that it felt still resonated with customers.

“We disagree that any of these labels are racist,” the company said in a statement on July 24. “We do not make decisions based on petitions.”

“We thought then — and still do — that this naming of products could be fun and show appreciation for other cultures,” it said.

. . .The spokeswoman added that labels such as Arabian Joe’s and Armenian Joe’s were no longer in use, and that the label Trader Joe San is currently used on only about three products.

Briones Bedell, who started the online petition that led to renewed scrutiny of the company’s labels, said on Saturday she was “honestly surprised” by the company’s comments. [JAC: Read the petition if you want to see hype.]

“I see it to be a complete reversal to their previous commitment to removing the labels from the international foods,” she said.

With her petition, Ms. Bedell, 17, said she wanted to raise awareness of stereotypes that are of a piece with the larger discussions about race happening across the country.

“They rely only on characters and kind of vague ideas and not anything of actual substance or legitimacy,” Ms. Bedell said of the labels. “It becomes a tool of othering.”

Now I have to say that I’m generally on the side of the company because I don’t see anything horrible with the names, which are surely not meant to denigrate other cultures. Further, there are lots of Mexican restaurants with names like “José’s”, and I’m sure not all of them are owned by men named José.  Likewise with Chinese restaurants named “Ming’s”.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how I’d feel if they started a line of Jewish foods with names like “Moishe’s Frozen Latkes” or “Schmeul’s Buttery Hamentashen”—and you have to go a long way to offend this secular Jew! The only way I can understand my feeling is because it hits home when one is a (secular) Jew. And so it may hit home to a Chinese person to see “Trader Ming’s Dumplings.”  It is surely not racist, but it may be stereotyping and insensitive.

At any rate, I can’t get really worked up about this, and the pushback by Trader Joe’s is one of the first times a major company hasn’t truckled to the will of the Woke. But perhaps they will if people start boycotting Trader Joe’s because of these names. After all, money talks.

Since I’m ambivalent, let’s have a poll, and then you can weigh in in the comments below.

99 thoughts on “Trader Joe’s decides to keep “racist” brand names like “Trader Ming’s”

  1. I’m surprised Wokes don’t condemn the entirety of Trader’s Joe’s, since it contains the essence of capitalism: trade.

    “Trade” is voluntary human exchange. To be Woke you have to believe in top-down coercive command and control instead, including all the autocratic chains required for the Green New Deal and Modern Monetary Theory.

    The withhold from utter condemnation, national boycott, and “peaceful protests”TM, is: “But the soy products are so cheap.”

  2. How absurd that these play on names, especially Trader Jose’ Cerveza which is just the translation, are offensive and racist. Now what was racist was a work crew (heavy construction) I was working with last summer monitoring endangered wildlife species calling the safety officer Jose’ the 2nd day when I arrived I said Buenas Dias Jose’ Que tal? and he replied my name is not Jose’ it is Juan. I apologized and apologized, turned out the white Americans were calling all the Hispanic workers Jose’ too lazy to learn their true names.

    1. Yeah, that one in particular seems idiotic to complain about. Jose and Joseph are the same name in two different languages. My friend’s kid Jack goes to a french immersion school where they call him Jacques, of course. This is absolutely bog-standard stuff.

  3. I voted “no”. We are a pluralistic multi-ethnic society. Pretending otherwise and calling everything generically “Joe” (or pick your other generic Anglo name) seems to be the opposite of respecting cultural variety.

    1. And according to Trader Joe’s their customers actually like the labelling and don’t consider it racist.

  4. I don’t about you or any other responders here, but I would love to try Schmeul’s Buttery Hamentashen! Yum!

    1. Me,too! Me, too! I want some Schmeul’s Buttery Hamentashen!

      I was nine years old when my little Jewish friend took me to a Purim Party. Wow! Christian kids don’t have fun like this!

      Hamantaschen!! Oh boy! They were great! And the kids were dressed up like Halloween!! I was sold!!

      Rabbi Kahn!! Rabbi Kahn!! I want to be Jewish!! I was ready to convert on the spot, but the Rabbi didn’t let me in.

      Unlike the Christians. A little Presbyterian friend took me to the Presbyterian Sunday School. How I wish my atheist parents had not allowed me to go there! The Christians were only too glad to try and convert me.

      Besides, the Christians only have one day of Christmas. But the Jewish people have Hannukhah (spelling?) for EIGHT days!!

      My atheist mother was far more favorably disposed to the Jews than the Christians.

    1. I didn’t agree with the racism complaint as it feels like one helluva leap (and doesn’t intent count for anything anymore?!) but I can agree with your statement. The names are not even worthy of “dad jokes”. But this seems to be right on their level of corporate intelligence. The uniform shirts, the tiki decor, the names they give their employees (crew, mate, merchant, captain), it’s all rather annoying, like the TGIF nonsense with the “flair”. Forced corporate jocularity.

    2. I almost forgot the most pathetic forced nonsense I’ve ever experienced: Cafe Gratitude. There’s one in Kc, I didn’t know there were others but if you have t had the “joy” of eating there (food is ok) you order entrees with names like “I am Grounded”, “I am Pure” and so on. And there’s even a new item known as “Black Lives Matter”, made with black beans and brown rice (!) but also kale, for inclusivity, I guess(?). I see why they did it but it still smacks of racial pandering. I could see how some might find it kind of offensive, and I’d be surprised if nobody else has yet but rather than start a petition, I just don’t eat there.

  5. “Raise awareness of racism,” what utter narcissism. I guess petitions against the unhealthy ingredient in Kraft’s Mac’n Cheese wasn’t ego-stroking enough.

  6. I am surprised that the petition only called for a change of names, rather than to completely stop selling all foods that aren’t “white” (whatever that might mean) because selling dumplings, tofu, and saag paneer is “cultural appropriation”. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

  7. First of all, I’m about as jealous as I ever get that you even have a Trader Joe’s. Been trying for years to get them to come to the Tri-Cities of WA.

    Secondly, when I can shop TJs, I do so. I’ve never seen anything racist about their use of ethnic names appended to their ethnic products. I believe most are translations of Joe. To me, they’ve been more cute than abhorrent. There’s enough real racism out there, but I don’t think this is part of that group.

    Lighten up! (And good luck on getting all the Japanese restaurants names changed since a great percentage are owned and operated by Koreans.)

    1. There are these Irish/Mexican-named bars all over the country. I will admit that I once thought perhaps it was because a bunch of Irish once emigrated to Mexico. Later, I was embarrassed to realize that it is simply an attempt to garner bigger crowds on two big drinking days in American culture: Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day.

      1. I once saw an Irish and Chinese restaurant and mused if they had something called “Moo Goo Patrick” on the menu.

        1. Which reminds me to bring up my joke (which is mine) about opening a Caribbean-themed deli called “Bermuda Schwartz.”

          What about the Japanese-Jewish fusion restaurant called “Sosumi”?

          I’ll be here all week, folks.

      1. I allegedly have an ancestor by that name, who is said to have robbed the Pecos bank in TX with Pancho Villa three times. Take from that what you will.

  8. Bravo TJ’s

    I voted “no opinion” because, if there were products which indeed did … what the poll question says they do … they should be removed.

    The products do no such thing. The products are obviously endearing, embracing our common values. I have always hoped there’d be more. The overt purpose of using the names is to show how, all over the globe, with interesting names, unfamiliar language, and customs, we are all really the same group of friends – Joe, Ming, Giotto, San – and in particular, we all like to come home to eat delicious food with friends. The table where we eat will never fail to find new friends through the fundamental common experience and that is everything the world needs now and needs more of.

    1. … and it is simply an unusual accident that TJ’s is a chain the United States, with a Hawaiian theme to their showmanship, and having origins in Germany. So it might have easily been Trader Ming’s or Trader Giotto’s and would have been just as fun to shop at.

  9. I just read a piece that provided a list of commonly used sayings. Use of the word “spade” is now considered offensive. “a spade is a spade” evolving into “black as the ace of spades” and then to the singleton just “spade”. Do I need to throw out all my decks of cards?

    1. I guess we can no longer enjoy that Elastica song because of the lyric:

      “I don’t understand how a heart is a spade,
      But somehow the vital connection is made.”

  10. In their letter, Trader Joe’s says:

    “Avocado’s Number” in a kitschy reference to a mathematical theory…

    Assuming this is a reference to Avogadro’s Number, that’s not a mathematical theory but from chemistry and physics. I demand that they change this immediately! 😉

  11. They do seem a bit sloppy though. Pad Thai is obviously a Thai dish, not a Chinese one, so “Trader Ming’s Pad Thai” is wrong. Unless, of course, it is a Chinese version of a Thai dish, in which case it is cultural appropriation and a bad culinary idea. 😉

    “Moishe’s Frozen Latkes” is just wrong in two ways. First, it would “Trader Moishe’s …” Second, they wouldn’t put “Frozen” in the product name. So that gives us “Trader Moishe’s Latkes” which really doesn’t sound that bad, does it? I’m not Jewish so this is not a rhetorical question.

  12. I don’t see it as a big deal but voted Yes because it only takes a change of a TJ’s executive or its culture to change the meaning behind the labels, like a d*g whistle.

        1. Not an example of a bigoted term. We are very familiar with those, unfortunately. But how Trader Joe’s would do the kind of dog whistle you are talking about? I am having trouble imagining what you seem to fear.

        1. IMO, it would not be a violation of da roolz for you to provide an example that illustrates what you are trying to convey.

  13. I prefer normal brand names, but do not like to see name changes because of PC pressure.

    Some Chinese stereotypes seem to me badly out of date, like that of a Chinaman wearing his native dress and a coolie hat, especially when it is accompanied by a Manchu hairstyle and a deceptive smile.

    1. Isn’t it already the case with the Woke? I thought it was cultural appropriation. Perhaps it is ok if you keep it hidden. Perhaps there are some Woke among the commenters that can explain this to us.

    2. But, what IS a ‘white’ person? My understanding is all of us have at least 3% African, I have about 16% Native American, lots of European, and possibly some Mongolian or Turkish in me. My normal skin tone is more yellow than many ‘full-blooded’ Asians I’ve known. My idea of traveling is to eat as much ‘ethnic’ food as possible. I live on the west coast, was raised on ‘ethnic’ foods. I’d starve if I had to eat only one type of food, unless I could choose. Korean.

      1. “I live on the west coast, was raised on ‘ethnic’ foods. I’d starve if I had to eat only one type of food, unless I could choose. Korean.”

        Same here, though I would choose Japanese as my preferred solo cuisine. (I’m glad my wife won’t read this as she’s Korean.)

      2. This is the problem when everything is based on identity and especially racial identity. I figure they’ll just take a DNA sample and hold up the Fitzpatrick scale to decide your level of sin and punishment….the white supremacists will applaud this action and do the same with a reverse on who is the sinner to be punished.

  14. Briones Bedell appears to be a fair-haired white Californian. Who the hell is she to take offence on behalf of anyone other than fair-haired white Californians?

      1. It’s also more prestigious to go after left-wing targets—calling out a conservative-owned business would be too obvious.

    1. It’s pretty much always whites who are offended on the behalf of POC. Somewhat patronizing I think.

    2. It’s pretty much always whites who are offended on the behalf of POC. Somewhat patronizing I think.

  15. Trader Joe’s, owned by Aldi, is a more upscale store than Aldi. Neither pretend to be supermarkets. They carry a limited range of products. TJs tends to attract more affluent shoppers in my area and it seems to have a faithful clientele. They are noted for the quality of the items they market. They try to ensure that shoppers have the best experience possible, up to and including letting you taste an edible product if you ask. I would be very surprised to learn that Trader Joe shoppers took offense at the naming convention used for foreign foods. I’m quite certain that no one minded the naming of “Two Buck Chuck” back when some of their wines were selling for that price.

  16. Not jewish, but Trader Moishe has a good ring to it. Can’t wait to try Trader Moishe’s chicken soup with matzo balls. “It’s the eleventh commandment.”

  17. … (they [Trader Joe’s] have “senior hours” when it’s easy to shop) …

    Bet they card YOU to make sure you’re not some youngster tryin’ to sneak in, huh, boss? 🙂

    1. It’s a bit like loyalty cards and air points. Collect enough senior moments and you qualify for senior hours.

      1. The funny thing is that, at my local store at least, the line up during senior’s hour is worse than during regular hours. I used to get up and go early for senior’s hour. Now I sleep in and have a shorter wait.

        1. I generally like the products at Trader Joe’s, but the stores here in California tend to be cramped for some reason. I’m leery of venturing there during the COVID outbreak because it’s nearly impossible to keep six feet away from everyone else.

  18. Glad to hear they’ve stood by their sly sense of humor, willingness to poke fun at themselves and their wonderful informality! It makes me smile to see and sample their ”brands”. Seriously…there are far more important issues in the struggle for equal rights.

  19. If they decided to use a Jewish name for ethnic Jewish foods, it would not be Shmully or Moishy. It would most definitely be Trader Yossi’s. Yossi (rhymes with fussy) is the Jewish version of Joe (Joe is to Joseph as Yossi is to Yosef).

    And as a proud Jew I would love it if they did that!

  20. Since the idea of Jewish food brands at TJ’s is being discussed, my first thought was that perhaps they had already done this so I started googling. Here’s what I found.

    First, I checked TJ’s website and looked at their current products it features. Although I didn’t make a thorough check, I didn’t find any of these ethnically named products at all! Perhaps they have cleared them away until the smoke clears on this controversy.

    Second, I checked for any mention of Jewish and TJ’s and found this:


    Evidently there’s some issue with their Shakshuka dish. It looks like they are actually complaining that TJ didn’t mention that the dish is popular in Israel. They even bring TJ’s German ownership into the discussion. Here’s a quote:

    And so in addition to Trader’s Joe’s calculated factual fuck up, we have on our hands a little racism problem too, and that’s because it is now widely accepted that to be anti-Israel is also to be anti-Semitic. There is no way that the omission of the fact of shakshuka’s Israeli status could be accidental.

    This is ridiculous. As Wikipedia says, “The dish has existed in Mediterranean cultures for centuries.”

  21. Bill Maher had Bari Weiss and Thomas Chatterton Williams on his show Friday night and they discussed this Trader Joe’s issue as an example of how you stop cancel culture – a big company like this refuses to be cancelled. If Trader Joes was in Canada, I’d shop there just because of this.

    1. Trader Joe’s was in Canada, sort of. Since TJ’s wouldn’t open in Canada, a few years ago an enterprising Canadian opened up a reselling business in Kitsilano, Vancouver called Pirate Joe’s. He’d drive a truck down to Bellingham WA once a week to load up on products and then sell them in Canada for a couple of bucks more each. I saw him there once, cleaning out the Bellingham store. He was going gang busters, until TJ’s sued him. I lost a lot of respect for TJ’s after that.

  22. While I don’t care about canceling culture, the naming is stereotyping. Trader Joe – itself a stereotype – is already inclusive by the promotion of new kitchens. No need to be “funny”.

    1. So what’s the stereotype exactly? For example, does the name Trader Ming’s imply that all Chinese are traders or that Chinese are well known as traders? Nope. Even if it did, there aren’t negative connotations associated with trading, are there? If there were, then Trader Joe’s would have a bigger problem as it is part of their company name. Please tell me as I am truly mystified.

    2. Is stereotyping always, which is the question here, “racist”?

      If our host proposes a name “Sosumi” for a Jewish-Japanese restaurant, isn’t that drawing upon the general notion of … well… it’s sounds like a stereotype but doesn’t it matter that the overt purpose being served is one of a certain humor?

      1. Sosumi would be a racist stereotype but TJ’s would never use that name. And what would a Jewish-Japanese restaurant serve anyway? We should be able to get some humor mileage out of that one.

        1. Following up Darwinwins comment, you live in LA, I believe. If so how could you overlook Genghis Cohen’s. Should the Mongols cry cultural appropriation because Jews had no place to eat out on Christmas? Or is someone going to assert an etymological relation between the Khan and Cohen? Not.

          1. I’ve heard of Genghis Cohen’s but have never been there. I am definitely aware of the Jews eating Chinese on Christmas Day. My family actually did that once, though we’re not Jewish. There was a mixup on who was hosting Christmas Dinner that year and we ended up far from home and had to make do. We actually had a fine meal.

  23. I don’t give a sh*t about amusing names. Only the worth of the food contents interests me. Shouldn’t that be the same for everyone else?

    1. I think what you just wrote would be perfect on the back of a plain can labelled “beans”. I bet they’d sell truckloads of them.

  24. For the record

    The name Trader Joe’s is, I’m pretty sure, meant to refer to the notion of the “average Joe” – a typical, common, middle- of-the-road, average person.

    Thus, if the products are indeed racist, then the whole project could be racist.

      1. He apparently feared that his 1958 Pronto Store would be seen as a competitor of 7-11. After a vacation in the Caribbean, and his awareness that Americans were traveling more “…acquiring tastes they had trouble satisfying in American supermarkets at the time…” he changed the name to Trader Joe’s
        and instituted an island or Tiki culture motif.

      1. Yes, I know that generally, but my impression of the name was also a play on the notion of average Joe.

        The other layer of the whole TJ’s show is the [reading Wikipedia ] South Seas Tiki fad from when Coulombe visited them in the … 50’s or 60’s… but I thought the idea of a rogue trader was also being referenced. I can’t remember the figure – a sort of rogue trader guy….

        At any rate, it’s an example of Fantasyland in grocery shopping – it’s a show. We are an audience, who suspends our rationality or criticizes it… but that’s another thread entirely:)

        1. I didn’t get the “average Joe” connection but the name and the look reminded me of the famous Trader Vic’s, which is a chain of tiki bars and restaurants. I also got the feeling that they repackaged stuff they bought cheap. Most supermarkets these days have house brands that undoubtedly make them more profit per item than name brands. TJ’s took it one step further and stock house brands almost exclusively. Any name brands they stock are at risk of disappearing. I remember a year ago when I mentioned here that they carried Weetabix cereal. Unfortunately, they dropped it within weeks. Now I have to order my favorite cereal online at much higher prices. 🙁

  25. I first started shopping at Trader Joe’s in Pasadena many decades ago. I remember walking into that store and getting a smile on my face because of the colorful, energetic, and fun-loving ambience. I would smile when I read the clever product names, such as Trader Fig’s Isaac Newtons and Trader Darwin’s vitamins. I continue to get a smile on my face when I walk into any of the TJ’s near my home in Illinois. I hope they don’t get rid of any of their clever and funny product names, including Trader Ming’s etc.

  26. Point of pedantry:

    Ethnicity is not race. Ethnicity is a cultural category. Race is a biological category, fuzzy though it is in many cases.

    All of these products are based on ethnic cuisine. They are copying from other cultures. There’s no opportunity to be racist.

    Furthermore, using actual names from those cultures cannot be considered insensitive.

    Anyone objecting to the product names has no justification whatsoever for doing so, other than an attempt at virtue signalling. Only what they’re signalling is a distinct lack of virtue.

  27. e it “exoticizes other cultures,”

    What does this even MEAN?
    I thought “exotic” was GOOD!
    I’m exotic (Australian) – the girls love it!

    Thank you for the food review. There’s a TJ’s a little walk from me I rarely visit but your dumplings and especially Indian food recommendations have me “on my bike”.

    I can’t take the doggie, but I can leave him at home for good Indian food.
    D.A., J.D., NYC

Leave a Reply