Customer Calls out Trader Joe's for Questionable Naming Practice on "Cultural Foods"

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

Dec. 11 2023, Published 1:45 p.m. ET

Trader Joe's Chinese food Trader Ming's TikTok
Source: TikTok/@kyeatdaays (video stills)

This is an interesting choice

When it comes to larger, somewhat fancy grocery store chains, three come to mind. You're either hitting up a Wegmans, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe's. I'm a Wegmans gal and I go there for a few obvious reasons and one very random reason. Their fruit and vegetable game is nearly perfect. I'm not kidding when I say that every time I enter a Wegmans, the water droplets that rest atop the items in the produce section make it shine as if they are vampires from Twilight.

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I've never really been to a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, which is why I'm unfamiliar with their signature items. Apparently Trader Joe's has a fairly robust cultural foods section which they've tweaked depending on what area of the world it represents. One TikToker discovered that her bag of frozen Mandarin Orange Chicken was labeled Trader Ming's, not Trader Joe's. Is this OK or is something a bit off?

Trader Joe's store
Source: Getty Images

Trader Joe's store in New York City

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Is Trader Joe's being racist by calling their Chinese food Trader Ming's?

Kyi, who goes by @kyeatdaays on TikTok, decided to make herself dinner so she reached for a bag of frozen Mandarin Orange Chicken from Trader Joe's. She busted out a pan and began prepping the cold cuisine.

Even though it takes longer, it's always better to throw something into the oven versus the microwave. The microwave will never give you something crispy. I will wait 300 hours for a tiny lasagna to bake in the oven long before I will wait five minutes for it to turn to soup in the microwave. Also, I can convince myself that I actually prepared a dish that comes from an oven. Therapists love this trick!

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Over a TikTok of Kyi pulling the bag out of her freezer, she wrote, "POV: You just found out Trader Joe's does THIS to cultural foods." If you're anything like me, you immediately tense up as you wonder what bonehead thing is coming down the pipeline.

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It feels as if this is a meal Kyi has made in the past yet this is the first time she noticed what was written on her bag of frozen goodness. Where it would normally say Trader Joe's, the words "Trader Ming's" were now sitting front and center. In her caption, Kyi pointed out that Trader Joe's does this for other cultural foods as well.

Screenshot of comment under Trader Joe's Chinese food Trader Ming's TikTok
Source: TikTok/@kyeatdaays (screenshot); Getty Images

Maybe they are all in a little trading club?

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It's unclear where Kyi stands on this choice. The vibe of the TikTok is more shock and confusion than anger. The comments section seems to mostly find this whole thing somewhat charming. Several folks pointed out the other brands Trader Joe's has. If you're buying Italian food, you might stumble upon Trader Giotto's and if it's Mexican, Trader Jose's.

According to the website Forebears, the name Ming is most commonly found in China and means bright or brilliance. It sounds as if Trader Joe's was trying to find an equivalent to Joe by landing on a name that was comparable to how often one is named Joe in the United States.

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This not the first time Trader Joe's has been criticized for its use of alternate names on its cultural foods. In July 2020, CBS News reported on a petition circulating about a statement Trader Joe's made regarding their cultural foods. The original petition said the practice should be changed because it "exoticizes other cultures — it presents Joe as the default normal and the other characters falling outside of it."

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After seeing the petition was gaining traction, Trader Joe's put out a statement: "While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect — one that is contrary to the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day."

Screenshot of a comment under Trader Joe's Chinese food Trader Ming's TikTok
Source: TikTok/@kyeatdaays (screenshot)

Cute is in the eye of the beholder

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Four days later, the popular grocery store chain had one more thing to say. "We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist." They then added, "We do not make decisions based on petitions, We make decisions based on what customers purchase, as well as the feedback we receive from our customers and Crew Members. If we feel there is need for change, we do not hesitate to take action."

An updated version of the initial petition asked for clarity from Trader Joe's. Basically, they wanted to know whether or not the names were actually going to be changed. Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokesperson for Trader Joe's, told CBS News that the name variations were made prior to 2017, and since then nothing new has been added. In fact, it has pulled previous versions from their shelves.

"We are continuing to evaluate products remaining in our stores that have a name variation of the Trader Joe's brand and if we find they don't resonate with customers, we will change or discontinue them," said Kenya. "If we find they do resonate with customers, they will remain on store shelves." It sounds like Trader Ming's, as well as the other cultural foods products, did resonate with most customers.

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