By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — AMHERST — With a party atmosphere, ceremonial lei-cutting and even a band, Trader Joe’s opened with fanfare Friday morning on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, bringing the grocery store with a cult following to Western New York for the first time.
For Melissa Foster, president of the Kenmore Village Improvement Society, this day was a long time coming.
Foster and KVIS worked for nearly three years to bring the store to Western New York with a campaign that featured everything from petitions to special events to public appearances by its mascot, a yarn-haired, green-eyed, stuffed mannequin dubbed “Kenmore Joe.”
Foster was in line with Joe himself early Friday, and they were among the first to enter. People were in line as early as 3 a.m., and by opening, the line stretched around the store.
“It was very exciting and it was very, very crowded,” said Foster, who said the Amherst location is a slightly smaller venue than other Trader’s Joes stores she’s visited. “It’s neat. It’s going to be hard for people to do really good shopping there unless they’re enormously patient. ... People who might not be as familiar (with Trader Joe’s) might want to wait a little, maybe a week.
“But every time you go in, it seems like you see something else, because they really utilize their shelf space well.”
The 12,000-square-foot store, located at 1565 Niagara Falls Blvd., was announced in January, several months after its new location was teased by KVIS, who declared victory in its mission to bring the store to Western New York at large — if not Kenmore proper — in September 2012.
The first WNY location acknowledges local landmarks with hand-painted murals. Familiar sights such as as Niagara Falls, the Peace Bridge, the University at Buffalo campus and others adorn the walls. The store’s somewhat quirky and often organic offerings have acquired a following from shoppers willing to travel for their fix.
Lisa Kahler of the Town of Tonawanda visited the store before 11 a.m. with a specific goal: To find Trader Joe’s-brand almond butter.
“I was on a mission, because that almond butter is impossible to get. It really, really is,” she said. “We’ve gone to Rochester for it. I was in a Trader Joe’s in Napa a couple weeks ago. They didn’t have it.
“I took a chance. I figured it would be well stocked up for the grand opening ... and it was. I got three jars.”
Kahler said that the store was very crowded and difficult to navigate, but well-stocked. Traffic outside was congested, but well-managed, she said.
“The boulevard itself was fine. In and out of the parking lot was very well-controlled. They had several police officers and employees directing traffic, so it was very well controlled.”
By midafternoon, a steady line of shoppers continued to stream into the building in a nearly festival-like tenor, as employees greeted customers and handed out free reusable grocery bags, cookies and sweets to the hundreds packed inside — a scene that most said they expected.
Jackie Clonan, of Cheektowaga, who left the store with two bags of food, said she has travelled to a Rochester Trader Joe’s about six months ago, with the draw of a hardy organic selection spurring her return on Friday in Amherst despite a long wait in line.
“I spent about 20 minutes looking around and another 20 minutes in line,” she said. “But I expected it. Whenever something like Trader Joe’s comes to town it lifts my spirits.”
Foster said she hopes the opening of Trader Joe’s will be a catalyst for other popular businesses to take a second look at Western New York.
“I think now that Trader Joe’s is here, I would bet ... I have a feeling we’ve already had other corporations look at us. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we don’t have another one that was on people’s top lists coming to the area soon,” she said. “That’s what happens. Once you have one of these destination location places, you might up having others take a closer look. ... I think a lot of places will start to look again at our area.
“Take another look, you’ll like what you see. There’s more here than meets the eye ... or the statistics.”