The Man at the End of the Crowded Trader Joe’s Line

Aaron Gilbreath
10 min readJan 3, 2020

How the beloved grocery chain does crowd control in busy stores.

AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Stephen M. Katz

In the produce section of Trader Joe’s store in the Chelsea section of New York, Karl Holman holds an eight-foot-tall sign that reads “End of Line.” It’s six o’clock on a Tuesday, and Holman is managing the line for the second time this shift.

While customers test peaches for ripeness, Holman holds the towering metal pole aloft, making the banner’s orange and yellow lettering visible to anyone who gazes up from the shelves. For the next hour, the line’s end moved constantly.

Short and stout, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a grey Trader Joe’s T-shirt, the forty-nine-year-old Holman addresses a knot of stopped customers who are blocking traffic. “Are you ready to check out?” he asks. “Step right here.” Customers glance at his sign and then file into place.

As the line forms in front of him, he takes tiny backwards steps to keep pace with its telescoping end. His moving target keeps him in motion, and he marks it with the dedicated poise of a Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace.

Starting by the tubs of cut pineapple, he inches deeper into the produce area, backing past the baby carrots and fresh herbs, past the clear bags of salad greens, and, while smiling and greeting passersby with a “Hi, how are you?” he hooks around a freestanding rack of fruit before stopping near the entrance. In a few minutes’ time he has traveled so far back that, without meaning to be metaphysical, he has transcended the proverbial end of the line and arrived at the beginning.

“Sometimes the line stretches all the way through produce,” Holman says, “up through frozen foods, and then back down frozen foods again.”

The system was pioneered at Trader Joe’s Union Square location, which was overwhelmed with foot traffic from the moment it opened in March of 2006. In the clogged aisles of the irresistibly affordable supermarket, heated confrontations erupted between customers over lack of elbow room and perceived incursions on territory. In the surging, irritable crowd, the end of the line was difficult to find.

“The way the system worked before, definitely didn’t work,” one supervisor said; she declined to speak on record for…

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Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.