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14 Secrets of U.S. Postal Carriers

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Yes, the post office lines can be long. Yes, your mail can occasionally arrive wet. But when you think about the fact that the United States Postal Service (USPS) processes well in excess of 154 billion pieces of mail annually, you might be impressed at just how much they get right.

At the core of the USPS are its postal carriers, the men and women who run up and down porch steps, dodge unfriendly animals, and brave inclement weather to make sure your personal correspondence arrives on time. We spoke to several to learn more about the job, from their biggest fears (aside from mean dogs) to hidden surprises in mail receptacles. Here’s what we found out.

1. YOUR MAILBOX IS HOME TO HIDDEN DANGER.

Cliches are clichés for a reason, and most postal workers will admit to having some concern over unfriendly dogs on their route. But a smaller, equally painful danger remains under-publicized. According to Kenny, a carrier in the Midwest, reaching into a mailbox to deposit your letters can sometimes be hazardous to his health. “Wasps like to get into mailboxes,” he says. “Especially if they have an outgoing mail slot. They build a nest in there. I’ve been stung quite a few times.”

2. THEIR SATCHEL HAS A HIDDEN PURPOSE.

postal worker places letters in a mailbox
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The shoulder-slung sack of mail on a carrier’s shoulder isn’t just to tote credit card offers. During carrier orientation, workers are taught that the satchel is their first line of defense against aggressive dogs. (They can also use parcels to parry attacks.) “There’s a whole training program on it,” Kenny says. “You try to keep it between you and the dog.” Carriers are also issued pepper spray. “I hate to use it, but sometimes you have to,” Kenny admits. He estimates he’s been bit nine or 10 times. “I’ve never needed stitches, but I’ve known carriers who have.”

3. THE JOB WILL GIVE YOU LEGS OF STEEL.

Those shorts don't just keep carriers cool: They allow room for the inevitable, Hulk-like lower-body growth that happens to new hires. When Adin, a carrier in the Northeast, started working his route over two years ago, the long-duration cardio had a highly beneficial effect on his frame. “I lost 15 to 20 pounds initially,” he says, “but gained it back in leg muscle. I can no longer fit into skinny jeans.” (Many carriers can walk in excess of 12 miles a day.)

4. THEY CAN MAKE SOME SERIOUS CASH WITH HOLIDAY TIPS.

The gift-giving season means a marked increase in the number of parcels delivered, and many postal customers acknowledge their carrier’s efforts by leaving money with the outgoing mail. Dan, a carrier in the Northeast, doesn’t work a regular holiday route, but says carriers who do can cash in. “Some carriers claim it comes to $1000 or $2000 in cash or gift cards,” he says.

Kenny estimates 5 to 10 percent of his 500 customers leave a tip or gift. “I’ve gotten hand warmers, cocoa, and popcorn,” he says. 

5. SUMMER CAN TURN THEIR ROUTE INTO AN OBSTACLE COURSE.

Postal carriers say they tend to get so used to “mapping” their route in their brain that they can navigate it while still looking down at the mail. But come summer, customers add decorations—like hanging plants on porches—that can result in collisions. “Hanging plants, wind chimes, new trees, and gardens are all new obstacles to get used to,” Adin says. “There's a house on my route which put a watering can on the last step before I go to the next house, I tripped over it at least three times before I ‘learned’ that house again.”

6. THEY MIGHT SAVE YOUR LIFE.

It doesn’t take long for carriers to get a sense of customers on their route: who works from home, who’s out of town a lot, and when an overstuffed mailbox might be cause for concern. Kenny has called 911 a few times when he noticed retirees on his route hadn’t been collecting their mail. “I knew one customer had health issues and dementia,” he says. “They got in and found out she had fallen and was severely dehydrated.”

7. THE MAIL TRUCKS ARE REALLY OLD.

postal worker walking next to a mail truck
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Driving a truck with a right-mounted steering wheel might seem like it takes quite a bit of getting used to. It does, but the USPS largely lets carriers fend for themselves. “There’s one day of training on the right-hand drive truck,” Dan says. “Actually, about half a day of actual training. You have to become accustomed to limited visibility [and] learn to drive using the mirrors.” The truck fleet, he says, is actually made up of vehicles that might be older than most everything else on the road. “The standard boxy mail truck people are accustomed to seeing is called a Grumman LLV, a Long Life Vehicle. It's basically an aluminum box on a modified Chevy S-10 Blazer chassis and drive train. They're all 25 to 30 years old at this point.”

8. THEY WISH YOU’D SPARE THEM THE JOKES.

All of the carriers we spoke with stressed how much they enjoy interacting with customers, but sometimes the jokes can wear a little thin. “I get a lot of, ‘Oh, you can keep the bills,’” Kenny says. “Everyone thinks they’re the first person who’s said it to you.”

Dan says he often has customers asking if they have a check for them, which he finds puzzling. “As a rule, we don’t know what’s in the mail.”

9. THEY ALSO WISH PEOPLE WOULD STOP USING BOXES AS TRASH CANS.

Those nice blue mail collection depositories? They’re for mail, not wadded-up trash. Adin has found garbage when picking up mail from the drop-offs.

And as a rule, only mail should go into the mailboxes at people's homes, though residents don’t always oblige. “People sometimes use them for storage. I’ve found tennis balls and house or car keys.” (Adin cautions you shouldn’t put keys in the box; it’s kind of an obvious place for burglars to look.)

10. THERE MAY BE A SYSTEM TO HOW YOUR MAIL IS ARRANGED. 

The next time you empty your mailbox, you may want to check how the correspondence has been arranged. Many carriers have a system for organizing your batch. Adin puts cards and personalized letters (typically good news) on top, with social security checks next. “Then it’s other First Class mail, [like] bills and insurance information,” he says, “and then bulk mail and then in order of size I sort the flats, magazines, and catalogs, so the largest is on bottom.”

And yes, carriers can typically tell when it’s your birthday, although they might refrain from congratulating you just in case they’re wrong. “I thought it was someone’s birthday one time,” Kenny says. “I said, ‘Hey, is it your birthday?’ But they were sympathy cards. Her husband had just passed away.”

11. CATS AREN’T BIG FANS.

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On one of Adin’s previous routes, trying to put mail through a door-mounted slot was a delicate operation. “Cats can sometimes be aggressive,” he says. “On my previous route, there was a cat which would strike through the mail slot. I had to be careful putting anything into it. My current route has a cat which purrs and meows playfully through a screened-in porch window until you get close, then attacks.”

12. NO, THEY PROBABLY CAN’T DRINK WITH YOU.

In the heat of summer, Kenny gets frequent offers for bottled water or iced tea. Some customers who happen to be grilling outdoors might extend the courtesy further. “I’ve had people offer me a cold beer,” he says. “If they’re cooking out, they might offer me a burger." Most carriers keep themselves hydrated by carrying water in their trucks—and while beer might sound good, the government prefers their workers remain sober.

13. THEY ACTUALLY DON’T HAVE TO DELIVER YOUR MAIL.

Neither snow nor rain will prevent a carrier from doing his or her duty, but you being inconsiderate might. “There are a number of reasons why we can refuse to deliver to a given address,” Dan says. “Primarily it comes down to the safety of the carrier. If I can't safely get to your mailbox, I can bring the mail back. Reasons might include a dog which is loose or able to get to me when I try to get to the box, unsafe steps to the porch, icy conditions.” (The snow mandate doesn’t apply when you deposit a bunch of white stuff in front of the mailbox.)

In extreme cases, the post office can actually require customers to get a post office box and pick up mail themselves. “Anything which presents a hazard to the carrier, the carrier is within his rights to not deliver the mail. That would also apply to a customer who was harassing a carrier. But in that case we'd call the police. It's a fairly serious crime to interfere with a mail carrier doing their duties.”

14. THEY DON’T MIND JUNK MAIL.

“We don’t call it junk mail,” Kenny says. “We call it job security mail.”

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12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers
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Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 4400 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. GETTING STRAPPED IN MIGHT BE THE MOST EXCITING PART OF THE RIDE.

Roller coaster passengers prepare for a drop
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Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. THEY TEST COASTERS WITH WATER-FILLED DUMMIES.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly-trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. EVERY FOOT OF TRACK COSTS A LOT OF MONEY.

A roller coaster track is ready for passengers
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There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON BROUGHT A LOT OF PEOPLE INTO THE BUSINESS.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. PAINT MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE IN SPEED.

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For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have grey or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A COASTER’S SKYLINE IS KEY.

Brian Morrow, Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. SOME COASTERS ARRIVE AS GIANT MODEL KITS.

The loop of a roller coaster track
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Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. WOODEN COASTERS ARE WEATHER-SENSITIVE.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. THE TIME OF DAY CAN AFFECT THE RIDE EXPERIENCE.

A roller coaster track at dusk
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“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. DESIGNS CAN COME FROM UNUSUAL PLACES—LIKE JAY LENO’S CHIN.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. RIDERS ARE REALLY PERFORMERS.

Roller coaster riders enjoy the end of the ride
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For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. THE FUTURE IS VERTICAL.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” Kitchen believes it’ll be another two years before ground is broken on the project, which is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kinga Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

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14 Tasty Secrets of Trader Joe’s Employees
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With over 450 stores in the U.S., Trader Joe’s has become the preeminent destination for affordable groceries, quirky food flavors, and friendly customer service. But the grocery chain, based in Monrovia, California, is notoriously tight-lipped. Owned by a reclusive German family, Trader Joe’s has a strict no-media rule, and employees are warned against publicly sharing details of their job. Despite this hurdle, we've gathered some details on what it’s like to work there, from what really goes on in the break room to how much employees earn. So pour a glass of Two Buck Chuck, grab a few Triple Ginger Snap Cookies, and enjoy these tasty secrets.

1. THEY FEEL LIKE THEY WORK ON A SHIP.

If you’ve ever been inside a Trader Joe’s, you’ve probably noticed the store’s nautical theme. In the ‘60s, entrepreneur Joe Coulombe established the first Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, California, and the store continues its original tiki vibe today. Besides wearing Hawaiian shirts and leis, employees have maritime job titles such as Crew Member (they work the cash registers, stock shelves, unload deliveries, and clean the store), Merchant, Mate, and Captain. And instead of using intercoms to communicate with one another, employees ring nautical bells. “One ring means we need more cashiers up front, two rings means a crew member on a register needs assistance with something (i.e. carry out, clean up, etc.), three bells mean a manager is needed,” a Trader Joe’s Crew Member reveals in a Reddit AMA.

2. THE DAIRY SECTION IS THEIR NEMESIS.

A diary case at Trader Joe's
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

According to Natalie Royal, a Nashville-based songwriter and artist who worked as a Crew Member from May 2013 to May 2014, the dairy section’s frosty temperature can be difficult to deal with. “My least favorite shifts were the ones that required me to spend time stocking the milk, butter, and cream,” she says. But customers can easily cheer up employees who are stuck "working in the box," Trader Joe’s lingo for the refrigerated dairy section. “The next time you see an employee peering out behind the rows of yogurt cups, give them a thumbs up. Maybe it will warm their soul enough to help them forget they are stuck in a frigid box,” Royal says.

3. THEY HIDE STUFFED ANIMALS AROUND THE STORE.

To entertain kids and add a splash of whimsy to the shopping experience, employees at Trader Joe’s stores often hide a stuffed animal or plastic toy somewhere in the aisles. “It’s really just for kids to run around and find the missing animal, and they get a treat,” a Mate who works at a Washington Trader Joe’s writes in a Reddit AMA. “Kids seem to love it and parents go along with it too.” So next time you’re shopping, look out for a stuffed animal (lobsters, bears, and dogs are common), and you might earn yourself a free lollipop.

4. THEIR SALARIES AND BENEFITS ARE SURPRISINGLY GOOD.

A clerk bags groceries at Trader Joe's
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Most grocery store workers don't earn much. But Trader Joe’s employees enjoy high salaries, impressive benefits, and frequent opportunities for promotion. While most Crew Members make $10 to $24 per hour, Captains (store managers) earn more than $100,000 per year. After three months of work, employees receive health insurance (medical, dental, and vision) and a retirement plan in which Trader Joe’s contributes 10% of an employee’s annual salary. Every six months, employees who excel in customer service, teamwork, and productivity receive raises, and the company fills all open Merchant and Captain jobs by promoting current Crew Members and Mates, respectively.

5. THEY’RE PROBABLY RIPPED.

Most grocery store jobs involve some degree of physical work, such as lifting boxes and unloading shipments. But unlike employees at many other grocery stores, Trader Joe’s Crew Members perform a wide variety of physical tasks rather than specializing in one area. “I was probably in the best shape of my life when I worked at Trader Joe’s,” Royal says. “I was shocked to find how sore I was for about the first two plus weeks of working there. After slinging watermelons and stacking cans day after day, I ended up with guns of steel.”

6. THEY GET 10% OFF THEIR OWN GROCERIES.

Cases of Trader Joe's beer
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Although they’re surrounded by food all day, Trader Joe’s employees still need to shop for their own groceries. Fortunately, their 10% employee discount saves them some money on their grocery bill. “Albeit pretty small, I was able to shave off a good chunk of my grocery bill every week,” Royal says. Since state alcohol laws vary, depending on where they live and work, alcohol may or may not be included in the discount.

7. THEY’RE HAPPY TO OFFER YOU TASTE TESTS (BUT DON’T BE GREEDY).

“I love when customers ask to try products!,” the anonymous Trader Joe’s Mate says. “We’re not gonna grill up a steak for you, but something that you can open up and taste, yeah go for it.” Employees get to eat whatever food is left over from the package or box, and any extra food is donated or thrown out. While most customers don’t abuse the store’s generous sampling policy, a few people do take advantage of it. “I’ve only experienced two or three occasions where a customer tried to take advantage of this and wanted us to open literally 10+ products,” the Trader Joe’s Crew Member says. “Management had to step in and kindly inform them that one or two products is fine but we have to draw the line somewhere.”

8. THEY MEET CUSTOMERS WHO TRAVEL FAR AND WIDE.

People waiting in line outside a Trader Joe's in Miami
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Living in a town or city that doesn’t have a Trader Joe’s can be tough. To express their desire for the grocery chain to open a new location near them, some zealous customers create Facebook pages and sign petitions. (There's also a request form on the Trader Joe's website.) According to the anonymous Mate, Trader Joe’s is expanding rapidly, but not every city will get to enjoy a nearby store. “People drive 2 hours or so to come to my store to shop and spend upwards of $500,” he says. “There is nothing I can do on my end sadly. If you go to the website and complain/beg/ask politely, you may some day get that store you want.”

9. THEY REALLY ARE GENUINELY OUTGOING AND POSITIVE.

Trader Joe’s employees have a reputation for being super-friendly, and it isn’t usually an act. Whether a Crew Member personally escorts you to a hard-to-find product or strikes up a conversation about your favorite foods in the checkout line, employees are simply nice. “Everyone’s friendly. They’re genuine people too,” an anonymous employee tells Thrillest. “It’s not people who’ve been told they have to act nice. It’s people who genuinely care about how the customer’s feeling.” Caring employees create a supportive, communal environment that’s different than typical grocery stores. “My fellow Crew Members truly were the best,” Royal says. “I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty optimistic gal, but for the most part, I was just a dime dozen at Trader Joe’s."

10. THE BREAK ROOM KEEPS THEM WELL-FED.

An assortment of Trader Joe's snacks
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Trader Joe’s customers enjoy visiting the store’s sample station for food and coffee, and employees enjoy their own grub in the break room. “We are always cooking things up,” a Trader Joe’s employee tells Forbes. “When we get new foods in, we try them out. We eat and drink throughout the day here.” Because employees are constantly tasting new products and familiarizing themselves with older ones, they can recommend certain products to customers and speak genuinely about the flavors, textures, and overall tastiness of the food. And just like customers, Crew Members also definitely hit up the sample station. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many teeny tiny cups of coffee I chugged or samples I inhaled in a given shift,” Royal says.

11. THEY BLAST MUSIC WHEN THE STORE IS CLOSED.

Shift times vary, so some employees work during the day and others work at night. Royal, who typically worked with the night crew, started work at 2 p.m. and wrapped up around 10:30 p.m. “After closing the store to the public, we would blast music over the loudspeakers and ‘face’ the store,” Royal says, referring to the process of pulling the products to the front of the shelves and making the store look full and inviting. “With all of the late night heavy lifting, I found it extremely difficult to sleep. I think I figured out pretty quickly that my biological clock functions the best on a nine to five schedule, and that is a very rare, very coveted shift at Trader Joe’s.”

12. THE HOLIDAYS ARE PARTICULARLY TOUGH ON THEIR WAISTLINES.

Although most people indulge in sweets in the months between Halloween and Christmas, the winter holidays are particularly challenging for Trader Joe’s employees who are watching their waistlines. Each winter, the grocery chain sells a plethora of sugary seasonal items such as candy cane cookies, peppermint bark, and gingerbread men. And employees are around the treats all day, fielding questions from customers about the pumpkin ice cream and offering samples of eggnog. “The entire cookies and candy aisle turns into a holy relic of wonderment and me trying to not get fat,” the Mate says.

13. THEY LOVE BRIGHTENING A CUSTOMER’S DAY.

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“If a customer was having an ‘off’ day or if I just felt like going above and beyond for an awesome (usually polite) person, I was given the complete freedom to dazzle them how I saw fit,” Royal says. “Depending on the situation, I’d usually give them a bar of chocolate on the house or toss in a cute greeting card at the last second, and this resulted in some extremely rewarding experiences.” Once Royal gave a pint of ice cream (plastic spoon included) to a girl who had just been broken up with, and another time she threw in an extra frozen chicken tikka masala to a man preparing for an important job interview. “And on another occasion, I gifted a bouquet of sunflowers to a teary-eyed woman who I later found out had just lost her husband,” Royal says.

14. THEY TRAVEL THE WORLD TO FIND THE BEST FOOD.

Trader Joe’s employs a few buyers to travel the world looking for the best spanakopita, pork gyoza, and calzones, among other ethnic items. These product developers fly around the globe, visiting restaurants and food producers, all in the name of culinary research. Because Trader Joe’s typically stocks one or two types of a product rather than a dozen or more options, the chain ensures that the products it does stock are of the highest quality. After product developers find a supplier, such as an authentic Italian pizzeria, Trader Joe’s arranges for the supplier to make the pizza, freeze it, and package it with the Trader Joe’s label. Customers can then purchase the frozen pizza, heat it, and enjoy. Bon appetit!

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