Adir Yolkut, a 33-year-old rabbi living in Brooklyn, was preparing for a virtual school singing show when he noticed the tweet: No line at Trader Joe's. "I saw it in one of those heaven-parting moments," Mr. Yolkut said. Immediately, he jumped in his car and drove over to the nearest store location in the Cobble Hill neighborhood, returning home an hour later with bags of groceries including dried mangos, cheddar cheese and sweet-potato crackers. The quick shopping trip came courtesy of Jacob Shwirtz, who lives across the street from Mr. Yolkut's local Trader Joe's and has taken to social media during the coronavirus lockdown in New York to provide real-time updates of the lines outside the store. "I just told a few people about it and it took off from there," Mr. Shwirtz said, who has garnered about 2,500 Twitter followers looking for updates on the Trader Joe's line. "It really struck a nerve."
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The die-hard fans of Trader Joe's may be waiting the longest. The grocery chain is known for its specialty items, cultlike following and ubiquitous lines that were bad enough before the pandemic. Now, even as the economy reopens, queues at several locations can stretch for blocks beyond the entrance. Coming to the rescue is an informal network of Good Samaritans who are quarantined with prime views of a local Trader Joe's. As a public service, they regularly tweet or broadcast updates on the lines outside. Before he discovered Mr. Shwirtz' feed, Mr. Yolkut used to stop by the store at random times, hoping to catch the line at its shortest. Once he arrived an hour before the 9 a.m. opening time. He ended up waiting 90 minutes to get inside. "I thought I was being smart," he said. Unfortunately, "there were a lot of people that were also trying to be smart." Line watchers feel they can't let down their audience. When the outbreak hit in March, Joe Wanko and his girlfriend Jessie Bricker had considered themselves lucky to live across from Trader Joe's in Manhattan's East Village. They could track the line from their windows and pop over at the most opportune and least crowded times.
"People are always trying to get to Trader Joe's for some reason," Mr. Wanko said.
In April, they decided to share their good fortune, starting a Twitter account to post updates and observations, inspired by Mr. Shwirtz. Mr. Wanko set up a live stream to take his place when he's breaking for errands or celebrating a birthday. During a trip out of town, he left watch duty in the hands of a fellow Tweeter in his absence.
"I'll do it as long as it's necessary," he said of his updates, though he looks forward to a return to normalcy. "I can't wait until I don't have to do this." Even those with a 24-hour view have yet to crack the code of the Trader Joe's line, other than that no one wants to wait outside when it is raining. "It's still unpredictable," said Sebastien Galperti, who started monitoring the Trader Joe's store in Manhattan's Murray Hill three months ago. He said he wakes up earlier on weekends to accommodate any early-morning inquiries, and feels guilty whenever he misses a request.
"I feel this responsibility to 200 people to get them the updated information," Mr. Galperti said. A Trader Joe's spokesperson declined to comment.
Jeff Kuan, who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia, Pa., set up a webcam to the local Trader Joe's after classmates kept asking for updates on the length of the line. "We were getting calls just constantly, especially at the beginning of coronavirus times," Mr. Kuan said. The live stream averages about 10,000 views a week, according to Mr. Kuan. He and his roommate are moving to San Francisco this summer, but have come up with a succession plan: They'll be handing over the reins to their friends who live two floors below them.
Adrian Moyer, a freelance marketing consultant who lives in Oakland, Calif., launched her own Trader Joe's webcam in April, though she said it has taken some work to perfect the setup. The live stream has been thwarted before by glare from the sunlight, as well as her poodle Perry, who has a tendency to knock the old iPhone 7 over when she's not around.
She briefly rented a nearby Airbnb for a change of scenery and was contemplating another short sojourn up until her new responsibilities took over. "It was seriously just so anxiety-inducing to look out every window and see this weird sight of the 6-feet-apart line," Ms. Moyer said. "Now it's like, 'No I can't leave, I've got to keep this project going.'" Jen Tarentino, a designer at Tiffany & Co., lives around the corner from her local Trader Joe's and would go three or four times a week before the pandemic. Now she also relies on Mr. Shwirtz' alerts, and occasionally provides her own updates on the line, which she can see from her ground-floor apartment on particularly congested days. "It's like a nightclub but for groceries," she said.