Trader Joe's has slowly expanded their footprint in the city with a reputation for being more than just a grocery store where you buy cheap bags of wasabi almonds. Friendly employees, employees who are maybe too friendly, and wow are they hitting on you as they ring you up set TJ's apart from its competitors in a city that's become more polite over the years but is still mostly gruff. How do they do it?

As someone who worked there for four years, I can tell you that they did it in part by offering healthcare and more than the minimum wage to employees. Some of us were also stoned. Like, really stoned. But that loose, friendly atmosphere has apparently melted away since my days at the Cobble Hill store, and has allegedly been replaced by the cold and petty authoritarianism people associate with Wal-Mart and other corporate chains.

The Times recently spoke with Thomas Nagle, an ex-employee who said he was fired for not radiating a positive enough attitude, and has filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. According to Nagle, managers at the Upper West Side store repeatedly told him that his greetings to managers weren't genuine enough to meet company standards. He also said that dangerous safety conditions and overbearing management led to a unionization push at the Upper West Side store.

(Trader Joe's said in a statement: "We are committed to maintaining a great and safe environment in which to work. We promote an open and honest environment that encourages questions, suggestions or concerns to be raised.")

Other employees who spoke to the Times anonymously reported managers who worked to keep employees from talking to each other, being yelled at for drinking water between ringing up customers, mysterious firings of respected employees seemingly for asking reasonable questions about store policy and turning the requested cheery attitude asked of employees into a Flanders universe-esque required smile policy.

Some of these sound like familiar gripes. Drinking water before waving another customer down was a pretty easy delaying tactic when you didn't want to be turned into a human conveyor belt, but you had to make sure you didn't overdo it or a manager would suggest that hey, maybe don't slow everything down. If you were someone who could be counted on to be dicking around on the floor when customers were shopping, managers definitely would come around to casually ask what you were up to, as a way of telling you to get back to work. But that was an earned bit of prodding, and it wasn't hard to make it look like you were doing something if you really wanted to talk to someone.

The enforced smile policy and attempts to legislate how cheerful employees are sound new to me, though. Customers always asked me and other co-workers, "Boy why are you so friendly?" The answer was like I said, the pay and the health insurance and the drugs. But it also helped that your bosses weren't constantly on your ass. While the employee guidelines really did talk about creating a "WOW customer experience," that didn't mean walking around with a smile for seven hours you were on the floor. Most of the time, it was as simple as asking someone "What can I help you with?" instead of "What?" when they asked you something.

That being said, Trader Joe's employees have more asked of them, personally, than most retail jobs. Wearing a name tag with your hometown on it was a useful way to get to know co-workers, but felt invasive when customers would read it out loud and start just telling you about the time they visited and expected you to react joyfully upon hearing this. Being friendly to customers gave rise to a kind of entitlement on the part of the customers. On more than one occasion, I had customers ask me why I wasn't smiling and chatting and being a dancing monkey for them as I rang them up.

It can be a tough needle to thread, but it was also really hard to screw it up so badly that they would fire you. Even in the throes of the recession, when there were plenty of bodies available to replace someone, grumpiness wasn't what would get you fired. Sneaking out of work during your shift to have a beer down the block wasn't what would get you fired, and neither was being visibly stoned. It was mostly being late, or just not showing up at all that got you canned.

Damn, I think I miss my Trader Joe's job?