Crowds and long lines greet Trader Joe's opening at Hilltop

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The expected throng of fans gathered Friday morning outside Trader Joe's in Virginia Beach as the specialty food chain opened its first store in South Hampton Roads.

"I am so glad to have Trader Joe's at the Beach," Anna Mignat, 54, told a store employee as he passed out raffle tickets for a later grocery giveaway. Until now, the Beach resident made trips once or twice a month to the Trader Joe's in Newport News to get her fix of its chocolate, cookies and coffee.

"What a schlep!" she said of the 40-minute drive. "It's worth the trip if you like their products, which I do. And they just have quality."

As of 9 a.m. Friday, Mignat's trip shortened to 10 or 15 minutes as Trader Joe's opened at 503 Hilltop Plaza, on Laskin Road just west of First Colonial Road. Store employees flanked the entry and applauded as shoppers flowed in.

Aisles quickly clogged, and check-out lines stacked up to the back wall by 9:30. An hour later, with the store at peak capacity, prospective customers stretched down the sidewalk as they waited to get inside one by one.

"They're going to crush Harris Teeter," said Chris Ambers, 43, who admired Trader Joe's produce. "The mangos. The melon. The meat is really fresh."

Trader Joe's competition-beating prices on a range of items -- from balsamic vinegar to bourbon vanilla extract -- have made the grocery store a darling among gourmets. "Can't go wrong at $4.95 a pop," shopper Nicole Djunaedi, 32, said of the bottle of extract, one of her favorite Joe's finds. "It makes your baking incredible."

Clarice Stovall grabbed a box to hold a dozen bottles of Charles Shaw wine, a brand that helped make Joe's famous. Known in many states as "two-buck Chuck," the wine costs $3.29 in Virginia.

"I'm stocking my wine cooler," said Stovall, pointing out the merlot, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon options. "This is pretty decent for the money."

Virginia Beach devotees of Joe's have voiced their desires for a nearby store to the Monrovia, Calif., retailer since it opened in Newport News in December 2009. An e-mail petition coordinated by two city businesswomen eventually gathered more than 1,300 names.

Other local shoppers individually sent requests through Trader Joe's Web site, including Mignat. "I e-mailed and e-mailed and e-mailed and e-mailed, repeatedly."