Most people don't know who Dana Payne is, but if they live in Alexandria, they very well may know her face. She's been the culinary guide, better known as the “sample lady,” at Trader Joe's in Alexandria for the past year and a half.
"I went to a party in Old Town recently where I didn't know anyone," said Payne. "People kept coming up to me all night, saying, 'I know you.'"
Five days a week, from 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Payne takes her post behind the sample counter located next to the wine section. She is equipped with a microwave, a small oven and a burner, and one never knows what she will whip up.
"I plan the menu on Sunday, and then extra quantities are ordered on Monday. I try to talk to the people in each section to find out what they have on hand," said Payne. The extra quantities are ordered because after customers try Payne's samples, they often want to buy what she's cooking.
"I usually sell out of whatever I have," said Payne.
Patricia Johnson lives in Mount Vernon and shops at Trader Joe's. "I tried the chicken cordon bleu one time and ended up buying all the ingredients."
Payne tries to keep it simple — and she also uses recipes given to her by the staff. Last week, she made Peter's Perfect Pasta Sauce, one of captain Peter Uli's favorite sauces. Another one of his favorites is Peter's Excellent Italian Dressing. Payne has also made spinach dip, turkey roll-ups, potato salad dressing and tortellini salad, to name just a few. The roll-ups were one of the items she served at last year's Toast to Alexandria, an event that Trader Joe’s has participated in the last two years.
"I try to just use a few ingredients," said Payne. As customers come by, they can be heard saying, “It smells good over here. I didn't eat any lunch — I’m starving.”
ONE DAY LAST WEEK, Payne served pizzas. Using Trader Giotto's pizza bagels and Trader Giotto's three-cheese pizza, Payne got creative and added different ingredients before baking them.
As people stopped by, she could be heard saying, "It's this pizza, and I added goat cheese and bruschetta. Goat cheese goes great on pizza, and bruschetta is great pizza sauce." The cheese she used was the Vermont Chevre fresh goat cheese, which comes in a sealed bag. The bruschetta comes in a small jar and is labeled Trader Giotto's Bruschetta.
"This stuff is great. I eat it with a spoon," said Payne.
For the next pizza, she added diced prosciutto and tomato pesto sauce. Another time, she used a yellow tomato pasta sauce. "Some of these items people don't even know about. My job is to acquaint people with the product."
Linda MacDonald is well acquainted with Trader Joe's products. A massage therapist and owner of At Ease, located at the Women's Fitness Center in Belle Haven, she said, "I love coming to Trader Joe's because of the fun food. I always discover interesting things when I come by this stand."
Payne dispenses more than food from her station. She's always ready to provide an answer to a customer's question as well.
"Do you have dried lentils?" asked a customer.
"Do you think this pizza will be OK in the car for two hours?" asked another. "Yes, but have them wrap it carefully, and put it in a cool section of the car," said Payne.
ALONG WITH THE FOOD, Payne usually serves a beverage. When captain Peter Uli or first mate Jon Mitchell is on board, she can serve wine or beer. Otherwise, she serves juice or some other nonalcoholic beverage. Last week, she was serving Samantha's Classics Lemonade. Samantha Kaputa came by with her mother and tried both the pizza and the lemonade.
"It's good," she said.
Sometimes Payne serves the same thing all day, while other times she switches over near evening to give customers ideas for quick-fix dinners. Once a month, there's a wine and cheese tasting. These are held on Fridays from 4-7 p.m. For these, Payne will cut up six or seven different types of cheeses and put sample tastes of each in little cups for the customers. In February, they had a chocolate and champagne tasting. "The customers nearly went wild," she said.
The fact that Payne is working in a store that purchases from all over the world is fitting to her background. She was born in Panama City and lived in Buenos Aires, Rome and other exotic places. Her father worked for Time magazine and served as foreign correspondent and bureau chief in the various places.
"We thought it was normal. We thought everybody moved to a different country every few years," said Payne.
When they moved to the United States for good, Payne and her brothers and sisters asked what they were going to do when they had seen all the sights. They were used to moving on after they had seen everything. Payne was originally in Long Island, N.Y., and then Wisconsin, but she has been in Alexandria since 1987, living near Foxchase.
Payne applied for the job after seeing an ad in the paper. Although she had no formal culinary training, she said, "I'm a decent cook, my mother's a wonderful cook and my brothers and sisters like to cook.
"I love my job. Trader Joe's is a great place to work," said Payne.