Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s, dies
LOS ANGELES » Joe Coulombe envisioned a new generation of young grocery shoppers emerging in the 1960s, one that wanted healthy, tasty, high-quality food they couldn’t find in most supermarkets and couldn’t afford to buy in the few high-end gourmet outlets.
So he found a new way to bring everything from a then-exotic snack food called granola to the Californiaproduced wines that for flavor compared with anything from France. And he made shopping for them almost as much fun as sailing the high seas when he created Trader Joe’s, a quirky little grocery store filled with nautical themes and staffed not by managers and clerks but by “captains and mates.”
From the time he opened his first store in Pasadena, California, in 1967 until his death Friday at age 89, Coulombe watched his namesake business rise from a cult favorite of educated but underpaid young people — and a few hippies — to a retail giant with more than 500 outlets in over 40 states.
A giant yes, but one that across more than half a century has never lost its reputation for friendly service from employees decked out in goofy Hawaiian shirts, a newsletter that looks like it was published in the 1890s, and rows and rows of highquality, moderately priced healthy food and great wine, even if you sometimes can’t ever again find exactly the same thing.
“He wanted to make sure whatever was sold in our store was of good value,” said Coulombe’s son, also named Joe, who added that his father died following a long illness. “He always did lots of taste tests. My sisters and I remember him bringing home all kinds of things for us to try. At his offices he had practically daily tastings of new products. Always the aim was to provide good food and good value to people.”
He achieved that by buying directly from wholesalers and cutting out the middleman, in many cases slapping the name Trader Joe’s on a bag of nuts, trail mix, organic dried mango, honey-oat cereal or Angus beef chili. He named several products after his daughters Charlotte and Madeleine and gave quirky names to others. Among them were Trader Darwin vitamins and a non-alcoholic sparkling juice called Eve’s Apple Sparkled by Adam.
He prided himself on checking out every vintage of wine from California’s Napa Valley, including Trader Joe’s standby, Charles Shaw, affectionately known as Two-Buck Chuck because it sold for $1.99. (It still does in the California stores, although shipping costs have increased the price in other states.)
“He sold a lot of better wines too,” his son noted with a laugh, recalling trips the family made to France to seek them out.
After selling Trader Joe’s to German grocery retailer Aldi in 1979, Coulombe remained as its CEO until 1988, when he left to launch a second career as what he called a “temp,” coming in as interim CEO or consultant for several large companies in transition. He retired in 2013.
Joseph Hardin Coulombe, an only child, was born on June 3, 1930, in San Diego and lived on an avocado ranch in nearby Del Mar. After serving in the Air Force, he attended Stanford University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s in business administration and met and married his wife, Alice.
A few years after graduation, he was hired by the Rexall drugstore chain, which tasked him with establishing a chain of convenience stores called Pronto. When Rexall lost interest in the stores, he bought them and had grown the chain to about a dozen outlets when the huge 7-Eleven company made a major push into Southern California.
“So I had to do something different,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “Scientific American had a story that of all people qualified to go to college, 60% were going. I felt this newly educated — not smarter but better-educated — class of people would want something different, and that was the genesis of Trader Joe’s.”