Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s, dies

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - LOCAL NEWS - By John Rogers

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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.