Trader Joe's Founder Joe Coulombe Dies at 89: 'He Was a Brilliant Thinker'

The founder of the popular inexpensive grocery store chain died on Friday  

Obit Trader Joe's Founder, Pasadena, USA - 26 Feb 2020
Photo: Chris Pizzello/AP/Shutterstock

Joe Coulombe, who founded the inexpensive, trading post-themed grocery chain Trader Joe’s, died on Friday in Pasadena, California. He was 89.

Coulombe’s son, also named Joe, told The Associated Press that his father died on Friday after a long illness.

“Joe was an extraordinarily smart and accomplished entrepreneur who built a company that introduced something welcomingly different in the grocery retail space. Joe opened the first Trader Joe’s store in 1967 in Pasadena, California,” the company said in a press release. “Notably thrifty and insightful, Joe went against conventional industry norms at the time, moving away from national brands and introducing Trader Joe’s private label in 1972.”

“Joe was the perfect person at the right time for Trader Joe’s. He was a brilliant thinker with a mesmerizing personality that simply galvanized all with whom he worked. He was not only our founder, he was our first spokesperson. He starred in captivating radio ads for years, always signing off with his unique, ‘thanks for listening,’ ” added CEO Dan Bane. “Joe developed a cadre of leaders that carried on his vision and helped shape Trader Joe’s in the early years. Joe’s curiosity, philanthropic generosity, and irreverent sense of humor were woven into the fabric of the culture that defines Trader Joe’s stores.”

Bane went on to note that while Coulombe retired in 1988 his legacy “is evident in Trader Joe’s stores today.”

“Joe has said he always believed that it is the people that set Trader Joe’s apart, and we acknowledge that started with Joe. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Coulombe family and loved ones,” he added.

In the decades since Coulombe opened his first store, the chain has expanded across the country, with over 500 Trader Joe’s stores in 42 states and Washington, D.C, according to the Trader Joe’s website.

The hallmarks of Trader Joe’s stores include its inexpensive food, one-of-a-kind popular products — like everything bagel seasoning — as well as its quirky trading post aesthetic.

“He wanted to make sure whatever was sold in our store was of good value,” Coulombe’s son said, according to the AP. “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.”

Trader Joe's
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

Coulombe opened the first Trader Joe’s store after reading a book titled White Shadows in the South Seas and visiting the Disneyland Jungle Trip ride, inspiring him to create the nautical theme of the store. Trader Joe’s employees — who all sport Hawaiian shirts — are known as “captains,” “first mates” and “crew members,” according to The Los Angeles Times.

The newspaper also reported that Coulombe’s target audience included highly-educated, well-traveled shoppers who had a diverse taste in food but couldn’t afford higher-end grocery chains.

“I have an ideal audience in mind,” Coulombe told the Times in 1981. “This is a person who got a Fulbright scholarship, went to Europe for a couple of years and developed a taste for something other than Velveeta by way of cheese, something more than ordinary beer by way of alcoholic beverages and something other than Folgers by way of coffee.”

Just five years after opening the first location in 1967, Trader Joe’s released the first of many private label products, Trader Joe’s granola. Coulombe eventually retired as CEO in 1988.

In 2014, The New York Times described Trader Joe’s locations as “Equal parts gourmet shop, discount warehouse and Tiki trading post.” The AP also notes that Trader Joe’s is known for its compensation for employees, which includes medical, dental, vision and retirement plans, as well as annual salary increases.

Coulombe is survived by his wife of 67 years, three children and six grandchildren, according to the AP.

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