The idea, when stated simply, doesn’t exactly inspire scream “grocery empire.” Yet that’s just what became of the maritime-themed specialty market that Joe Coulombe first opened in 1967 in Pasadena, Calif. — which, in the decades that followed, blossomed into a web of hundreds of locations in dozens of states.
On Friday, more than three decades after he retired from the chain that still bears his name, Coulombe died in Pasadena at the age of 89. The company confirmed his death to NPR in an email Saturday.
“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,” CEO Dan Bane said in a statement included with the announcement.
“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.’ Joe developed a cadre of leaders that carried on his vision and helped shape Trader Joe’s in the early years.”
Those early years began with a modest series of convenience stores by the name of Pronto, which the Rexall drugstore chain had tasked Coulombe with operating in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. Within several years, he had purchased Pronto for his own — but soon found his cluster of stores confronted with a push from 7-Eleven, which he described in 2011 as the “800-pound gorilla of convenience stores.”
“So,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2011, “I had to do something different.”
He recalled seeing statistics that education levels in the U.S. were booming, and that gave him an idea: Why not cater to this better-educated, better-traveled — but still modestly salaried — class of customer?
“All Trader Joe’s were located near centers of learning. Pasadena, where I opened the first one, was because Pasadena is the epitome of a well-educated town,” he explained. “I reframed this: Trader Joe’s is for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists — that’s why we’ve always had good press, frankly!”
As for that nautical theme, well, Coulombe really leaned in.
“I read that the [Boeing] 747 [aircraft] would radically reduce the cost of travel, and I came up with the term ‘Trader’ to evoke the South Seas. The first stores were loaded with marine artifacts. We’d go down to the docks in San Pedro, we’d buy flags, chains, all that stuff. I [put] walk-in boxes in the shape of ships with cannon in the middle of the stores,” he adds. “That was a terrible idea.”
Coulombe and the fledgling company went one step further in 1972, launching the Trader Joe’s label and slapping quirky names on healthy, relatively low-priced foods such as granola, the company’s first private-label product.
And then, of course, there was also eventually the famously cheap Charles Shaw wine — perhaps better known by the nickname “two-buck Chuck” in California. There were other local wines in stock too, of course.
“I accidentally created the world’s largest assortment of Californian wine. In 1967 nobody was interested in wine, let alone Californian wines,” he recalled in a 2005 interview with Coriolis Research. “We were the first to give shelf space to what later became known as boutique Californian wineries.”
Beth Kowitt, who reported on the company for Fortune magazine, explained the company’s process to NPR in 2010.
“They buy directly from producers whenever possible, which takes out a lot of costs. So there are no middlemen involved. So they’re not going through distributors,” Kowitt said. “Also, because they’re buying in such large volume, they can secure large discounts from producers.”
In the end, the names, the types of products, the exotic decor — it continued to have a particular consumer in mind.
“All this stuff aimed at the subliminal,” Coulombe said in 2005, “so that when the well-educated person walks down the aisle they know, without anything shouting at them, they know that they are in an outlet aimed at the well educated person.”
He sold his stake in the company to the owner of Aldi Nord, a German grocery chain, in 1979, though he stayed on as chief executive until finally retiring from Trader Joe’s in 1988. The company now boasts more than 500 stores in 42 states and the District of Columbia.