LOS ANGELES – Joe Coulombe, who created Trader Joe’s with a vision that college-educated but poorly paid young people would flock to a store that stocked healthy foods at bargain prices, died late Friday. He was 89.
Coulombe, who opened his first Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, California, in 1967, died following a long illness, his son, Joe Coulombe, told the Associated Press.
The chain that still bears his name, as well as the quirky South Seas nautical appearance Coulombe created, now has more than 500 outlets in over 40 states. It still draws a niche audience looking for cheap prices on healthy gourmet foods that often can’t be found in traditional supermarkets.
Shelves are filled with products such as organic dried mango, ocean-caught shrimp, honey-oat cereal and organic cold-pressed juice.
“He wanted to make sure whatever was sold in our store was of good value,” said Coulombe’s son. “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, then slapping the name Trader Joe’s on his purchases.
Coulombe got into the grocery business soon after earning a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in business administration from Stanford University, where he met and married his wife, Alice.
The drugstore chain Rexall tasked him in 1958 with opening a small chain of convenience stores called Pronto that he later bought from the larger company. When the gigantic 7-Eleven company made a major push into Southern California in the 1960s he knew he’d struggle to compete. So he began transforming Prontolos stores into Trader Joe’s.
He learned large numbers of baby boomers were leaving college for low-paying entry level jobs but with a knowledge and desire for healthy foods ranging from granola to free-range chicken that they couldn’t find in traditional supermarkets and couldn’t afford in gourmet stores. He figured he could win them over if he could sell them cheaply enough.
He also scoured California’s Napa Valley for wines comparable to those from France but much cheaper. Among them were Charles Shaw, nicknamed Two-Buck Chuck because you could buy it for $1.99 (and still can in the California stores, although prices are higher out of state). Although some mocked it, Trader Joe’s still defends it as a perfect example of a cheap, good-tasting wine.
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.
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