Joseph Hardin Coulombe, founder of the popular Trader’s Joes grocery store operation in the United States, died in Pasadena, California on February 28 at the age of 89 following a long illness. His private label-oriented food retailing business – known for a wide assortment of affordably-priced, high quality products ranging from wine and cheese to soups and nuts, frozen ready meals, ice cream and much more – was acquired in 1967 by billionaire Theo Albrecht, co-founder of the Essen, Germany-headquartered Aldi Nord discount food retail chain.
“Joe was an extraordinarily smart and accomplished entrepreneur who built a company that introduced something welcomingly different in the grocery retail space,” said a statement issued by the Trader Joe’s organization upon the founder’s passing.
In 1958, Coulombe took over a small chain of convenience stores around the Los Angeles area called Pronto Markets. They were the kind of shops where one could buy anything from a pack of chewing gum to pantyhose.
After 10 years of running Pronto Markets and heavy competition from the 7-Eleven convenience store chain’s ongoing drive into southern California, the time had come to reinvent his operation. Coulombe took note that demographics were changing in the United States and because of the GI Bill (Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) offering benefits to American military veterans of World War II, a large experiment in mass higher education was ongoing.
Recalling his thinking at the time during an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2014, Coulombe said: “Scientific American (magazine) had a story that of all people qualified to go to college, 60 percent 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.”
He added that his stores were meant for “overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists – that’s why we always had good press, frankly.”
The first Trader Joe’s shop, which opened in 1967 in Pasadena, remains open for business today and still has the same parking lot. It originally had a nautical theme and was staffed by people who were described as “traders on the high seas.”
At the time, Joe had been reading a book called “White Shadows in the South Seas,” and he’d experienced the Disneyland Jungle Trip ride, and it all coalesced. To this day, many Trader Joe’s employees regard themselves as “traders on the culinary seas” and are known for wearing bright, tropical-patterned shirts and for being friendly, helpful, and well informed about product lines that increasingly feature organic ingredients.
Private Label Value
In 1972, Coulombe introduced a total game changer for Trader Joe’s: Granola. It was not just any granola, though. This was the first private label Trader Joe’s product.
Focusing on private label simplified a lot of things, and removed a lot of costs – no more slotting fees, marketing fees and middlemen fees. Buying directly from suppliers whenever possible has enabled Trader Joe’s to pass a good deal of savings on to customers and maintain its “value of value is invaluable” credo to this day.
After selling the company to Aldi, Coulombe stayed on board as chief executive officer for nine years before retiring in 1988, when the chain consisted of 19 units. Since then the Trader Joe’s grocery store concept has spread across the USA, starting with entry into Northern California. Then came Arizona, followed by the Pacific Northwest, and the East Coast. Today there are over 500 stores operating in 42 states and the District of Columbia.
Joseph Hardin Coulombe was born in San Diego on June 3, 1930, and grew up on an avocado farm in nearby Del Mar, California. The US Air Force veteran held a bachelor’s degree in economics and master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University.
The Trader Joe’s founder is survived by his wife of 68 years, Alice (Steere) Coulombe, whom he met when both were students at Stanford; one son, Joseph; two daughters, Charlotte Schoenmann and Madeleine Coulombe; and six grandchildren.