Trader Joe’s founder Joseph Coulombe Dead at 89 After Long Illness

Joseph Coulombe (pictured in 1985), the founder of popular national grocery store chain Trader Joe’s, died at age 89 inside his Pasadena, California, home

Trader Joe’s founder Joseph Coulombe has died aged 89 in his Pasadena, California, home.

Coulombe’s son, also named Joe, confirmed that his father died Friday after battling a long illness and receiving hospice care.

‘We’re going to miss him a lot,’ Joe, who lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife, told the Orange County Register.

‘I think people are going to remember the wonderful Trader Joe’s concept he put in place, and especially his treatment of his employees. He really cared about them.’

Joe remembers his father as an impressive businessman with an admirable curiosity about the world and tendency to think outside the box.

Joe said: ‘He was always very curious about everything. He was a prolific reader.

‘He read all kinds of books — fiction and non-fiction — and when he’d get interested in something he would devour that topic. He was able to tap into trends he saw developing and leverage them.’

Coulombe’s ability to meticulously asses trends and successfully use them to identify with generations of shoppers is what helped Trader Joe’s blossom into the powerhouse it is today.

Born in June 1930, Coulombe was raised on a California avocado ranch in Del Mar where three generations of family lived inside the home.

After one year in the Air Force, Coulombe (left) attended Stanford University where he met and later wed his wife of 67 years, Alice (right)

After serving in the Air Force, Coulombe attended Stanford University where he graduated with bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s in business administration and married his wife, Alice.

The couple tied the knot 1952 and settled in Pasadena where they raised three children.

He was eventually hired by the Rexall drugstore chain in 1958 with the task of establishing a chain of convenience stores known as Pronto.

With unbounded ambition, Coulombe prepared for the project by working at a local grocery store for free and driving through Los Angeles to study the demographics of different neighborhoods.

Joe said he learned his numbers as a child by counting parking spaces at potential store locations.

When Rexall lost interest in the six Pronto Markets opened by Coulombe, he purchased them and continued to grow the chain to about a dozen stores.

The first Trader Joe’s is pictured when it opened in 1967 on Arroyo Boulevard in Pasadena
More than 50 years later it is still in operation at the same location – pictured above in 2017

At the same time,  the wildly successful 7-11 stores began creeping into the Southern California.

‘I had to do something different,’ Coulombe, who realized he couldn’t compete with 7-11, told the Los Angeles Times in 2014.

So, Coulombe began thinking about the social trends that fascinated him.

‘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,’ he said.

Factors like the launch of the Boeing 747, which would allow more international travel, and an article he read that said more educated people drank more alcohol also played a role, New York Times reports.

Alice’s parents had introduced him to a variety of foods previously unknown to him, including fresh seafood, fine olive oil and inexpensive quality wine.

Coulombe decided his target demographic for Trader Joe’s was ‘overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists’

Goods like that, Coulombe figured, would be perfect to entice the younger audience he was hoping to attract.

He referred to this demographic as ‘overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists’ in a LA Times article.

The flagship Trader Joe’s opened 1967 on Arroyo Boulevard in Pasadena and is still open more than 50 years later.

The company continued to steadily grow through the through the 1970s with small milestones distributing their first newsletter, The Insider Report, but real growth wasn’t seen until 1988.

That year, new CEO John Shields opened a Trader Joe’s store in Northern California and in 1993, the first store outside of The Golden State was opened in Arizona.

Four years later Trader Joe’s began consistently adding 10 new items every week to stores and their website,, launched.

Trader Joe’s transition into environmental consciousness took shape in 1997 when they introduced their first reusable bag.

Stores in the Pacific northwest in 1995 and stretched into the Midwest 10 years later. Stores in the Southeast wouldn’t appear until 2006.

Pictured: Trader Joe’s launched their first reusable bag in 1997

New York City received three new stores in 2018.

Leroy Watson was the first employee hired at Trader Joe’s and previously served as a store manager for one of Coulombe’s Pronto Markets.

Watson, who later became senior vice president of operations of Trader Joe’s,  remembers Coulombe fondly.

‘Joe was marvelous to work for,’ Watson, 87, said.

‘He was an extremely thoughtful person, and he took care of his employees. He made sure they earned good wages and had good benefits and working conditions. I remember I couldn’t wait to get to work each morning.’

Coulombe would later sell Trader Joe’s to German discount grocery retailer Aldi Nord in 1979, but he remained CEO until 1988.

He officially retired in 2013 with the resolve to explore life outside of Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe’s had 19 stores operating at first, but has since expanded to more than 500 locations across 42 states and the District of Columbia.

The store’s familiar quirks, like friendly employees in silly Hawaiian shirts, the Fearless Flyer newsletter that looks like it was published in the 1890s and a collection of high-quality food and wine, are what set Trader Joe’s apart from the crowd.

‘He wanted to make sure whatever was sold in our store was of good value. He always did lots of taste tests,’ Joe said.

‘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 added.

Quality wine for inexpensive prices are one of the staples at Trader Joe’s, including customer favorite ‘Two-Buck Chuck’

Coulombe did this by cutting out the middleman, buying directly from wholesalers and in several cases placing the Trader Joe’s logo on everything from honey-oat cereal to Angus beef.

Many of the products were named after his daughter, Charlotte and Madeleine, and he gave goofy names to others.

Coulombe prided himself on providing some of the best wines from California’s Napa Valley.

‘He sold a lot of better wines too,’ Joe said, recalling traveling to France to seek out comparable wines.

The wine selection, which has become a customer favorite Charles Shaw, also known as ‘Two-Buck Chuck’ because it sold for $1.99.

Sometimes, Coulombe would come across a particularly exceptional item only to never find it again. But he refused to stock the shelves with an inferior product, opting instead to provide consistent quality.

Coulombe never relied on gimmicks to fill his stores, instead using brief radio ads and the Fearless Flyer newsletter to reach communities.

In an effort to cut costs, he wanted to design the Fearless Flyer with illustrations he cut out from magazines, but only once the copyright expired.

Pictured: a copy of Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer newsletter than Coulombe illustrated with magazine cutouts

Under Coulombe’s watch, the grocery chain became one of retail’s best employee compensators, with medical, dental, vision, retirement plans and annual salary increases ranging from 7 percent to 100 percent.

He and Alice have also become a big name Southern California’s philanthropic groups, having given time and money to causes like Planned Parenthood, the Los Angeles Opera and the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.

Stories differ on how the name Trader Joe´s came about, with some saying it was inspired by a ride on Disneyland´s Jungle Cruise boat or a book he read called ‘White Shadows in the South Seas’ or his favorite college hangout being a Trader Vic´s bar near Stanford.

Coulombe, who loved to travel, did acknowledge over the years that he had a fascination with the South Seas and put Trader into the name and a nautical theme inside the stores to lend that exotic appeal to customers.

He is survived by his wife of 67 years, three children and six grandchildren.

SOURCE: Associated Press and Daily Mail