Joe Coulombe, the Founder of Trader Joe’s, Has Died at the Age of 89

updated Feb 29, 2020
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Joe Coulombe, who founded Trader Joe’s in 1967, died late Friday night at home in Pasadena, California. He was 89 years old, reports the New York Times.

Coulombe was born on June 3, 1930 and was raised on an avocado ranch in San Diego. After receiving his master’s in business administration from Stanford University in 1954, Coulombe went on to work for the drugstore chain Rexall, where he helped open Pronto, a small chain of convenience stores in Southern California. He later bought the stores from the parent company and in 1967, with the threat of 7-Eleven taking over the market, Coulombe decided to start turning the convenience stores into Trader Joe’s.

The first official Trader Joe’s supermarket opened in Pasadena, California. The store has the nautical theme we all know and love, because at the time Coulombe was reading White Shadows in the South Seas. All the employees wore tropical shirts, and were supposed to be extra friendly and helpful (and if you haven’t noticed, not much has changed.)

In 1972, Trader Joe’s came out with its first-ever private label product: granola. And since then, the store has prioritized this model in order to keep costs down for customers. The store became known for its unusual foods, healthy selections, and well-priced wine.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2011, Coulombe said he wanted to open Trader Joe’s for the “overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists.”

Coulombe retired in 1988 with 19 stores in California. His successor John V. Shields Jr. took the chain national and now there are over 500 stores. Today, Trader Joe’s is known as one of the best places to work, with high morale amongst staffers and good hourly wages.

As news spread of Coulombe’s death early on Saturday, Trader Joe’s fans around the internet paid their tribute to the supermarket legend.

There’s no grocery store that’s quite like Trader Joe’s, and Coulombe’s mission will continue to guide our own cooking for many decades to come. He is survived by his wife, Alice, daughters Charlotte Schoenmann and Madeleine Coulombe, son Joseph, and six grandchildren.