The Simple Reason Trader Joe’s Has a Nautical Theme

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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

I love Trader Joe’s, but I’ve often found myself a bit perplexed by the nautical theme — and not just because I mixed up Trader Joe’s and Trader Vic’s for years. It’s a little odd to have a nautical-themed grocery store, right? Most grocery stores do not have themes at all. They just have food.

But Trader Joe’s employees are called “crew members” and all wear Hawaiian shirts. The managers are called “captains.” And instead of calling out announcements over the PA system, Trader Joe’s rings nautical bells in a type of Morse code.

The second episode of Inside Trader Joe’s, a new podcast from Trader Joe’s, finally answers the question every Trader Joe’s customer has probably thought at one time or another: Why is everyone at this grocery store pretending to be on a boat?

Trader Joe’s was started by Joe Coulombe in 1967. Before he was “Trader Joe,” Coulombe took over a small chain of Los Angeles convenience stores called Pronto Markets in 1958, and after 10 years of that he decided he really did not like the convenience-store formula. He decided to change the business, and a big part of the inspiration for the change was actually the GI Bill.

“The demographics were changing in the United States because of the GI Bill of Rights, which was the largest experiment in mass higher education in the history of the human race. And I thought that these people would want something different,” Coulombe said on the podcast.

As for the nautical theme, Coulombe said he happened to have been reading a book set in the South Pacific at the time, and between that and Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, he was feeling the island theme. So he went with it, put his employees in Hawaiian shirts, and became Trader Joe.

“I’d been reading a book called White Shadows in the South Seas, and I’d been to the Disneyland jungle trip, and it all coalesced,” he said. “And that is why, to this day, the employees wear Hawaiian shirts.”

It looks like it worked. Fifty years later the company has more than 470 stores, and it sells things from all over the world. And the Hawaiian shirts are easier to spot than most stores’ plain polo shirts — plus they’re twice as cheery.