Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s markets, dies

 

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Joe Coulombe envisioned a new generation of young grocery shoppers emerging in the 1960s, one that wanted healthy, tasty, high-quality food they couldn’t find in most supermarkets and couldn’t afford to buy in the few high-end gourmet outlets.

So he found a new way to bring everything from a then-exotic snack food called granola to the California-produced wines that for flavor compared with anything from France. And he made shopping for them almost as much fun as sailing the high seas when he created Trader Joe’s, a quirky little grocery store filled with nautical themes and staffed not by managers and clerks but by “captains and mates.”

From the time he opened his first store in Pasadena, California, in 1967 until his death Friday at age 89, Coulombe watched his namesake business rise from a cult favorite of educated but underpaid young people — and a few hippies — to a retail giant with more than 500 outlets in over 40 states.

A giant yes, but one that across more than half a century has never lost its reputation for friendly service from employees decked out in goofy Hawaiian shirts, a newsletter that looks like it was published in the 1890s, and rows and rows of high-quality, moderately priced healthy food and great wine, even if you sometimes can’t ever again find exactly the same thing.

“He wanted to make sure whatever was sold in our store was of good value,” said Coulombe’s son, also named Joe, who added that his father died following a long illness. “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, in many cases slapping the name Trader Joe’s on a bag of nuts, trail mix, organic dried mango, honey-oat cereal or Angus beef chili. He named several products after his daughters Charlotte and Madeleine and gave quirky names to others. Among them were Trader Darwin vitamins and a non-alcoholic sparkling juice called Eve’s Apple Sparkled by Adam.

He prided himself on checking out every vintage of wine from California’s Napa Valley, including Trader Joe’s standby, Charles Shaw, affectionately known as Two-Buck Chuck because it sold for $1.99. (It still does in the California stores, although shipping costs have increased the price in other states.)

“He sold a lot of better wines too,” his son noted with a laugh, recalling trips the family made to France to seek them out.

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LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 13: Naomi Watts is seen in Brentwood on February 13, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
Photo � 2010 The Grosby Group Los Angeles, August 4th 2010 JENNA DEWAN was spotted stocking up on supplies at Trader Joe's for herself and hubby Channing Tatum in Studio City, CA. PGpg68 (Photo by Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images)
�2010 RAMEY PHOTO Beverly Hills, California, June 23, 2010 MISCHA BARTON smokes a cigarette before shopping for groceries at Trader's Joes in West Hollywood, CA. PGpg68 (Photo by Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images)
�2010 RAMEY PHOTO NO SPAIN/ NO ITALY/ NO RUSSIA Beverly Hills, California, March 19, 2010 JESSICA ALBA was spotted shopping for groceries with daughter Honor Marie, at Trader Joe's in Westwood, CA. PGpg68 (Photo by Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images)
�2010 RAMEY PHOTO NO SPAIN/ NO ITALY/ NO RUSSIA Beverly Hills, California, March 19, 2010 JESSICA ALBA was spotted shopping for groceries with daughter Honor Marie, at Trader Joe's in Westwood, CA. PGpg68 (Photo by Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images)
TOLUCA LAKE - AUGUST 20: Hilary Duff spent the late afternoon grocery shopping at Trader Joes and Vons supermarket on August 20, 2008 in Toluca Lake, California. (Photos by David Aguilera/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic)
WEST HOLLYWOOD - MAY 15: EXCLUSIVE: Kate Bosworth and her boyfriend, James Rousseau, spent the day shopping at Trader Joes and also picked up an application for ANZ (Australian Finanacial Institute), while on the stroll home on May 15, 2008 in West Hollywood, California. Kate Bosworth seemed to be in a happy mood and was dressed casual in a grey singlet and black pants. (Photos by Manuel Velasco/BuzzFoto.com) Buzz Foto LLC  1112 Montana Ave suite 80 Santa Monica CA 90403 1 310 441 4464 1 310 980 8822
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 11: Lucy Hale is seen leaving Trader Joe's in Studio City on January 11, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by BG015/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Amanda Seyfried is seen carrying three grocery bags as she leaves Trader Joe's on February 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Vanessa Hudgens is seen picking up groceries at Trader Joe's on February 24, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
�2010 RAMEY PHOTO NO SPAIN, NO ITALY Los Angeles, Jan.10 , 2010 ASHLEY TISDALE and boyfriend, SCOTT SPEER leave a Trader Joe's market in Toluca Lake after shopping for groceries. Ashley hitches a ride on the cart while Scott pushes. PGpg68 (Photo by Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images)
�2009 RAMEY PHOTO NO SPAIN , NO ITALY, NO MIDDLE EAST Los Angeles, January 17, 2009 MILEY CYRUS got a pedicure at a North Hollywood salon and later went with her half sister, Brandi to a Trader Joe's store in Toluca Lake. Along the way they stopped a a flower shop where she bought a plant and even made time to take a photo with a lucky fan. PGpg6 (Photo by Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 05: Vanessa Hudgens is seen on September 05, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Vanessa Hudgens is seen picking up groceries at Trader Joe's on February 24, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 24: Amanda Seyfried is seen on August 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 28: Janeane Garofalo sighting at Trader Joes supermarket on August 28, 2010 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by David Aguilera/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic)
Photo © 2010 The Grosby Group Los Angeles, August 4th 2010 JENNA DEWAN was spotted stocking up on supplies at Trader Joe's for herself and hubby Channing Tatum in Studio City, CA. PGpg68 (Photo by Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images)
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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.

Joseph Hardin Coulombe, an only child, was born on June 3, 1930, in San Diego and lived on an avocado ranch in nearby Del Mar. After serving in the Air Force, he attended Stanford University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s in business administration and met and married his wife, Alice.

A few years after graduation, he was hired by the Rexall drugstore chain, which tasked him with establishing a chain of convenience stores called Pronto. When Rexall lost interest in the stores, he bought them and had grown the chain to about a dozen outlets when the huge 7-Eleven company made a major push into Southern California.

“So I had to do something different,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “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.”

His wife’s parents had introduced him to a world of foods previously unfamiliar to him, including fine olive oil, fresh seafood and inexpensive quality wine, and he figured things like that would be perfect for the younger audience he was seeking.

As he bargained for those products, he’d sometimes come across a particularly exceptional olive oil or vintage wine, never to find it again, and he wouldn’t stock an inferior product in its place.

He eschewed promotional gimmicks like loyalty clubs or loss-leader sales, getting the word out with brief radio spots and the Trader Joe’s “Fearless Flyer” newsletter, whose old-style appearance was inspired by another money-saving effort. He wanted to dress up the newsletter’s stories with illustrations he cut out of magazines, but he made sure he only took ones on which the copyrights had expired.

He passed such savings on not only to his customers but employees, which Trader Joe’s boasts are among retail’s best compensated, with medical, dental, vision and retirement plans and annual salary increases the company says range from 7% to 10%. Many workers have remained with Trader Joe’s for decades.

“He just had a visit yesterday from employee No. 1,” his daughter Charlotte said shortly before her father’s death.

He and his wife also became well known in Southern California philanthropic circles, contributing time and money to such causes as 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.

In addition to his three children and wife of 67 years, Coulombe is survived by six grandchildren.

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