The Untold Truth Of Trader Joe's Founder Joe Coulombe

If there was one store in America where the cuisines of the world could stop by, say hello, and leave the best parts of themselves for the locals to sample and fall in love with, that store would most likely be Trader Joe's. And those of us that love food have Joe Coulombe to thank for having the audacity to create a new hybrid food store where Los Angeles Magazine says he "grafted the gourmet store onto the convenience store onto the health food store onto the liquor store." Sadly, the Trader Joe's founder passed away on February 28, 2020 at his home in Pasadena, California at the age of 89 after a long illness (via Fox Business). He is survived by his wife, three children, and six grandchildren.

Joe Coulombe grew up a child of two cuisines: his grandmother on his father's side served up New England-style boiled dinners, while his mother delivered on what she considered to be the diet of Tennessee, where she was from. Coulombe recalled, "I would call that 'Southern suicide cuisine. It was a lot of bacon fat poured on greens." It seems that such a melange of cuisines would heavily influence him later in life.

Joe Coulombe first discovered 'exotic' food as a Stanford undergrad

It wasn't until Joe Coulombe left San Diego for Stanford University (where he picked up an undergraduate degree and an MBA), that he first encountered meals that included Dungeness crab, sourdough bread, steamed wine, and olive oil at the home of a girl named Alice Steere, whose father was a Stanford professor. Joe and Alice married in 1952, and Coulombe subsequently found work with Rexall, a drugstore chain which hired him to develop a chain of convenience stores. The New York Times says Coulombe spent time driving around the neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles, to work out what the area's demographics were, and where the locations of potential stores might be.

He then set up a chain of stores called Pronto Market, and when Rexall decided the convenience store business wasn't for them, Coulombe bought them out to manage the stores himself. By the time he had gotten to 18 stores, he faced a new threat in the guise of a Texas upstart named 7-Eleven.

Joe Coulombe changed food shopping

It was then that Coulombe decided to turn food retailing on its head, by catering to shoppers who were both educated and sophisticated (thanks to their college degrees) but might not have the cash to splash. He also guessed that, thanks to the coming of Boeing's new 747 jet, there would also be a group of shoppers who might be interested in travel and in trying out flavors from different cultures. Coulombe then gave his store concept something that competing supermarkets didn't have: a personality, probably much like his own, and which was epitomized by the company's newsletter, "The Fearless Flyer." The first Trader Joe's opened in Pasadena in 1967.

"Joe was an extraordinarily smart and accomplished entrepreneur who built a company that introduced something welcomingly different in the grocery retail space," the company said in a statement on his death (via CNN). Company CEO Dan Bane agreed, saying, "Joe was the perfect person at the right time for Trader Joe's. He was a brilliant thinker with a mesmerizing personality that simply galvanized all with whom he worked."

Trader Joe's stores have remained true to Joe Coulombe's vision

Joe Coulombe sold Trader Joe's in 1979 to Aldi Nord, but remained CEO of the company until he stepped down in 1988. Today's Trader Joe stores still have Coulombe written all over them. The interiors are inspired partly by Coulombe's interest in a book called White Shadows in the South Seas which he was reading when he was working on the Trader Joe's concept, and partly by the Jungle Cruise attraction in Disneyland. As a result, store staff (or Crew Members) wander around in tropical-themed shirts, and they call themselves "traders on the culinary seas." And if you want to see Trader Joe's the way Coulombe first envisioned it would be, you may want to visit Trader Joe's in Pasadena, California where his first store is still standing proud (via Trader Joe's).