The Real Reason Trader Joe's Employees Wear Hawaiian Shirts

It's no secret that Trader Joe's offers a unique shopping experience, from their free samples to their large variety of food offerings. The TJ community has become a strong one, with fans all over sharing TJ shopping hacks or helping first-time TJ shoppers. And as if there weren't enough reasons to love Trader Joe's, the theme of the store is all tropical! Shoppers are immediately transported to island time, browsing among hand-made signs, keeping an eye out for the unofficial mascot, and interacting with friendly employees who have job titles like "store captains," "crew members," "merchants," and "mates."

While it may seem odd that a grocery store, of all places, has taken on such a distinct theme, the original Joe himself — the late Joe Coulombe — thought that his earliest convenience stores bore too much resemblance to other competitors like 7-Eleven. By 1967, he aimed to create a place where you could "leave your problems at the door." This theme transcends the entire shopping experience, from décor down to employee outfits.

Trader Joe's Hawaiian shirts represent a spirit of adventure

In an interview featured in the second episode of the Trader Joe's podcast, hosted by Vice President of Marketing Product Matt Sloan and Marketing Director Tara Miller, founder Joe Coulumbe reminisced on how this island theme came to be. Coulumbe revealed he had been reading "White Shadows in the South Seas," a book set in south Polynesia, and after a trip to Disneyland during which he rode the famous Jungle Cruise ride, "it all coalesced."

Employees in the '60s started wearing Hawaiian shirts to reflect the Tiki bar culture that was popular during that time. According to Eat This, Not That, the tropical-themed chain has declared, "We wear Hawaiian shirts because we're traders on the culinary seas, searching the world over for cool items to bring home to our customers." On the podcast, a TJ employee shared that he has over 40 Hawaiian shirts in his closet.

If you like learning about TJ's distinct character as much as we do, late founder Joe Coulombe's memoir was published in 2020, sharing business tips, Southern Californian history, and more.