Remembering the Man Who Put the ‘Joe’ in Trader Joe’s

A tribute to Joe Coulombe—visionary behind the beloved grocery store.

March  6, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s—the U.S.-based supermarket chain we love to love—died on February 28, 2020, after battling a long illness. The pioneering businessman was 89 years old.

Coulombe, who lent his first name to the megapopular business, was born near San Diego and received a master's degree in business administration from Stanford University. In 1967, after years of owning and operating a series of convenience stores across the Los Angeles area, Coulombe opened the first Trader Joe’s store in Pasadena, Calif.. His Californian upbringing and love for travel suffused the store’s general vibe—Coulombe decided on a South Seas aesthetic, decorating the aisles with fishnets and plastic lobsters, and instituting an employee uniform of floral tropical shirts.

The initial idea for the store was a gamble. By the late 1960s, Coulombe had noticed an uptick in general education levels in the United States. That fact, along with the introduction of the powerful new Boeing 747 plane into American fleets (which allowed for faster, and more affordable, international travel) led him to believe that consumers would soon start broadening their palates, craving flavors from farther and farther away. He wasn’t wrong.

The first Trader Joe’s opened in Pasadena, near the California Institute of Technology; Coulombe made sure to open all early locations near centers of learning. The store offered a novel selection of local California wines and a bevy of international food options, like hard-to-come-by imported cheeses, all the while staying committed to lower price points. It soon started to stock natural and organic foods, as well as an eponymous line of private-label products.

When asked about what defined the original store, Coulombe told The Los Angeles Times in a 2011 interview that “Trader Joe’s is for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists—that’s why we’ve always had good press, frankly!”

The chain was acquired by the German company, Aldi Nord, in 1979, and Coulombe retired from the business around 1988, around which time there were somewhere between 19 and 27 stores studded across Southern California. Throughout its continental expansion, the concept retained much of its original DNA. Now, it has over 500 locations in 42 states and Washington, D.C..

Today, Trader Joe’s consistently earns top accolades for being one of the best employers in the country, due to higher-than-average wages and an ample benefits package. On a consumer front, the company has maintained its stores' accessible prices due to a combination of buying in bulk, sourcing directly from producers, and eliminating supplier fees. Trader Joe's' own line of branded products have garnered something akin to cult followings.

In a statement made to Buzzfeed, the company’s CEO, Dan Bane, had this to say about the late founder: “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.”

Coulombe is survived by his wife, Alice, daughters Madeleine Coulombe and Charlotte Schoenmann, son Joseph, and six grandchildren. Here at Food52, we tip our hats to the supermarket superhero who changed the way so many of us shop and eat.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.

1 Comment

Matt March 7, 2020
I was wondering if he died. If anyone listens to the TJ's podcast, the team left a rather odd thank you to him without saying much of anything.