Coulombe operated a small chain of convenience stores under the Pronto Markets banner in the mid 1960s when, facing competition from bigger operators, he created a new concept that would later be described by the New York Times as “equal parts gourmet shop, discount warehouse and Tiki trading post.”
The first Trader Joe’s store opened in 1967 in Pasadena, California. The retailer’s web site notes that the store had a nautical theme and it was run by people who were described as ‘traders on the high seas.’
“At the time, Joe had been reading a book called “White Shadows in the South Seas,” and he’d been to the Disneyland Jungle Trip ride, and it all just…coalesced,” the web site explains. “To this day, Trader Joe’s Crew Members consider themselves “traders on the culinary seas” and are known for their bright, tropical-patterned shirts and for generally being nice, helpful, and well informed.”
Trader Joe’s introduced its first own-brand product, Trader Joe’s Granola, in 1972. That was a game changer for the chain, according to the web site.
“Focusing on private label (products with “Trader Joe’s” name on them) simplified a lot of things, and removed a lot of costs – no more slotting fees, marketing fees, middlemen fees. We passed along those savings to our customers (still do), because the value of Value is invaluable. And to us, “Value” means offering the best quality products for the best, everyday prices.”
Coulombe sold his interest in Trader Joe’s to the German retailer Aldi Nord in 1979, but he continued to lead the chain as CEO until he retired in 1988.
“Joe was the perfect person at the right time for Trader Joe’s,” company CEO Dan Bane said in a statement. “He was a brilliant thinker with a mesmerizing personality that simply galvanized all with whom he worked. He was not only our founder, he was our first spokesperson. He starred in captivating radio ads for years, always signing off with his unique, ‘thanks for listening.’ Joe developed a cadre of leaders that carried on his vision and helped shape Trader Joe’s in the early years.”
Coulombe’s curiosity, philanthropic generosity, and irreverent sense of humor were woven into the fabric of the culture that defines Trader Joe’s stores, the company said.
When Coulombe retired in 1988, Trader Joe’s was still a southern California phenomenon. The retailer has since expanded, and now operates about 500 stores across the country.