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Trader Joe's founder Joe Coulombe

Joe Coulombe (1930–2020), founder of Trader Joe’s

by Linnea Crowther

Joe Coulombe was the founder of Trader Joe’s, the budget-conscious grocery store chain that focuses on unusual prepared foods, gourmet goods, and produce. Coulombe later worked with retail brands including Thrifty Corp. and Petrini’s.

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Died: February 28, 2020 (Who else died on February 28?)


Details of death: Died after a long illness at the age of 89.

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Building his brand: Coulombe founded Trader Joe’s in California in 1967, aiming his brand at educated and well-traveled locals who wanted gourmet and international foods but couldn’t afford them at high-end stores. He decorated his stores with a South Seas theme, and he kept costs down by selling mostly own-brand foods rather than name brands. One notable success was the Charles Shaw wines sold at Trader Joe’s, known as “Two Buck Chuck” for their original price point. Coulombe encouraged loyalty among his Hawaiian shirt-clad employees by paying a living wage and offering full benefits. Coulombe sold the chain in 1979 to Aldi’s parent company, though he remained the company’s chief executive until 1989. It was after Coulombe passed the company to other hands that it began expanding outside of California.

Notable quote: “I have an ideal audience in mind. This is a person who got a Fulbright scholarship, went to Europe for a couple of years and developed a taste for something other than Velveeta by way of cheese, something more than ordinary beer by way of beverages and something more than Folgers by way of coffee.” —From a 1981 interview with the Los Angeles Times

What people said about him: “RIP Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe, a great example of a boss who treated his employees like humans and succeeded. Joe gave every retail employee medical, dental, and vision benefits; a retirement plan; and annual salary increases of 7% to 10%.” —Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments

“When I asked Joe Coulombe, aka Trader Joe, what he typically had for lunch, he said ‘red wine and peanut butter straight from a jar.’ Remembering a true LA legend who changed so many lives for the better.” —Writer Mary Melton

“The founder of Trader Joe’s said in an LAT interview that he imagined his stores appealing to ‘overeducated & underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists.’ I feel seen.” —NPR reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas

Full obituary: Los Angeles Times

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