Joe Coulombe, who opened the first Trader Joe’s markets and pioneered their unique branding strategy, died Friday in Pasadena, Calif. He was 89.
His son, Joe Jr., told the L.A. Times he died after a long illness. After earning his MBA at Stanford, Coulombe worked for Owl-Rexall, which owned Pronto markets, a small Los Angeles chain. When the owners decided to close some of the markets in 1962, he raised the money to buy them himself, and opened the Arroyo Parkway Pasadena location in 1967 as the first one called Trader Joe’s.
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He described his ideal customer as “the over-educated and the underpaid,” and the stores stocked bargain-priced imported cheeses, nuts, wine and numerous other gourmet products that allowed teachers and others who earned moderate salaries to enjoy extra virgin olive oil, Italian pasta and premium chocolates.
In 2018, “Cosby Show” actor Geoffrey Owens was “job-shamed” by the Daily Mail after being spotted working at a New Jersey Trader Joe’s. The unflattering article became a talking point about actors’ pay and careers, and he turned the conversation into a positive one, leading to an appearance at the SAG Awards and earning several new roles.
The company was acquired in 1979 by a family trust headed by Theo Albrecht, whose family owns the Aldi supermarkets. But the branding and philosophy that Coulombe created remains to this day: friendly staffers wearing Hawaiian shirts, colorful chalkboard signs, a Fearless Flyer mailer describing new items in a jokey tone, few brand-name products, no coupons or sales and almost no advertising.
After opening the first store outside California in Arizona in 1993, Trader Joe’s now counts over 500 stores across the U.S.
Coulombe left Trader Joe’s in 1989 and went on to hold top executive roles at Thrifty’s, Provigo, and Sport Chalet and serve on the boards of Cost Plus World Market and True Religion apparel.
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