A history of Trader Joe’s and Joe Coulombe, the man behind the brand

Joe Coulombe, a struggling comfort retailer proprietor in Los Angeles, determined in 1967 to open a grocery chain to enchantment to the small however rising quantity of well-educated, well-traveled shoppers that mainstream supermarkets have been ignoring.

“I’ve a really perfect viewers in thoughts,” he advised the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “This is an individual who obtained a Fulbright scholarship, went to Europe for a pair of years and developed a style for one thing apart from Velveeta” bizarre beer and Folgers espresso, he mentioned.

Coulombe acknowledged that worldwide journey was about to blow up because of the new Boeing 747 hitting the market. For the title of his new retailer, Coulombe landed on Trader Joe’s to evoke unique photos of the South Seas. The title was impressed by Trader Vic’s, a preferred Tiki Bar restaurant began in California.

One advertising skilled thought it was a horrible title — “Trader” was “one thing related to promoting faulty horse flesh,” Coulombe mentioned in his memoir, “Becoming Trader Joe,” printed in 2021, a yr after he died at age 89.

But it caught, and the first Trader Joe’s opened in Pasadena, California, in 1967. The location was very best for his new goal buyer, surrounded by faculty campuses, a hospital and huge engineering companies.

“He was a grocery outsider who was capable of see issues in another way,” mentioned Benjamin Lorr, writer of “The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket.” “He needed to faucet into this concept that meals was exploration, that meals was journey and journey.”

Nautical theme

The first Trader Joe’s retailer had a nautical theme with marine artifacts together with a ship’s bell, fish netting and half of a rowboat. The take a look at counter was an island with a roof. Employees wore Polynesian shirts and Bermuda shorts. The supervisor was known as captain and the assistant was first mate. And lilting Hawaiian music performed over the loudspeakers.

But the merchandise regarded nothing like what you’d discover at a Trader Joe’s immediately.

The authentic retailer had a typical comfort store assortment of groceries, together with discounted magazines, books, socks and hosiery, data and photograph ending. The huge draw, nevertheless, was the alcohol choice.

The original Trader Joe's in Pasadena, California. It opened in 1967.

California had Fair Trade legal guidelines on alcohol, so producers set minimal costs and it was unlawful to go beneath them. Since Coulombe could not compete by providing low costs, he acknowledged he needed to provide all kinds to face out.

The first Trader Joe’s boasted of having the world’s largest assortment of alcohol — 100 manufacturers of Scotch, 50 manufacturers of bourbon and gin and 14 sorts of tequila.

Coulombe ultimately discovered a loophole in California’s Fair Trade legal guidelines that allowed his store to import high-end French wine and promote it for decrease costs than rivals, serving to him attain wine connoisseurs. (It wouldn’t be till years later that Trader Joe’s launched its well-known $1.99 Charles Shaw wine, generally known as “Two-Buck Chuck.”)

Health craze

By the early Seventies, Coulombe seized on the rising well being meals motion, believing it might enchantment to the similar kind of clients who additionally occurred to be wine connoisseurs.

“His concepts on advertising groceries got here from his advertising of wine,” Benjamin Lorr mentioned.

Trader Joe’s first private-label product was granola, and then it began including recent squeezed orange juice, nutritional vitamins, nuts and dried meals and cheese. At one level, Trader Joe’s was the largest US importer of brie.

Coulombe turned immersed in the well being meals tradition in Berkeley and San Francisco.

“I employed a younger hippie lady out of the University of California at Santa Cruz to show us the lingo,” he mentioned.

Brandenburg Brownies and Sir Issac Newtons

In 1977, Coulombe remade Trader Joe’s once more — setting it on a path that may be extra acquainted to immediately’s clients.

In response to the finish of Fair Trade legal guidelines on alcohol in California and different worth controls, Trader Joe’s wanted new methods to develop revenue and keep aggressive. It eradicated most family fundamentals and cleansing necessities and targeted on meals. It additionally slashed the quantity of gadgets it carried and moved to largely promoting private-label gadgets.

“As we advanced Trader Joe’s, its biggest departure from the norm wasn’t its measurement or its decor,” Coulombe mentioned. “It was our dedication to product information, one thing which was completely overseas to the mass-merchant tradition, and our turning our backs to branded merchandise.”

The firm even positioned its private-label names and branding to attach with well-educated consumers — Brandenburg Brownies and Sir Issac Newtons, for instance — Coulombe mentioned.

Creating sturdy private-label choices to rival nationwide manufacturers can be one of his legacies in the grocery store business, mentioned Lorr. “That modified the stability of the grocery business. Suddenly, grocers are empowered in a approach they weren’t.”

But Coulombe resisted opening up dozens of new shops.

Trader Joe's has more than 500 stores across the United States today.

The handful of shops Coulombe did open have been in Southern California, which match the demographic profile he was in search of — lecturers, musicians, journalists and different professionals.

In 1979, Coulombe offered Trader Joe’s to the household of Theo Albrecht, then the proprietor of the Aldi grocery chain in Europe. (Aldi in the United States is individually owned by the household of Theo Albrecht’s brother Karl.)

Aldi executives would journey from Germany to go to Trader Joe’s about yearly, however they took a hands-off method to overseeing the rising chain.

By the time Coulombe stepped down as chief govt in 1988, Trader Joe’s had 27 California shops and an estimated $150 million in gross sales.

It can be his successor as chief govt, John Shields, a former fraternity brother at Stanford, who led Trader Joe’s out of California and turned it right into a nationwide chain. In 1996, Trader Joe’s opened its first two shops on the East Coast, each in Boston suburbs.
By 2020, Trader Joe’s had greater than 530 shops and an estimated $16.5 billion in gross sales, based on the newest information obtainable from Supermarket News.

“My successors at Trader Joe’s have taken a 30-store chain nationwide with outstanding adherence to the fundamental ideas we began out with,” Coulombe mentioned in 2010.

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