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He opened the first store in Pasadena in 1967

Ellen Fort  – March 2, 2020

When Joe Coulombe founded Trader Joe’s in Pasadena in 1967, he launched what would become an empire, with over 500 stores in 40 states.  The quirky nautical-themed market quickly became a destination for harder-to-find products that were affordably priced, from its famously cheap “Two-Buck Chuck” wine to trail mix and olive oil.  Coulombe passed on Friday, February 28 following a long illness, according to his son, Joe. He is survived by three children and six grandchildren. 

A San Diego native and graduate of Standford University, Coulombe began  the store that would become affectionally known as “TJ’s” among its fans after 7-Eleven came to California, threatening his small chain of Pronto drugstores. The German grocery chain Aldi Nord purchased Trader Joe’s in 1979, thankfully leaving its unique formula intact; Coulombe continued as the company’s CEO until 1988. 

Scientific American had a story that of all people qualified to go to college, 60% were going. I felt this newly educated—not smarter but better-educated—class of people would want something different, and that was the genesis of Trader Joe’s,” Coulombe told the L.A. Times in 2011. “All Trader Joe’s were located near centers of learning. Pasadena, where I opened the first one, was because Pasadena is the epitome of a well-educated town. I reframed this: 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!”

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Coulombe ran his stores accordingly. The store’s Hawaiian-shirt-wearing employees became known for their friendly attitudes, partially due to the company’s industry-leading salaries, along with medical, dental, vision, and retirement plans. The store’s signature bell ringing was introduced because, as the website says, “those blustery PA systems just didn’t feel right to us.” Coulombe was also behind the creation of the store’s now-iconic “Fearless Flyer” newsletter, which he created using illustrations from the 1890s to save money—copyrighted material didn’t exist until 1906. 

Beyond the culture of the store and its employees, Coulombe’s vision included a model that allowed customers to explore the world through food, partnering with wholesalers to offer deep discounts and private-label items. Many of those items have become cult classics, with new treats hitting shelves regularly.