Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s, dies at 89

Editor’s note: A friend, a former neighbor, and the founder of Trader Joe’s. RIP. First memories go back to South Pasadena in the ’60s, where we bought delicious pastrami sandwiches from the Pronto Market, which later became the first Trader Joe’s under Mr. Coulombe. I went to grade school with the Coulombe’s daughter, Charlotte. And we’ve shopped at TJ ever since.

“He was a marketing whiz, a retail visionary whose chain of budget-minded specialty food stores, launched in the late 1960s with a distinctive South Seas trading post motif, developed a cult-like following on its way to becoming a Southern California institution,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe’s, died Friday after a long illness, said his son Joe Jr. He was 89.

“Trader Joe’s, which came to be known for everything from its inexpensive Charles Shaw (“Two Buck Chuck”) wine to its use of maritime bells for in-store communication, was a quirky local retail success before spreading beyond California in the 1990s after Coulombe left the company.

“Coulombe was the owner of a small chain of 18 Pronto Market convenience stores in the mid-1960s when he became concerned about a growing competitive threat: the expansion of Dallas-based Southland Corp.’s 7-Eleven convenience stores into Southern California.

“To survive, Coulombe knew he had to do something different.

“The answer came in part from reading a story in Scientific American that said 60% of all people qualified to go to college were doing so, compared to only 2% in the Depression year of 1932.

“Coulombe also read a newspaper article that said that wide-bodied Boeing 747 jumbo jets would be put into service in a few years, which would significantly reduce the cost of overseas air travel.

“His conclusion: Target well-educated, well-traveled — but less-than-affluent — consumers who have more sophisticated and diverse tastes in food and drink.

“With the South Seas becoming more accessible, Coulombe adopted the relaxed trading post theme for his stores, which he stocked with a global cross-section of offerings.

“’He put a great deal of thought into it,’ his son said. ‘He got an early take on the emerging trends — from the ecological movement to the raising education level.’

“The first Trader Joe’s opened in 1967 on South Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena, with the store decorated with fish nets, oars, pennants and other nautical trappings. The inaugural store remains in business.”

The rest of the article is here.

McLellan is a former Times staff writer.

Staff writer Steve Marble and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo: Jay L. Clendenin, L.A. Times

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

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