Joseph Coulombe, the man who founded the popular and inexpensive grocery chain Trader Joe’s, died on Friday at the age of 89 in Pasadena, California. In a statement to The Associated Press, Joseph’s son, also named Joseph, said that his father had died after a long illness.
“Joe was an extraordinarily smart and accomplished entrepreneur who built a company that introduced something welcomingly different in the grocery retail space. Joe opened the first Trader Joe’s store in 1967 in Pasadena, California. Notably thrifty and insightful, Joe went against conventional industry norms at the time, moving away from national brands and introducing Trader Joe’s private label in 1972,” Trader Joe’s wrote in a press release.
Coulombe retired from the company in 1988, but current CEO Dan Bane said that the founder’s legacy is still evident in stores today.
“Joe has said he always believed that it is the people that set Trader Joe’s apart, and we acknowledge that started with Joe. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Coulombe family and loved ones,” Bane said.
The CEO also said that Coulombe had a great idea and came along at just the right time. Bane said that Coulombe galvanized the people he worked with and was the company’s first spokesperson in addition to being its founder, appearing for years in radio ads to promote his stores. Coulombe is also responsible for the current generation of leadership at Trader Joe’s, Bane said, because he helped to nurture talent while he was the company’s CEO.
In the years since it was first founded, Trader Joe’s has expanded to over 500 locations in 42 states and Washington, D.C, according to Trader Joe’s website. The store’s hallmarks include its inexpensive food and trading post aesthetic. Coulombe’s son said that the founder was careful to make sure that everything the store sold was of good value. That meant that Coulombe would often conduct taste tests that involved his family trying products he was thinking of selling in his stores.
Coulombe was inspired to found the store after reading White Shadows in the South Seas and visiting the Disneyland Jungle Trip ride. These influences inspired the nautical theme of the store and explain why Trader Joe’s employees wear Hawaiian shirts and are referred to as “captains,” “first mates” and “crew members,” according to The Los Angeles Times. The paper also reported that, when Coulombe founded the store, he had a specific customer base of well-educated, well-traveled shoppers with a diverse taste in food in mind.