Who Was the Joe Behind Trader Joe’s?

Learn about the man we have to thank for everyone’s favorite grocery store.

Trader Joe'sPeter Foley/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

It’s hard to believe that this magical, affordable grocery store, with hundreds upon hundreds of products bearing its label, began with just one man. But it’s true, and his name was—you guessed it—Joe. But, his name wasn’t actually Trader Joe. It was Joe Coulombe—sadly, Joe recently passed away in February 2020 at the age of 89. Find out some more food product icons you never knew were based on real people.

Joe Coulombe opened his first Trader Joe’s store in 1967 in Pasadena, California. After graduating from Stanford with his MBA, he took a job with a popular pharmacy company, Rexall. Rexall launched five convenient stores and Coulombe was put in charge of one of them. They were opened to compete with stores like 7-Eleven, but didn’t end up doing that well so Rexall shut them down. Instead of letting the store go, Coulombe decided to buy it from Rexall and rebrand. Find out the reasons Trader Joe’s products are so cheap.

At the time, the Tiki trend was very popular so Coulombe decided to base the name of his store off of the popular Tiki-themed restaurant chain, Trader Vic’s. Employees wore Hawaiian grass skirts and the store gave customers unique foods that regular supermarkets didn’t carry. It was an instant hit.

Over the ensuing decades, Trader Joe’s become an iconic national grocery store, growing to 500 stores across 42 states. With his vision for Trader Joe’s, Coulombe helped shape a new way to shop for groceries—selling foods and pantry staples from private labels, and buying directly from manufacturers and suppliers that ensured the rock-bottom prices that we still know and love today.

In 1979, Coulombe sold the company to Theo Albrecht (one of the owners of another popular grocery chain: Aldi!), but stayed on as the chief executive until he retired. The Albrecht family still owns the company today. Next, find out some more secrets Trader Joe’s employees want you to know.

[Source: The Daily Meal]

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Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is the Assistant Digital Managing Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When she’s not writing for rd.com or keeping the 650+ pieces of content our team produces every month organized, she likes watching HGTV, going on Target runs, and searching through Instagram to find new corgi accounts to follow.