The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The man who founded Trader Joe’s has died, and people are mourning the cultural icon

A Trader Joe's in Washington, D.C. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)

In the 1960s, Joe Coulombe envisioned a future where people would want trendy foods.

Decades before Instagram, avocado toast and bottomless brunch, Coulombe predicted young shoppers would buy healthy, high-quality groceries at prices they could afford. He opened the first Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, Calif., in 1967. Today, there are more than 500 locations nationwide.

“I have an ideal audience in mind,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “This is a person who got a Fulbright scholarship, went to Europe for a couple of years and developed a taste for something other than Velveeta by way of cheese, something more than ordinary beer by way of alcoholic beverages and something other than Folgers by way of coffee.”

Coulombe, founder of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain, died of an unspecified illness Friday at age 89 in his Pasadena home, the Associated Press reported.

Coulombe is survived by his wife of 67 years, a son, two daughters and six grandchildren.

Following his death, there was an outpouring on social media. “RIP Trader Joe,” “RIP Joe” and “Joe Coulombe” were trending on Twitter.

Trader Joe’s products have a cult following.

When they heard about Coulombe’s death, shoppers posted some of their favorite products: everything but the bagel seasoning, pickled popcorn, chicken gyoza pot stickers and pancake bread.

“Raise a Glass of Two-Buck Chuck,” one headline honored, referring to the Charles Shaw wine Trader Joe’s sold for $1.99.

Recalling family trips to French vineyards, Coulombe’s son, also named Joe, said his father was always sampling wines to offer, according to the AP.

“He wanted to make sure whatever was sold in our store was of good value,” he said.

“My sisters and I remember him bringing home all kinds of things for us to try,” Joe Jr. added. “At his offices, he had practically daily tastings of new products. Always the aim was to provide good food and good value to people.”

Coulombe sold Trader Joe’s to German grocery retailer Aldi Nord in 1979. He retired from the company nine years later.

Part of Coulombe’s strategy was producing a store brand of as many products as he could, cutting the cost of production and delivering those savings to customers.

He would also stop selling an item if it wasn’t in season or easily available, meaning the store’s stock was always changing.

Coulombe told the Times he learned from the concept of vintage wines that some products can be finite.

“We deliberately pursued a policy of discontinuity, as opposed to, say, Coca-Cola, which is in infinite supply,” he said in 2014. “For example, we had the only vintage-dated, field-specific canned corn in existence, and it was the best damned canned corn there was. But there was only so much produced every year, and when you’re out, you’re out.”

Some have joked that their Trader Joe’s products do not stay on the shelves long enough.

But Natasha Fischer, who runs the Instagram @traderjoeslist, one of many Trader Joe’s fan accounts, said the fluid inventory gives more products an opportunity to be showcased.

Fischer, 33, shared news Saturday of Coulombe’s death on her page, writing, “This breaks my heart. All I can hope is that we remind ourselves how fortunate we are to get to continue on with the creation of this wonderful man, Joe Coulombe.”

Fischer started 12 years ago with a blog about the store when her roommates would take her food because they didn’t know what to buy, she told The Washington Post. Now she goes twice a week to stock up on the products she showcases. She’s obsessed with the Trader Joe’s kale gnocchi and everything but the elote seasoning blend, which includes all the flavors of elote, Mexican corn-on-the-cob, she said.

Fischer, who lives in Santa Monica, said the stores encompass what California is like.

“You feel it in the casual, chill nature of the employees and the vibe the store gives,” she said.

Employees are encouraged to be positive on the job, and they have reason to be: Coulombe prided himself on paying his employees well. Trader Joe’s compensation plans are among the most generous in the industry, the AP reported. Annual salary increases are about 7 to 10 percent.

“This is the real secret of Trader Joe’s and why nobody has ever copied it,” Coulombe said in a video interview posted online. “It is possible to copy the merchandise or the Hawaiian shirts, but no would-be competitor has ever been willing to lay out the dough.”

Some online remembered how employees thrived there:

Aside from the shirts, Trader Joe’s also used boating words such as “captain” for staffing and relied on maritime bells for in-store communication. Fish nets, oars and other nautical trappings hang from walls.

The store’s design and products attracted younger clientele, who would even advocate for more stores closer to where they lived. Some people voted to change local zoning ordinances to ensure a Trader Joe’s opened in their neighborhood, The Post previously reported.

Looking back at the success of his store, Coulombe joked in 2011 that he was unprepared.

“I was 37 years old when we started Trader Joe’s,” he said. “I’d been in the grocery business 10 years; grocers don’t know anything about what they sell. I was a rum drinker!”

Read more:

Disney just named a new chief executive. He’ll face challenges Bob Iger never imagined.

Freeman Dyson, a visionary and renaissance physicist, dies at 96

The ‘Bagelrito’ is a 930-calorie monstrosity that’s also pretty tasty