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Joe Coulombe, Founder of Beloved Trader Joe’s, Dies at 89

Coulombe started the grocery chain with the idea of serving “overeducated and underpaid people”

Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe smiling and holding a block of cheese in a store.
Joe Coulombe at a Trader Joe’s store in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 1986.
Photo by John Blackmer/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Founder of Trader Joe’s dies at age 89

Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe, who envisioned his stores as “for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists,” has died at the age of 89, his family confirmed to the Associated Press.

Coulombe, a San Diego native and a Stanford graduate, opened the first Trader Joe’s in 1967 in Pasadena, Calif. — the result of a pivot towards customers who had an appetite for high-quality international goods like olive olive and wine for lower price points. “He wanted to make sure whatever was sold in our store was of good value,” Coulombe’s son, also named Joe, told the AP. “Always the aim was to provide good food and good value to people.”

By the time Coulombe retired as chief executive in 1988, after having sold his interest in the company to Germany grocery retailer Aldi Nord in 1979, he had already put into place many of the distinct flourishes that separate Trader Joe’s from its competitors today: a focus on natural and organic goods; a private Trader Joe’s label for products bought directly from wholesalers; maritime themes in stores; a policy of discontinuity, with ever-changing inventory; and an expansive array of affordable wines, including the popular $1.99 Charles Shaw known as “two-buck Chuck.”

Coulombe also prided himself on attracting and retaining talent by paying his workers — who are known for their friendliness, as well as the occasional Aloha-inspired shirt — well and offering full benefits. Trader Joe’s employees are “among retail’s best compensated, with medical, dental, vision and retirement plans and annual salary increases the company says range from 7% to 10%,” the AP reports.

Coulombe is survived by his wife, his son, two daughters, and six grandchildren, as well as the legacy of a beloved chain that now boasts more than 500 stores across the U.S.

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  • Penn State college students held a candlelight vigil for a Taco Bell that closed. [@OnwardState/Twitter]
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