Remembering Joe Coulombe, the original Trader Joe

Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
Dan Ochwat profile picture
Joe Coulombe was 89

The founder of Trader Joe’s, Joe Coulombe, died February 28 in Pasadena, Calif. He was 89.

“Joe was the perfect person at the right time for Trader Joe’s,” said Dan Bane, CEO of Trader Joe’s in remembrance of the legend. “He was a brilliant thinker with a mesmerizing personality that simply galvanized all with whom he worked. He was not only our founder, he was our first spokesperson. He starred in captivating radio ads for years, always signing off with his unique, ‘thanks for listening.’ Joe developed a cadre of leaders that carried on his vision and helped shape Trader Joe’s in the early years.” 

Coulombe opened the first Trader Joe’s in 1967 in Pasadena and ushered in it’s now-famous private label program five years later. Coulombe was the architect of the Trader Joe’s experience and culture, imbuing his sense of humor and philanthropy into the operation, according to a company statement. While he stepped away in 1988, the culture carries on.

In 1979, Coulombe sold Trader Joe’s to German retailer Aldi Nord, staying CEO until he left. He consulted after that until officially retiring in 2013.

Trader Joe’s over the years has developed somewhat of a cult following among its shopper base, and without surprise, many shoppers took to social media to pay their respects.

Posts on Twitter were heartfelt such as his mission to help fight against food inequality and often mentioning his quote in a past Los Angeles Times article where he described his mission to provide a store for “the overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists.”

The retailer has finished in the top two in two recent customer satisfaction surveys, one by dunnhumby and another by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, and has grown to operate more than 500 stores in the United States. Three years ago, Trader Joe’s was cited by Bloomberg as making more than $13 billion, despite an e-commerce program to speak of and building up stores with more than 90% private brand products.