Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe dies at 89

Joe Coulombe, who founded the Trader Joe’s grocery chain, died late Friday night in Pasadena, California, his son said. He was 89.

Coulombe had been in declining health and had been in hospice care, the Orange County Register reported. His death was confirmed by his son, Joseph Coulombe, The New York Times reported.

In 1967, Coulombe founded Trader Joe’s, a grocery chain that became known for its unusual foods, a large wine selection and a casual, laid-back atmosphere that included employees sporting Hawaiian shirts, the newspaper reported.

"We're going to miss him a lot," Joseph Coulombe, who lives in Seattle, told the Register. "I think people are going to remember the wonderful Trader Joe's concept he put in place, and especially his treatment of his employees. He really cared about them."

Joe Coulombe entered the retail business in 1958 when he was hired by Rexall Drugs to develop a chain of convenience stores modeled after 7-Eleven, the newspaper reported.

Backed by Rexall, Coulombe opened and operated six Pronto Markets in the Los Angeles area. When Rexall decided to close the stores down, Coulombe bought them, the Register reported.

Coulombe opened the first Trader Joe's in Pasadena, giving it a South Seas decor and including exotic cheeses and foods, the Times reported.

“I had no choice,” Coulombe told Supermarket News in 2002. “I had to do something different.”

Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, a New York-based retail consulting firm, told the Register that Coulombe's strategy worked.

“He saw the power of private brands long before others did, and he also presented a very curated store vibe with the Hawaiian shirts,” Phibbs said. “You knew when you walked into a Trader Joe’s that it was unique — not like a Ralph’s or something like that.”

Coulombe retired in 1988, seven years after selling his interest in the chain to the German discount grocery retailer Aldi Nord. By that time there were 27 Trader Joe's stores in Southern California, the Register reported.

His successor, John V. Shields Jr., took the company national. According to the company's website, there are now more than 500 Trader Joe's stores in 42 states and the District of Columbia the Times reported.

Joseph Hardin Coulombe was born June 3, 1930, in San Diego and grew up on an avocado ranch in Del Mar, the Register reported.

He served a year in the Air Force and then attended Stanford University, where he earned a degree in economics and then a master’s in business administration in 1954, the newspaper reported.

In addition to his son, Coulombe is survived by his wife, Alice Steere Coulombe, whom he met when both were students at Stanford; two daughters, Charlotte Schoenmann and Madeleine Coulombe; and six grandchildren.

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