Joe Coulombe: Trader Joe’s grocery chain founder dies at 89

Joe Coulomber, Trader Joe's founder
Joe Coulombe, Trader Joe’s founder dies at 89. Pic credit: Keith Shelley/YouTube

Joe Coulombe, the founder of the grocery chain Trader Joe’s, died Friday at his home in Pasadena, California, at the age of 89, according to his son, Joe Coulombe Jr.

No cause of death was revealed, but Coulombe’s health had been declining for some time before he died and he had been in hospice care, according to The Orange County Register.

Joe Coulombe Jr. told the Register:

“We’re going to miss him a lot. 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.”

Who was Joe Coulombe?

Joe Coulombe was born in San Diego, California, on June 3, 1930. He grew up on a ranch in Del Mar.

He served in the U.S. Air Force and attended Stanford University. He graduated from Stanford with a degree in economics in 1952. He also obtained a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1954.

He met his wife Alice Steere at Stanford and they married in 1952.

Rexall Drugs hired Coulombe in 1958 to establish a chain of convenience stores inspired by 7-Eleven.

He opened and managed six Pronto Markets in the Los Angeles area. When Rexall decided to shut down all six stores he bought them out.

Pronto Markets soon came into direct competition in California with  7-Eleven and Joe realized that he had to innovate to survive.

He soon identified his target middle-class market consisting of poorly paid but highly educated people with sophisticated tastes. He offered a competitively priced mix consisting of high-quality exotic products.

Coulombe opened first Trader Joe’s in 1967

Coulombe opened his first Trader Joe’s location on Arroyo Boulevard in Pasadena in 1967.

The grocery chain expanded quickly in California and became known for stocking a wide selection of high-quality exotic foods and wine, and for its uniquely casual shopping environment. The store had exotic decor and the employees wore Hawaiian shirts.

He told Supermarket News in 2002 that he realized from the start that he had to do something different to gain attention and patronage.

By the time he was retiring as CEO in 1988, Trader Joe’s had 19 locations in Southern California. In 1979, he sold his interest in the chain to the German grocery retailer ALDI Nord.

There are currently more than 500 Trader Joe’s stores in 42 states and D.C.

Coulombe is survived by his wife Alice Steere, his son Joseph, and daughters Charlotte and Madeleine. He also had six grandchildren.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments