Trader Joe’s Founder Went from Failure to Success

Joe Coulombe went from running a chain of failing supermarkets to a billion-dollar empire as the founder of megastore Trader Joe's.

In the early 1960s, Coulombe began his entrepreneurship career with a chain of convenience stores called Pronto Markets. But he struggled early and decided to pivot, and in 1967, he opened a grocery store catering to higher-end consumers that were well-traveled. Coulombe told the Los Angeles Times in 1981 that his ideal customer had a Fulbright scholarship, had lived in Europe for a few years, and enjoyed the finer things in life. However, the first Trader Joe's looked nothing like a high-end grocery store. There was a nautical theme with marine props, the checkout counter was a small island, and employees (called captains and first mates) wore Polynesian shirts with Bermuda shorts. The merchandise, meanwhile, was nothing special – mostly, it was a convenience store with groceries, magazines, books, records, and an extensive alcohol section.

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Eventually, Trader Joe's found a niche in the growing health food market of the 1970s, and Coulombe fulfilled his dream of catering to a more upper-crust consumer. They began making private label items such as orange juice, granola, vitamins, and cheese. And, in 1979, Coulombe sold the now-lucrative Trader Joe's chain to the Albrecht family, owners of the European branch of Aldi. Coulombe remained Chief Executive Officer until 1988, when he stepped down with 27 California stores and $150 million in sales under his belt. Now, under years of new leadership and rapid expansion, Trader Joe's has more than 530 locations around the United States, employs more than 10,000 people, and made $16.5 billion in revenue in 2020. While Coulombe passed away in February 2020, his legacy will be forever remembered in his posthumously released memoir that hit shelves in June 2022.