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Trader Joe's Founder Dies At 89; Shoppers Remember Joe Coulombe As A 'Visionary'

Joe Coulombe at his Pasadena home circa 1985. (Image by Esme via AP) (Esme Gibson/AP)
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The founder and namesake of the quirky, yet beloved Trader Joe's has died.

Joe Coulombe opened his first nautically themed market in Pasadena in 1967. We should note that original store is just a few blocks from our newsroom, which has made it a de facto cafeteria for many of us.

The first Trader Joe's is just a few blocks from the KPCC + LAist newsoom (Chris Pizzello / AP)

That one store ultimately has grown to a chain of more than 500 stores in over 40 states.

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Coulombe's vision was to attract college-educated, yet underpaid young people who wanted to buy healthy foods at a reasonable price.

He stocked it with granola, organic foods and other items bought directly from suppliers to hold prices down.

Coulombe sold the market in 1979 to German retailer Aldi but kept his CEO title until 1988.

Coulombe died late Friday at his Pasadena home after a long illness. He was 89 years old.

His son, also named Joe, told the Associated Press that his father "wanted to make sure whatever was sold in our store was of good value. He always did lots of taste tests."

He also said he and his sisters tried "all kinds of things" that their dad brought home.

"At his offices he had practically daily tastings of new products," he said. "Always the aim was to provide good food and good value to people."

In a news release, Trader Joe's called their founder "an extraordinarily smart and accomplished entrepreneur who built a company that introduced something welcomingly different in the grocery retail space."

"Joe was the perfect person at the right time for Trader Joe's. He was a brilliant thinker with a mesmerizing personality that simply galvanized all with whom he worked," said CEO Dan Bane. "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.'"

At the store's original tropical-themed located on Arroyo Parkway, where as the sign says "it all began", shopper Jason Wells said he comes for the store's signature products. The same kind of imported, low-cost items Coulombe wanted to bring to his store's shelves.

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"I think he was a visionary, ahead of his time for sure," Wells said. "And I think the fact that he had just a very hands-on approach to managing the company gave it a personal touch."

Coulombe is survived by his wife, three children, and six grandchildren.


Julia Paskin and Rebecca Nieto contributed to this report.


1:50 p.m. This article was updated with a quote from a shopper and details about Coulombe's survivors.

This article was originally published at 8:23 a.m.