Born in San Diego, Coulombe served a stint in the U.S. Air Force, and then earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA from Stanford. He got a job at the Rexall drug store chain, where in 1958 he was tasked to launch “Pronto Markets” in southern California — a chain of small stores to compete with the giant 7-Eleven chain. It didn’t work: Rexall directed Coulombe to shut the stores down and liquidate the properties. But he had another idea: he bought the chain out, and used the stores as a testing ground to learn the trade. Ten years later, he started his own chain, opening his first store in Pasadena, Calif., and named it after himself: Trader Joe’s. That store is still operating today, and it was the one I shopped at when I lived nearby. “Scientific American had a story that of all people qualified to go to college, 60 percent were going,” Joe said in an interview, versus around 2 percent when he was born. “I felt this newly educated — not smarter but better educated — class of people would want something different, and that was the genesis of Trader Joe’s.”
He grew the chain by converting his Pronto Markets, and people enjoyed working for him. Leroy Watson, now 87, was Coulombe’s first employee at Pronto, and his first employee at Trader Joe’s, managing that first store. “Joe was marvelous to work for,” Watson says. “He was an extremely thoughtful person, and he took care of his employees. He made sure they earned good wages and had good benefits and working conditions. I remember I couldn’t wait to get to work each morning.” Guided by his decision to serve what he called his “overeducated and underpaid” customers, Joe learned the knack of finding things they wanted, at sometimes absurdly good prices to serve the “underpaid” part. Still, the chain is wildly profitable: trade magazines reported that Trader Joe’s has the highest sales per square foot of floor space of any grocer in the U.S. — double that of Whole Foods. But Joe tired of doing it all: in 1979 he sold the chain to Theo Albrecht, the co-founder of Europe’s Aldi chain, but stayed on as CEO until 1988. Its newest CEO has worked on expansion: there are now more than 500 Trader Joe’s stores in the U.S. Joe spent his time serving on corporate boards until he retired for good in 2013. Joseph Hardin Coulombe died February 28 at his home in Pasadena. He was 89.