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Trader Joe’s founder dies at 89

Joe Coulombe, who founded Trader Joe’s, the popular grocery known for its kitschy vibe and beloved private label wine dubbed “Two Buck Chuck,” died late Friday at his  Pasadena, California home. He was 89.

Coulombe’s son, also named Joe, said in a statement his father died following a long illness.

Born on June 3, 1930, Coulombe was raised on an avocado ranch in Del Mar, California, near San Diego. He served a year in the Air Force and got a bachelor’s degree in economics, followed by an MBA from Stanford University in 1954.

Coulombe met his wife, Alice Steere, at a party while in college. They married in 1952, when they were both in graduate school, and went on to have three children.

First convenience, then groceries

In 1958, Coulombe went to work for Rexall Drugs, where he was tasked with creating a group of convenience stores similar to 7-Eleven. He worked without pay in a grocery store to better understand the business.

The new chain was called Pronto Markets, and when Rexall eventually decided to shut it down, Coulombe bought the locations and ran the stores himself.

But in 1967, 7-Eleven  was opening more locations in California. Rather than taking them on, Coulombe decided to launch a new, vastly different chain. He started Trader Joe’s with a store in Pasadena, California.

Trader Joe’s carved out a unique persona

The grocery chain was quirky from the beginning. Coulombe based the store’s nautical décor on a book he’d read called “White Shadows in the South Seas,’’ as well as his experience visiting the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, according to the company’s website. Employees were dubbed captains and first mates who wore Hawaiian-themed shirts.  

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