Trader Joe's Once Had A Swashbuckling Canadian Rival

Oscar Wilde said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Robert Frost took the road less traveled, and that made all the difference. There's something to be said for each of those seemingly opposing philosophies, and the story of Trader Joe's Canadian doppelganger takes twists and turns, incorporating elements of both.

According to The Guardian, Mike Hallatt, a Canadian entrepreneur with a colorful background, launched Pirate Joe's in 2012 with the sole purpose of making some of the original Trader Joe's most sought-after products readily accessible in Canada where the quirky grocery chain didn't have a presence. It was a brilliant, legal, and surprisingly simple operation. Hallatt regularly made the three-hour cross-border trek from his residence in Canada to a Trader Joe's in Seattle where he shopped in bulk for items he'd resell from a storefront in Vancouver (via The New York Times).

Then Trader Joe's caught on to the caper. Hallatt was about a year into his venture when he received notification that Trader Joe's had filed a lawsuit against him alleging trademark infringement, unfair competition, false designation of origin, and false advertising. The lawsuit didn't deter Hallatt from his mission, but it did hang like a sword over his head for years. As the lawsuit made its way through the judicial system, Trader Joe's banned Hallatt from its stores, forcing him to shop incognito, rely on disguises, and even hire day workers via Craigslist to shop for him.

The long and winding road

A U.S. federal district court shot down Trader Joe's complaint in 2013 (via The New York Times), citing jurisdiction issues (Hallatt's Pirate Joe's operated in Canada, but the lawsuit was filed in the United States) and ruling that Trader Joe's hadn't conclusively demonstrated that Hallatt's venture had negatively impacted its business. A federal appeals court subsequently returned the lawsuit to a lower court for a jury trial. In the meantime, Hallatt unapologetically stayed the course, occasionally egging Trader Joe's on by touting his operation as "Unaffiliated. Unauthorized. Unafraid."

A risk-taker by nature, Hallatt dropped out of university to open a bagel shop. The venture succeeded and he opened a second location. When that ran its course, he moved to Silicon Valley and pursued a successful career in the tech industry (via Vancouver Sun). The concept of Pirate Joe's dawned on him while he was shopping at Trader Joe's in Bellingham, Washington, and noticed he was surrounded by Canadians stocking up on favorite products, like Mandarin Orange Chicken.

Per The New York Times, Hallatt had every intention of facing off against Trader Joe's in court, but as legal costs mounted, he had to rethink his strategy, eventually reaching a settlement with the California-based grocer. As he was preparing to close up shop for good in 2017, Hallat was pragmatic about his experience telling The Guardian, "It was a great run. So I think if they were ever to open in another country, Canada might be first on the list. We'll see."