Is There A Real Trader Joe?

Trader Joe's shoppers identify strongly with the store brand that sprang onto the California grocery scene with a single store in 1967. With arguably one of the most devoted customer bases in the nation, it's surprising that the question still crops up: Is there a real Trader Joe? We'd all like to think so. After all, a groovy guy in a Hawaiian shirt peddling quirkily named healthy foods at affordable prices is someone you'd like to hang out with, right?

Perhaps part of the intrigue is imagining the kind of person who'd create a thriving chain of counter-culture grocery stores while staying mostly behind the scenes. Who doesn't love stories like Sam Walton hauling his dogs around Arkansas in an old pickup truck after he was worth millions, then billions, of dollars, per The Walmart Museum? Though nowhere near as famous as Walton and carrying a low profile for decades, there was indeed a Trader Joe. Here's a look at the man behind the Hawaiian shirts, nautical themes, and reverberating customer-service gongs.

A man called Joe

A man named Joe Coulombe from Pasadena, California, had an idea: He wanted to introduce American eaters to healthy, affordable international foods in adventurous ways. And that's just what he did. After snapping up six convenience stores, the budding entrepreneur offered specialty foods from Italy, Greece, France, and Japan long before they were commonplace in American supermarkets while selling whole-bean coffee, explains Los Angeles Magazine.

A Wall Street Journal review of Coulombe's book (which was written with Patty Civalleri), "Becoming Trader Joe," described him as a man who targeted overeducated, underpaid shoppers wanting interesting, high-quality foods. Options included pricey items such as pure maple syrup, Bordeaux wine, and Brie cheese, of which he became America's largest importer. The company now has 530 Trader Joe's locations, garnering $16.5 billion in sales per a 2020-21 report from Supermarket News.

According to the Pasadena Star-News, Coulombe grew up on an avocado farm, served in the U.S. Air Force, and graduated from Stanford University with economics and business administration degrees. When Coulombe passed away in 2020 at the age of 89, his son, also named Joe, told the publication that his father was a Renaissance man, philanthropist, food and wine commentator, and painter who embraced the world with child-like interest.

In the end, Trader Joe did not only accomplish what he set out to do, but even more. Los Angeles Magazine sums up his singular gift to consumers as his ability to evaluate groceries as a museum director would art.