Trader Joe's Wasn't Originally A Grocery Store

Shopping at a Trader Joe's store is like traveling around the world in a dozen or so aisles. From the Caramel Washed Gouda created in the Netherlands to Korean-inspired Kimchi & Tofu Soup, it's easy to get lost in the abundance of flavors and unique items sold at the national grocery store chain.

For over five decades, Trader Joe's has been filling its shelves with fresh and international items while placing emphasis on keeping prices low, according to its website. The stores offer only a few name brand items alongside many products with the Trader Joe's store label. Before finding a place on a Trader Joe's shelf, each product is subjected to a taste test panel to guarantee its quality before it is selected for the store. Additionally, each product is examined to make sure that it fits within the price range of the store, according to Trader Joe's.

In 2021, Trader Joe's operated 530 stores across the country and saw an 8.05% growth in sales to $16.5 billion in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20, per Supermarket News. The store has grown considerably since it was purchased by Theo Albrecht in 1979, who was then the owner of the Aldi grocery store chain in Europe, according to CNN

A convenient start

It may be hard to believe, but Trader Joe's wasn't always a dynamic and forward-thinking grocery store. In 1967 Pasadena, California, Joe Coulombe opened his first Trader Joe's store after being put in charge of a convenience store operated by the pharmacy company, Rexall (per Reader's Digest). When Rexall decided to close the underperforming stores, Coulombe bought one.

Coulombe stuck with the convenience store-style for a short time, but then began to redevelop the business as a health food store blended with a gourmet food and liquor store (via Los Angeles Magazine). 

He filled the store's shelves with items many people weren't familiar with, such as brie cheese and whole coffee beans, per Los Angeles magazine. Coulombe also changed the name to Trader Joe's to reflect the popular Tiki trend of the time while also playing off the popular Tiki-themed restaurant chain, Trader Vic's (per Reader's Digest). Early store employees would wear grass skirts to hand out samples of food that was often unfamiliar to the store's shoppers.

The version of Trader Joe's that today's shopper would find to be most familiar was created in 1977 when Coulombe decided to not carry household basics and cleaning items anymore in order to focus on food items and creating private-label items, according to CNN. After selling his business to the Albrecht family, Coulombe continued on as chief executive before stepping down in 1988.