Joe Coulombe, the founder of the supermarket chain Trader Joe's, has reportedly passed away. Coulombe died as a result of a long illness, according to a report by The Associated Press. He was 89 years old.
Coulombe passed away in his home in Pasadena, California, his son Joseph told reporters. It is not clear what illness or illnesses he was suffering from. He is survived by three children and six grandchildren in total, as well as his wife, Alice, whom he was married to for 67 years.
Coulombe was a lifelong California resident, and held two college degrees from Stanford University. He spent most of his career in the supermarket industry.
However, Trader Joe's was not Coulombe's first franchise. He began by working for a company called Rexall in 1958, where he was asked to oversee the launch of a new chain of convenience stores called Pronto Markets. Pronto had 18 locations at its peak, by by 1967, the stores were unable to compete with the corporate structure of 7/11, which was moving into the area.
Coulombe's bosses reportedly asked him to close down Pronto Markets, but instead he decided to buy them out and strike out on his own. He began implementing his own ideas from years of observing the grocery market from all angles.
Looking for a way to re-brand, Coulombe noted some important trends for under-served consumers. He reportedly took note of a demographic that was highly-educated yet under-employed, with an interest in international foods and healthy eating. He infused these ideas into his Pronto Markets — along with the first hints of a tropical theme — and they became the first Trader Joe's.
"Trader Joe's is for over-educated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists," Coulombe told The Los Angeles Times in 2011.
Coulombe also noted that more educated people tended to drink more alcohol, according to a report by The New York Times. He did a lot of research on the store's signature "Two Buck Chuck" wines — sourced from vineyards right in California's Napa Valley yet made to taste comparable to French versions.
Joseph said that his dad "did lots of taste tests … always the aim was to provide good food and good value to people."
Coulombe did his best to reduce the costs of these high-quality goods by buying them wholesale and putting his own labels on them. The practice continues to this day, with more than 500 Trader Joe's stores across 40 different states.
Coulombe sold Trader Joe's to the German supermarket company Aldi in 1979, but he remained on as CEO for nearly another decade, finally retiring in 1988.