The History of Trader Joe’s

Yes, Trader Joe is a real person

Wikimedia Commons/ Anthony92931

Trader Joe's introduced supermarket innovations like canvas bags and paper bags with handles.

The history of Trader Joe’s, a popular grocery store chain with 415 locations nationwide, begins with, as you might expect, a man named Trader Joe: Joe Coulombe, to be exact.

In 1958, Coulombe launched a small chain of convenience stores in the Greater Los Angeles area called Pronto Market, but after realizing that competition from a burgeoning chain called 7-Eleven would likely drive it into the ground, he decided to introduce a new concept: The Tiki trend was in full-swing, so in 1967 he opened the first Trader Joe’s, a play on the name of popular Tiki restaurant chain Trader Vic’s.

By 1972, Coulombe knew that the average American was traveling more and developing tastes for foods that were impossible to find at the average supermarket, so along with cedar-planked walls and Hawaiian shirt-wearing employees, he rolled out granola, the first in a line of foods under the Trader Joe’s private label. Coulombe was also a big fan of California wines, and the original Trader Joe’s (which still exists in Pasadena) sold literally every California wine that was available, helping put California wines on the map.

In 1973, a trip to Trader Joe’s would have offered you many items that you won’t find today, like pantyhose, which was sold until 1978. In 1975 they started cutting and wrapping cheese for the first time, and in 1977 they expanded their private label with fun names like Trader Ming’s, Trader Giotto’s, and Pilgrim Joe, and introduced the first reusable canvas grocery bag. By the late 1980s, the chain had expanded into Northern California, in 1993 the first Arizona location opened, 1995 brought expansion into the Pacific Northwest, and in 1996, the first two East Coast locations opened outside Boston.

Between 1990 and 2001, the number of store locations quintupled and revenue shot through the roof as they rolled out on average 10 new items per week. During this time, they also introduced supermarket innovations like putting handles on paper bags. In 2002, they introduced one of their most notorious products: A $1.99 bottle of wine produced by Charles Shaw that was actually decent, and it came to be known as “Two Buck Chuck” (the price in most locations has since gone up to $2.99).

Trader Joe’s found success by anticipating the needs of its customers, in many cases knowing what the customer would want even before they did, and selling it to them at a low price in a fun atmosphere. Coulombe, while still alive, is no longer involved with the company, but his legacy is set in stone. 

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