“Look, here’s a young couple back from their fellowship in Europe. They’ve had a year of good bread, good cheese, good wine. They should be able to enjoy those things here and for not very much money. They can’t do so at the supermarket, with the big brands, but they can here.”
The year was 1982, and Joe Coulombe was explaining to me the philosophy behind his creation, the Trader Joe’s markets. We sat in the South Pasadena store that was the first Trader Joe’s. Shared musical passions had made us buddies back then, and Joe’s wife, Alice, would become a mover in the Los Angeles Opera League. Joe tied his marketing philosophy entirely to his grasp of demographics — all those young couples returning from European fellowships.
“I can give them a good bottle of wine for a buck,” Joe continued, “and a great cheese for two bucks a pound. In France there isn’t all this fuss about pricey, vintage wine. They just pour the stuff and drink it.”
When I arrived in Los Angeles 25 years ago, none of the expected treasure chest of new discoveries was more curious, more rewarding, than the small shack of an emporium up the block from my first rental in West L.A. It bore two names: “Pronto Market” and, just above in bolder, cruder capitals, “Trader Joe’s.” It was a food store of sorts, but those “sorts” demanded explanation. They still do. Think of food store as love object; there were people I met, in those first months in Los Angeles, who made career choices on the basis of Trader Joe’s, people who would accept or reject out-of-town job offers on the basis of whether the new location offered a T.J.’s branch nearby. It wasn’t as though access to T.J.’s offered the well-stocked life in those days; it’s somewhat better now. You couldn’t buy ordinary table salt there, only rough crystals from the Mediterranean; no paper towels or laundry soap; no Crest, but an organic toothpaste with bee propolis that didn’t taste like candy; marvelous fruit compotes from Belgium and an extraordinary range of wines priced in those days at 99 cents. No fresh-meat counter and no fresh produce — those amenities would come later. Somehow, the very selectivity of T.J.’s offerings created a fellowship among us early customers — we knew why we were there.
By the early 1960s,the San Diego–born Joseph Coulombe had bought in and out of a drugstore chain and launched Pronto Markets, a chain of convenience stores (“boozacola,” he called them) throughout Southern California.
“In 1971,” he recalls in a recent chat to relive old memories, “an article in Scientific Americanon the growing consumer market in herbal products and vitamin awareness brought about a conversion comparable to St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus, and I merged the Pronto merchandise into a line of health products, vitamins and more. Meanwhile the 7-Eleven markets had come to town from Dallas with their big bucks, and eventually Pronto got swallowed. I saw that coming, so I had opened the first Trader Joe’s, sort of on top of the Prontos, in 1967. At the same time that was happening, for several reasons, the whole idea of brand-name dominance had begun to disintegrate, so there we were at Trader Joe’s with our own brands and our own pricing and our own marketing philosophy based on our own understanding of the kind of people who come into our stores and the kind of people we hire to serve them.
“The real success of Trader Joe’s,” he continues, by now unstoppable, “is our ability to realize our demographic focus. Our ideal customer is overeducated and underpaid — music critics, for example. Another principle is that we have the highest-paid staff in the retail business. In my time we had almost no turnover. Nobody is just a cashier. Everybody works the whole store, at median income which, with benefits and bonuses, works out to $48,000.”
Coulombe sold his interest in Trader Joe’s in 1989 to a large European corporation, which has maintained the identity of the stores to a remarkable degree. Advances in packaging have made it possible to stock meats and produce that weren’t possible in 1982; there are also paper towels, for whatever reason. The chain has expanded to more than 200 stores in 19 states.
Two years ago, when I made a sentimental journey to Brookline, Massachusetts, I found a Trader Joe’s at Coolidge Corner, two blocks from the temple where I had been bar mitzvahed. The snow was packed in the parking lot; the trolley cars clanged along Beacon Street. Inside there was the sales help in Hawaiian shirts, the burritos and frozen soups in the rough wooden bins, the hand-lettered signs of my own T.J.’s back in West L.A.
“Sure,” Joe says, “Doug Rau manages our Eastern stores from New England to Minnesota. He had some questions about carrying Mexican food in Boston, or the Hawaiian shirts, but I told him not to worry, and I was right.”
Today I ask Joe, now 75, in his wonderfully light-spangled aerie high above Pasadena’s Arroyo, about his frequent use of “I” and “we” as he talks on about recent and current events at the chain of stores that honor his name.
“Don’t worry,” he assures me, “the old bastard is gone, dead, off the rolls. My influence in the stores these days is absolute zero. Even so... I can’t help but notice certain things that go a long way back. The turnover in CEOs that I hired has been next to nil. Dan Bate of the Del Mar–and–Lake store in Pasadena lives two blocks west from me — we just celebrated his 35th anniversary at the stores. We talk all the time, but never about business. I spend a lot of spare time on the boards of companies that don’t have a cutoff age limit: sporting-goods and drugstore chains, mostly, and something called True Religion Jeans. I write a wine column for several papers based around Pasadena. Oh yes, and I paint.”
He points proudly to tidily framed watercolors on the room’s brightly lit walls: vivid splotches, loving portraits and desert landscapes whose sharp outlines and colors Georgia O’Keeffe would not disown.
“A few years ago I found that my sight was becoming weak in one eye due to macular disintegration, so I decided to take up painting, both as a hobby and perhaps a therapy. That’s some of my work, on these walls. Not too bad, would you say?”