THE STORY BEHIND A SUCCESS

Trader Joe’s grew from a Los Angeles local convenience store into a nationwide chain that rocked the gourmet food trade. A recent feature story in The San Diego Union-Tribune (“No Ordinary Joe”) tells some of its merchandising secrets that the big grocery chains and big-box stores cannot compete.

Why should this be of interest to San Diego readers? The story missed an important link to San Diego. Trader Joe Coulombe was born and grew up here.

I am very familiar with the story behind the founding of Trader Joe’s as I knew Joe for a number of years because of our mutual interest and support of opera. His wife was a founder of Los Angeles Opera (1986), and I was a founder of San Diego Opera (1965).

My early acquaintance with Joe and his store always meant a stop in Santa Ana on our way to L.A. That was the closet outlet. In those days the principal product was wine, one of Joe’s personal indulgences. His annual trips to Europe to make deals with the premier vineyards gave his customers some great buys. Just mention his name in Napa Valley for a red-carpet invitation for tasting at some of the exclusive vintners.

Filling his Trader Joe’s stores with crates of premium wine at bargain prices was a timing success in the 1960’s. The boomer generation became wine drinkers for all occasions, not just on a special day.

What were the reasons Trader Joe’s did better than other convenience grocery stores according to the U-T?  Team work. Each store is staffed with a captain and eight or twelve mates. The rest are crew. Salaries and employee benefits are generous, thus good service.

Ever wonder why the checkers ring the ship’s bell? There is no PA system in Trader Joe’s. One bell calls for a new cashier; two bells is for a customer question; three bells is for a mate.

After graduating from Stanford University with an MBA in 1954, Joe worked for Rexall Drug in the L.A. area managing a start-up convenience store chain called Pronto Markets to compete with 7-11 Stores. When Rexall decided to close the stores, Joe bought them and began his conversion in 1967 to a gourmet food and wine specialty store with a new name, Trader Joe’s.

As his stores expanded, a new look emerged as the popular tiki image of the day with Hawaiian shirts and the name “Trader”. It was somewhat a clone of famous Trader Vic’s restaurants. One popular concept with customers was the sturdy paper bags with handles.

Joe and his wife Alice liked to come to San Diego for the Sunday matinee opera performance. We made it a special occasion by picking them up at the airport in my 1933 Packard phaeton. With a picnic basket chock full of Trader Joe’s best gourmet snacks and wine, we had lunch on Shelter Island. I dropped them at the Civic Theatre creating quite a stir pulling up in the big classic car (Joe loved it!). After the opera, we met with several of the Coulombe’s San Diego friends for a big spread at the popular Zolessi Restaurant in Little Italy and more wine.

Joe sold his company to German-family grocery firm in 1979 that fortunately continued the unique management style created by the founder. Today there are 474 Trader Joe’s across America still selling premium wines at good prices, and a Trader Joe’s-brand wine called Charles Shaw. Customers coined it “Two-buck Chuck” when it first came out at $2.00 a bottle.

Success stories that start from ground zero are always a good tale. They should keep inspiring the American spirit to be creative and take business risks.