Joe Coulombe, the namesake and founder of Trader Joe’s, died at age 89 on Friday, February 28, 2020. His famous name was a family name that he carried on from his father and passed on to both his son and his business.
Coulombe was born in California to Joe Coulombe Sr. He married his wife, Alice Steere, who he met in graduate school at Stanford University. They were married for 67 years. The couple had three children: Joseph Coulombe, Charlotte Coulombe and Madeleine Coulombe.
Coulombe had been in declining health and was receiving hospice care, his son told Pasadena Star News. He died late Friday evening at his Pasadena home. Joseph Coulombe said his father’s legacy was a leading a business that truly cared about its employees.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Joe Coulombe Was Born in 1930 to an Engineer & a Teacher
Joe Coulombe was named after his father, Joseph, who was an engineer. His mother, Carmelita (Hardin), was a teacher, according to the New York Times. Joseph Hardin Coulombe was born on June 3, 1930, in San Diego. The senior Joseph Coulombe worked at Convair, an aircraft manufacturer.
He grew up on an avocado ranch and lived with three generations of his family in Del Mar, California, a beach city in San Diego County, according to Pasadena Star News.
He graduated from San Diego High School in 1947 and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Stanford. He also served a year in the Air Force, according to The New York Times. He went on to earn his master’s degree from Stanford in 1954 and spent his early career with the drugstore store, Rexall, where he launched a chain of convenience stores.
Aside from the fact that Coulombe met his wife while they were both graduate students, he told Los Angeles Magazine in 2011 that his MBA from Stanford University was nearly worthless.
“The degree was new,” he says, “and corporations couldn’t make sense of it.”
2. Alice Coulombe & Joe Coulombe Were Fans of the Opera & Supported the Los Angeles Opera
Alice Coulombe was a board member of the Los Angeles Civic Grand Opera Association and is a lifetime trustee, according to a Los Angeles Times article from 2006. The couple staunchly supported the opera for decades, stretching back to the 1980s. Alice Coulombe recalled the opera’s history and successes in the article.
“We charged $75 for the best seats — it was unheard of then,” she said. “And the place sold out. Even for the tiny roles, they brought the best singers. And the Reagans were in the White House; Mrs. Reagan was honorary chair for our opening-night gala. A lot of people came from around the world for the Olympics and said to us in a relatively snotty tone: ‘Isn’t is amazing that you don’t have an opera company?’”
The husband and wife were lifelong fans of the opera.
“I like sitting there and seeing what’s working together to make that sound,” she told the newspaper. “For me, it’s almost the mechanical part of it: How do they do that?”
Their Pasadena home served as the site for many opera-related functions. Alice Coulombe recalled that the opera was one of the things that brought her husband joy.
“People always ask me what my favorite opera is, and I find that it is whatever is on. I love ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ which is my husband’s favorite opera; that’s what started it. Part of it is just knowing how happy it’s making Joe. But the ability to fill an enormous space with your own sound is irresistible.”
Alice Coulombe is listed as a lifelong trustee of the Los Angeles Opera on its website.
The Trader Joe’s founder’s son told Pasadena Star News his father was deeply involved in philanthropy, also serving on board for the Huntingdon Library and Colburn School.
“He was involved in a lot of philanthropy,” his son said. “He served on the boards at the Huntington Library, the Colburn School and the Los Angeles Opera. He really liked helping out. We’re going to miss his advice and intellectual curiosity.”
3. Joe Coulombe Grew Up on New England Boiled Dinners & ‘Southern Suicide Cuisine’
Although Joe Coulombe would make a name for himself with healthy, affordable food, the meals that dominated his childhood were a bit less healthy. He told Los Angeles Magazine in 2011 that there were two types of cuisine in his family home. His paternal grandmother’s influence was New England boiled dinners, and his mother’s influence was “Southern suicide cuisine,” drawing from her Tennessee roots.
“It was a lot of bacon fat poured on greens,” he said.
His future wife, Alice Steere, and her family would introduce him to gourmet and healthy foods. At her family’s dinner table was the first time he saw Dungeness crab and sourdough bread, steamed artichokes, jug wine and olive oil.
“Think of it,” he said. “I’d never even seen olive oil.”
Coulombe, at age 89, was in declining health before his death and had recently been placed in hospice care, his son told Pasadena Star News. He died late Friday evening at his Pasadena home.
4. Joe Coulombe Met His Wife, Alice Steere, at a Mixer & Her Family Introduced Him to Gourmet Foods
Joe Coulombe met his future wife, Alice Steere, at a mixer when they were both in graduate school. Her father was a Stanford University professor.
“At a mixer he met a girl named Alice Steere, whose father was a Stanford professor, and at the Steeres’ table was served foods he’d never encountered: Dungeness crab and sourdough bread, steamed artichokes, jug wine, olive oil,” Los Angeles Magazine reported in 2011. “’Think of it,’” says Coulombe. “’I’d never even seen olive oil.’”
He graduated from San Diego High School in 1947 and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Stanford. He also served a year in the Air Force, according to The New York Times.
Joe and Alice Coulombe were married in 1952. They had three children, Joseph, Charlotte and Madeleine and have six grandchildren.
5. Joe Columbe & His Wife Alice Coulombe Had 3 Children & 6 Grandchildren
Joe Coulombe met his wife, Alice Steere, when they were both graduate students at Stanford University. They met at a mixer. Joe and Alice Coulombe were married in 1952. They had three children, Joseph, Charlotte and Madeleine and have six grandchildren, according to The New York Times. Joe and Alice were married for 67 years.
“We’re going to miss him a lot,” said Joe, who lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife, Wendy. “I think people are going to remember the wonderful Trader Joe’s concept he put in place, and especially his treatment of his employees. He really cared about them.”
He was not only a good businessman but a creative thinker. Joseph Coulombe described his dad as a Renaissance man who maintained a child-like interest in the world around him, even in his old age. He brought his creativity and whimsy into the Trader Joe’s concept.
“He was always very curious about everything,” he told the news outlet. “He was a prolific reader. He read all kinds of books — fiction and non-fiction — and when he’d get interested in something he would devour that topic. He was able to tap into trends he saw developing and leverage them.”
Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, a New York-based retail consulting firm, told Pasadena Star News it was, in part, Coulombe’s unique strategy that made Trader Joe’s flourish.
“He saw the power of private brands long before others did, and he also presented a very curated store vibe with the Hawaiian shirts,” he said. “You knew when you walked into a Trader Joe’s that it was unique — not like a Ralph’s or something like that.”
Joe Coulombe’s daughter, Charlotte Schoenmann, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her husband, Stuart. His youngest daughter, Madeleine Coulombe, lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband Nigel Simpson. His six grandchildren are Daniel and Julia Coulombe; Genevieve and Gabriel Schoenmann; and Odette and Valerie Simpson.