Trader Joe Wrote a Memoir
By Carrie BattanOctober 20, 2021
In the sixties, a thirty-two-year-old entrepreneur named Joe Coulombe presided over a midsize chain of California convenience stores called Pronto Markets. The company, which lived in the shadows of 7-Eleven, was nearly bankrupt. One afternoon, a desperate egg supplier paid Coulombe a visit. He had a major problem: he had far too many extra-large eggs. In order to off-load them promptly, he offered them to Coulombe at the same price as the plain old large eggs. This meant that Pronto Markets could sell extra-large eggs—which were twelve per cent per dozen larger than the large eggs, a meaningful difference to customers—at a discounted price, undercutting other chains.
The success of the discounted extra-large eggs helped buoy Coulombe’s stores, and eventually allowed him to embark on his path to grocery-business notoriety. A few years later, he used the financial resources and customer insights that he’d acquired through Pronto Markets to start Trader Joe’s, a grocery store known for its seemingly irreconcilable characteristics: high-quality, health-minded foods self-branded and sold at bargain prices. Coulombe would build an empire rooted in small-scale cleverness and common sense, exploiting loopholes and product discontinuations, zigging where others zagged, and turning the rest of the grocery business’s trash into treasure for Trader Joe’s.
Coulombe, who died last February, at the age of eighty-nine, was one of the very few business leaders who could make minor discounts on the price of eggs feel monumental on the page. He tells plenty of these kinds of fun-fact-laden business tales in “Becoming Trader Joe: How I Did Business My Way and Still Beat the Big Guys,” an unusually colorful and sensible business guide that refuses to glamorize entrepreneurship. Coulombe insists that success in business hinges not on the mind of a visionary leader or anticipating a technological disruption but on more mundane and hard-earned factors: ruthless product knowledge, respect for employees, plenty of good luck, and a deep understanding of complex legislation. (“We had found a loophole in the law, and by God we drove a truck through it!” Coulombe writes.)
“I’m going to disillusion those dear souls—there seem to be a lot of them out there—who think that Trader Joe’s sprang, fully developed, from my brain, like Athena from the head of Zeus,” Coulombe declares, early on. For anyone who has visited a Trader Joe’s and experienced its dazzling array of foods, its bargain-basement prices, and its cheerful and hyper-competent staff, and wondered, What’s the catch?, “Becoming Trader Joe” provides many of the answers, most of which are satisfying and delightful. The book is a sort of “Kitchen Confidential” for the grocery business, but without the drugs or rage. In the age of Jeff Bezos and an endless stream of news about worker exploitation and corporate imperialism, it’s nice to go behind the scenes of a beloved national chain without uncovering insidious forces at work.
“Becoming Trader Joe” is light on biographical narrative; Coulombe does not seem to be the sort of businessman who believes in self-mythologizing. In fact, he was in no hurry to publish a memoir. Coulombe reluctantly sold Trader Joe’s to the German grocery giant Aldi, in 1979, and remained C.E.O. for another decade. He wrote “Becoming Trader Joe” in the two-thousands. Years later, the travel writer Patty Civalleri got her hands on the manuscript and helped move it through the process of publication.
What we do learn about Coulombe from “Becoming Trader Joe” is that he was born and raised in Southern California and earned two degrees—one in economics and another in business administration—from Stanford. There, he met his wife, Alice, with whom he had three children. He entered the grocery business in his twenties, and admits that he later “experienced the world mostly through Trader Joe’s.” But we gain plenty of insight into Coulombe through how he describes the trajectory of his company. He comes off as obsessive and well-read, citing obscure quotations from economists, François Rabelais, Scientific American articles from the seventies, Goethe, Jean Renoir, and more. He disliked traditional forms of advertising, instead choosing to publish an offbeat and educational periodical called Fearless Flyer to help sell consumers on Trader Joe’s. Perhaps most crucially, he harbored an outsized disdain for the standard business practices of corporate America, condemning things such as a “Byzantine management atmosphere,” venture capitalism (what he calls “vultures”), investment banking, corporate consultants, and money borrowing. In the current climate of rampant venture capital, the ruthless pursuit of unicorns, and private-equity takeovers, Coulombe’s rudimentary, instinct-driven business philosophies can feel like revelations: “Growth for the sake of growth still troubles me,” he writes. “It seems unnatural, even perverted.”
As for the growth of Trader Joe’s, the chain advanced gradually and methodically during Coulombe’s tenure, a testament to his dogged product research and open-minded, adventurous approach to buying and selling food. One of the company’s historical successes, for example, was almond butter. Coulombe claims that for years they were one of the only retailers selling the product. Parts of “Becoming Trader Joe” are too relentlessly focussed on intricate economic principles to be interesting to anyone outside of business school, but even these sections offer up entertaining details about Coulombe’s decision-making. In the nineteen-seventies, he made a deliberate effort to employ women full time in Trader Joe’s stores. Because he wanted all employees to share types of duties equally—which meant that women would participate in the physically laborious tasks of unloading shipments and stocking shelves—he had to change his approach to inventory: “We made an effort to get rid of any single case that weighed more than forty pounds,” he writes. That’s why, at the time, Trader Joe’s opted not to stock sugar.
In the mid-sixties, Coulombe picked up on two distinct but related news items. One was that an increasing percentage of Americans were going to college—a delayed-onset effect of the G.I. Bill of Rights of 1944, which resulted in a far better-educated American populace. The second was that the development of the Boeing 747, which would be launched in 1970, would facilitate much higher levels of international travel. He foresaw that these developments would create large swaths of educated, middle-class consumers who were curious and well-travelled, which would translate to more refined tastes in groceries. “In Pronto Markets we had noticed that people who traveled—even to San Francisco—were far more adventurous in what they were willing to put in their stomachs. Travel is, after all, a form of education,” he writes. “Dimly, I saw an opportunity to differentiate ourselves radically from mainstream retailing to mainstream people. . . . You might think of Trader Joe’s as one of the more esoteric cable channels; the supermarkets as NBC-CBS-ABC.”
Thinking about the hallmarks of the Trader Joe’s brand, it’s easy to imagine Coulombe as a progressive idealist, obsessed with the idea that his business was helping to make the world a better place. This was not the case; as the leader of a profit-driven company, he did not try to sell his colleagues or readers on the illusion that he was first and foremost a do-gooder. He didn’t even seem to have much of a kinship with the hippies, hipsters, intellectuals, and health-food junkies he catered to. But he did discover, along the way, that doing good often benefitted his bottom line. He was prone to “doing the right things for all the wrong reasons,” or engaging in acts of “selfish altruism,” he writes. Chief among these “right things” was a respect for his workers. “This is the most important single business decision I ever made: to pay people well,” he writes. He reasoned that employee turnover was the biggest cost to his business, and by paying his workers high wages and offering them excellent benefits he would ultimately reduce his costs.
It is difficult to say how Coulombe would have navigated the current moment, in which there is so much highly publicized rancor between corporate overlords and their employees, and so much competition from tech giants with far more resources than a small business. Once he left Trader Joe’s, Coulombe spent a couple decades serving on corporate boards and helping clean up companies in distress. Many of these efforts were successful, and all of them yielded more business teachings for his memoir. He left the experiences with a piece of incontrovertible wisdom, one that is not self-aggrandizing or overly pious but stark in its simplicity and directness: “A deeply troubled company is always the fault of the CEO, the board of directors, and the controlling stockholders who appoint these worthies,” he writes. “It is never the fault of the frontline troops.”
Carrie Battan began contributing to The New Yorker in 2015 and became a staff writer in 2018.