Trader Joe’s Founder Passes Away | Joe Coulombe – A Regular Joe

South Pasadena father and daughter team of Brant and Courtney Dunlap talk about the man they admire for launching the popular grocery chain in 1967. They pay their respects to Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe, who passed away last Friday

PHOTO: ESME GIBSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS | Joe Coulombe, the founder of the Trader Joe's market chain, at his home in Pasadena, Calif. , in the 1980s

Between the two of them they have nearly 40 years of experience with the company, and both will tell you they sorely miss the man who started it all.

Courtney Dunlap, who has worked for Trader Joe’s for 12 years, had what she considers “the great honor” to know store founder Joe Coulombe when she first worked as a crew member at the business’s original outlet on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena during her time there from 2011 to 2016.

Like her father, Brant, an employee with Trader Joe’s for another 25 years, Courtney has nothing but praise and respect for Coulombe, a regular at the flagship store and the force behind the popular grocery chain’s success who died last Friday at age 89.

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With a nautical theme, Trader Joe’s puts its friendly and helpful workers in Hawaiian shirts and refers to them as “crew members,” “captains” and, in Courtney’s case, a “mate,” nowadays or simply one of the managers.

She currently works at the Burbank store while Brant is captain of the ship in the East Pasadena establishment. Both make their home in South Pasadena, where they spend long hours volunteering on South Pasadena’s float entry in the annual Pasadena Rose Parade. Courtney recently concluded her two-year commitment as the president of the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee, and standing in the wings to take over the role was her father, who has assumed the responsibility in February.

PHOTO: Bill Glazier | The South Pasadenan News | (L-R): Brant Dunlap, who worked for trader Joe’s for 25 years, and daughter Courtney, who worked for the company for 12 years

At one time, the pair worked in the South Pasadena Trader Joe’s location, the second oldest behind the Arroyo Parkways store, and once directly across from the former corporate headquarters on Mission Street.    

With all of its lovable quirkiness, it’s difficult not to find something you like after entering Trader Joe’s familiar red doors. For Courtney, it was often Coulombe, whom she will always remember as a regular Joe when she worked in Pasadena.

“I would like to remember him as the humble customer I first met, never boasting about who he was or what kind of a legacy he started,” she recalls. “In the eye of every other customer in our store, he was just like them and that’s how he liked it.”

Yes customer. When Courtney first began working for Trader Joe’s she thought Joe was just another unassuming guy standing in the aisles. Joe became a regular, following his shift as a volunteer at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. “He was extremely humble, and for a long time no one knew who he was until one day my captain at the time had asked me if I knew who I had been talking to,” Courtney said smiling. “I was in a state of amazement when I learned who he was. The next time I saw Joe I joked with him and asked why he didn’t introduce himself, and he said he liked talking to our employees like a regular customer.”

Dunlap was pregnant with both of her children while working at the Arroyo Parkway location, and “as I got closer to my due dates, both times Joe would jokingly tell me, ‘See you next week at the hospital,’ I always hoped Joe would be working when I was at Huntington ready to welcome my children into the world.”

Over the years, Coulombe nurtured the business he launched in 1967, developing a retail favorite that has become a retail giant with more than 500 stores in 40 states today. A smart business practice, he cut out the middleman by buying directly, putting the Trader Joe’s name on everything from trail mix to a bags of nuts and everything in between, stocking shelves with high-quality, moderately priced healthy food choices and a wide assortment of wines, including the store’s signature – Charles Shaw’s Two-Buck Chuck – that is sold in California stores for a mere $1.99, and a bit higher out of state.

“Working for Trader Joe’s has been everything like I have imagined and more,” said Courtney. “I was fortunate to start with the company while I was still in high school, learning first hand customer service from one of the most well known grocery retailers who pride themselves for their customer service. While working for Trader Joe’s I have been able to relocate for college twice, work while being a student-athlete, coach high school softball, start a family, volunteer for my community and gain friendships that will last a lifetime. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to enjoy my career with my dad and my fiancé Bryce Quinn also works for the company. Trader Joe’s really is like an extended family. I’m lucky enough to have my actual family with Trader Joe’s.”

Courtney’s father, Brant, had the pleasure of meeting both Joe and his wife, Alice. “Joe was one of the smartest humans one could ever meet,” he said. “His business sense was unmatched. His knowledge of spirits, particularly wine, was that of a master sommelier. His ability to know what customers wanted was visionary and his passion to share his personal knowledge about food and drink was that of a professor.”

Along with volunteering at the hospital, Joe and Alice poured donations into a variety of Southern California philanthropic efforts, supporting the Los Angeles Opera, Planned Parenthood, and the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens among the causes.

Coulombe wanted nothing to do with loyalty clubs and loss leader gimmicks, instead depending on word of mouth and affordable pricing, quick radio spots and a unique, old style, money saving newsletter – the “Fearless Flyer” newsletter with illustrations, along with catchy phrases that prompt a smile from readers. Trader Joe’s workers are paid better that some grocery chains, boasting a compensation package that includes medical, dental and vision with annual company raises between 7 to 10 percent and retirement incentives that has kept many around for decades.

“Working for Trader Joe’s is simply amazing,” said Brant. “Much of how we do things today are still mirrored from Joe’s vision back in the 1960s and early ‘70s – treating people with respect, listening to what they say, take a couple of chances here and there, Investing in your crew. These are just a few things we have done for over 50 years.”

Brant wants to remember Coulombe as a person who made “volunteering and giving back” important in local communities, which he did his entire life. The Trader Joe’s founder leaves three children, a wife of 67 years, six grandchildren and plenty of memories by those who worked for him.

“Thank you Joe for your positive impact that has affected thousands of crew members and millions of customers,” said Brant, who will forever admire the man, best known, perhaps, as “a regular Joe.”