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Enchanted Aisles

Why do people love Trader Joe’s so much? To understand the quirky chain’s success, you have to look to its founder, Joe Coulombe—and then to a former German mogul named Theo Albrecht. Grab some edamame and pull up a chair

A man named Joe Coulombe purchased a string of six convenience stores named Pronto and reshaped them into a grocery business that would become the city’s most influential food provider. His early experiments at the new Trader Joe’s were fitful: He sold Bible bread for 69 cents and Playboy at 10 percent off; he developed Kodacolor prints and ran weekly specials on can openers. What Coulombe eventually landed on sounds simple today, but no one had thought of it before: He grafted the gourmet store onto the convenience store onto the health food store onto the liquor store (dropping, of course, the Playboy).

He told anyone who would ask him, “I sell food, where other markets sell groceries,” and beneath one fluorescent lighting system he gathered the cuisines of Mexico, Italy, China, Greece, France, and Japan long before most Angelenos had heard of sushi or tasted pad thai. He sold whole bean coffee years before Starbucks debuted in 1971, and he became the country’s largest importer of Dijon mustard and Brie—the latter because cheese was still considered health food in the ’70s.

In short, Coulombe built a lifestyle acculturation machine the likes of which had never been seen. Walking his bright aisles, shoppers have assimilated unfamiliar cuisines, ambitious food ethics, and new farming practices. If you grew up in L.A. in the ’70s, you were initiated at Trader Joe’s into French wine, English cheese, olive oil, and handmade dolmas. If you moved to L.A. in the 1980s or ’90s, you discovered a store already as iconic as palm trees and sunny days, a clientele as scrappy and aspiring or ill fitting as yourself, and a neighborhood larder that was as cheap as it was cosmopolitan. And if you finally settled down over the past decade to start a family, you watched the store become a moral compass around which a better life can be led buying organic strawberries, cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, free-trade coffee, soy-based ice cream, kosher guacamole hummus, and vegan panang curry. The market influences eating habits as it does social routines—why else does every cocktail party open, Stepford Wives style, with the same array of Trader Joe’s hors d’oeuvres?

Born out of L.A.’s optimistic postwar expansion and the food revolution of the ’70s, when pamphleteers like Alice Waters in Berkeley and Michael McCarty in Santa Monica issued their screeds in squid ink on pasta plates, Coulombe’s influence cannot be overstated. He transformed the way we shop and what we eat.

But it was a German busi-nessman named Theo Albrecht who turned Coulombe’s vision into a national phenomenon; over a period of 30 years he assembled the company into the brand it is today. He was one of Europe’s richest men when he died in July 2010 at the age of 88. He prepared for death early, securing 14 adjacent cemetery plots in 1997 at a price of about $112,000. Their landscaping, however, would have to wait until Albrecht’s company tracked down a discount on the rhododendrons and cypress and yew trees that adorn the site. In Europe Albrecht was known for cofounding the German-based grocery business Aldi with his brother, Karl, but upon his death one of the more successful store expansions in Los Angeles history also lost a guiding hand. Following Albrecht’s purchase of Trader Joe’s in 1979, the L.A.-based group of 27 markets earning $500,000 annually grew to a nationwide chain of 362 stores taking in, according to industry estimates, $8 billion a year. Along the way Trader Joe’s made corporate Hawaiian gear acceptable, introduced the ship’s bell as an intercom system, turned a $2 wine that tastes like $4 into a national frenzy, and in 2006 achieved the unthinkable, becoming the first L.A. export to find unconditional love among New Yorkers.

Albrecht was reclusive. Little was heard from him before his death—less now—but we know he enjoyed collecting typewriters and raising orchids. He lived, depending on the report, atop a forested hill overlooking the German town of Essen or on a remote island in the North Sea. He was frugal. To limit expenses he insisted that executives take notes in meetings with pencil stubs; viewing the plans of a proposed store, he once remarked, “The layout is very good, but the paper is too thick—use thinner to save money.” He was also a former soldier in Hitler’s army. Albrecht spent his military service in the Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel. It ended in Tunisia with his capture by American forces, whereupon he was transferred to a POW camp and held until his release after the war. At Trader Joe’s headquarters in Monrovia, news of the German businessman’s passing was managed with the same secrecy under which he’d lived. Though press reports had confirmed his death, executives were not officially notified by Aldi until Albrecht was safely beneath the rhododendrons. But his influential voice still sings from the grave. Trader Joe’s refused to comment on Albrecht; then again, the company remains compulsively mum on everything else about its inner workings.

Albrecht’s furtiveness at Trader Joe’s stems from the devastation of Essen in World War II, Germany’s postwar deprivation, and the political terror witnessed in Europe in the 1970s, when such groups as the Red Army Faction targeted industrialists like Albrecht with kidnapping and assassination, driving some into hiding. This is Albrecht’s half of the company, the self-preserving mystery at the back of the store. Trader Joe’s will not admit that Albrecht or his family ever owned the grocery chain. It will also not concede that Joe Coulombe founded the business. The corporate Web site describes only a fantasy merchant named “Trader Joe” who opened the first store. Employees can be fired if they speak to a journalist about their job, and the corporation refuses to name the providers of the 3,000 or so Trader Joe’s-brand items on its shelves. (The company does not make its own products.) Those providers, in turn, are muzzled by nondisclosure contracts. Trader Joe’s won’t even confirm that there are 3,000 items on its shelves—an eccentric trait at best, once you try envisioning, say, Apple (another steadfastly mum company) refusing to tell consumers how many products it sells. Nevertheless, the place is a warm utopia. Stepping into a Trader Joe’s after visiting a supermarket is akin to crossing the state line from New York into Vermont.

For a meager grocery store, Trader Joe’s has a supernova persona. It’s not Whole Foods, a culinary Neiman Marcus whose prices can leave you feeling mugged. It’s not Fresh & Easy, where Home Depot-style savings have been passed along by replacing workers with DIY checkout scanners. It’s certainly not Ralphs. We prize Trader Joe’s because it has auspiciously pulled off being none of the above. Yes, the parking lots are a misery, the store passageways a crush. Unless you’ve negotiated tight aisles in one of the original stores, you don’t know the meaning of “tortuous serpentine commercial space.” But for those weaned on Trader Joe’s, this is the epitome of the experience: If you can’t smash into someone while reaching for the mochi, it’s not a Trader Joe’s; all that sanctioned rubbing up against strangers produces a frisson of small-town life, the missing element in our metropolis. There’s a plucky in-house newspaper—The Fearless Flyer—offering campy stories of goings-on, and there are kids’ drawing contests, raffles, balloons (balloons!), a kitchen putting out aromatic samples of pie, and snapshots of grinning regulars pinned to the walls. All that’s needed is a knowing geezer warming himself by a blazing potbelly stove in the corner (no doubt he’s currently being product tested). Where supermarket workers suffer from an empty enthusiasm forced on them by management—“Can I help you to your car with that aspirin bottle?”—at Trader Joe’s we get genuine, convivial employees whose relationship with their stores exhibits the kind of intimacy most of us share only with our smartphones. They are nonunion but compensated better than many unionized grocery workers: Part-timers at Trader Joe’s can receive $20 an hour with full benefits, and store managers top out with an annual salary of $130,000, with matching 401Ks—pay that more than makes up for being called “first mate” and “captain” in public.

or centuries food shopping worked this way: People would go to the produce seller or dry goods store, point to what they wanted, and someone behind the counter would retrieve the items. In 1916, a Tennessee-based dry goods chain called Piggly Wiggly did something revolutionary: It let customers touch the merchandise. Piggly Wiggly was the first to offer handbaskets; shoppers were now expected to gather their own grits and hominy. Like other advanced technologies of the era—speeding locomotives on the silver screen that left moviegoers diving for the aisles—Piggly Wiggly confused people. Some felt they were shoplifting. Soon enough, like a Valentino swashbuckler, the craze went nationwide.

But Piggly Wiggly sold only dry goods. You had to find a butcher for meat, a baker for bread, a greengrocer for produce. Larger cities often had one central municipal public market where these sellers congregated. In 1914 in Los Angeles, a 32,000-square-foot public market called the White Arcade, on the corner of Pico and Main, took that municipal model private and became the precursor to supermarkets.

What food stores lacked at the time, however, was parking. Service stations had parking, and superservice stations—gasoline sellers that incorporated businesses around their perimeters—had parking. In 1924, Glendale’s Ye Market Place fused the superservice station with the public market, combining food providers with a large parking lot. This was news: In one day 11,000 cars visited the Ye Market Place just to see what the future looked like.

By 1929, the Ralphs company had pieced together one of the region’s largest chains of grocery stores, some of which—including a palatial structure at 5615 Wilshire Boulevard on the Miracle Mile and a beacon-topped castle at 171 North Lake Street in Pasadena—could fittingly be called supermarkets. They were the first of their kind in the city. Though their baroque exteriors rivaled the majestic cinema fortresses on downtown’s Broadway, their vaulted interiors were plainly functional. An unusual display arrangement—long rows of uninterrupted shelving along which shoppers could move, picking what they wanted—became an industry standard. But it was the immensity of these food halls’ floor plans that stunned customers—as much as 10,000 square feet in size, or a bit larger than an average Trader Joe’s.

What a leap that was. In the history of commerce, nothing like it has been seen before or since: A transaction model common to Mesopotamia was done away with in 14 years. And Los Angeles was the epicenter. In 1926, the western chain Skaggs Cash Stores merged with the L.A.-based Safeway company, forming a group of 750 stores that would open still more supermarkets. Another chain, Young’s Market Company, decided it would branch away from downtown L.A., bringing elegant foods to the “distant” areas of the city—which in the 1920s meant transporting the ingredients for a Waldorf salad to the corner of 7th and Union in Westlake. (Young’s named the new supermarkets Thriftimart.) The Copenhagen transplant Charles Von der Ahe sold off his line of Vons Grocerterias in 1929; a few years later his two sons rebooted Vons into a supermarket company. By 1937, L.A. had a total of 260 supermarkets, more than most states could then claim. Parking lots were standard. Baked goods were standard. More food was available to consumers than ever.

*****

As a boy growing up in San Diego, Joe Coulombe shopped five blocks away at the local Piggly Wiggly. Today Coulombe regularly visits the first Trader Joe’s he opened 44 years ago—on Arroyo Parkway, six blocks from where he lives with his wife, Alice, and his dog, Zoe, on a tilting palisade that overlooks Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco. Their house is a species typical to the foothills of Eagle Rock and Pasadena, built midcentury by an architect fond of Richard Neutra and California light, finessed and funky, split level, with soaring windows and a lot of privacy. You can almost imagine the reclusive Theo Albrecht living here if the right security measures were installed. “Whenever we would visit Theo in Germany,” says Alice, “he would push a button, and metal bars would slide down over the windows.”

In the past year Coulombe, who is 81, has fought off a superbacterium with $10,000 worth of antibiotics and a good acupressurist. He is healthy these days: Wearing a rumpled bomber jacket and walking Zoe along the arroyo, he resembles retired test pilot Chuck Yeager out for a stroll. He paints. His canvases are all over the house, stacked three high on the walls and favoring the kaleidoscopic palette of deep colors David Hockney employed in the ’70s. Coulombe has worked steadily since leaving Trader Joe’s in 1989, serving on a number of corporate boards that include Sport Chalet, Bristol Farms, and Cost Plus. Six years ago he was approached by a man named Jeffrey Lubell, who owned a $3 million jeans company named True Religion. Lovell wanted to expand but didn’t know how. Coulombe assembled a four-person board, raised cash, and True Religion is now a $790 million company with 115 stores.

When Coulombe left San Diego and arrived at Stanford in 1949, he knew two cuisines: His paternal grandmother’s New England boiled dinner and his mother’s take on the diet of Tennessee, where her people were from. “I would call that ‘Southern suicide cuisine,’ ” says Coulombe. “It was a lot of bacon fat poured on greens.” 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. “Think of it,” says Coulombe. “I’d never even seen olive oil.” He earned an MBA at Stanford, which, according to Coulombe, was then a near-worthless piece of parchment. “The degree was new,” he says, “and corporations couldn’t make sense of it.” Palo Alto was a different town. There was no venture capital, no training for entrepreneurs. Coulombe—a risk-taker at heart—tested for a job at General Electric but was told his psychological profile made him a bad fit at the regimented company. It was 1954, and his options, he says, “were none.”

Eventually Coulombe was hired by Owl Rexall and asked to come up with a store that could help stanch the company’s losses. By the 1950s, supermarkets had begun stocking health and beauty aids, killing the profits of drugstores like Rexall. The Stanford grad thought small: Sav-On had combined the drugstore with the supermarket, so Coulombe bred the drugstore with the convenience store and came up with Pronto. Just six Prontos were built in L.A. before Justin Dart, Rexall’s president, went against the unanimous protest from his board and acquired a company called Tupperware. Instantly Tupperware outperformed Rexall, and Coulombe received orders to liquidate Pronto. Instead he left Rexall, buying the Prontos on his way out the door. In the span of several years he built 12 more and, by his early thirties, found himself the owner of a mini fiefdom.

It was around this time, in 1965, that a Texas-based convenience store company named 7-Eleven set its sights on L.A.—and on driving Pronto out of business. Coulombe considered fighting them, but, he says, “I knew eventually they were going to kill me.” 7-Eleven quickly bought out Speedee Mart, a chain of 100 convenience stores, then began converting them to Slurpee dispensaries. Coulombe guessed he had less than a few years to think up a concept that could compete. Luckily, he was an avid magazine reader. In Scientific American he learned that a new class of overeducated, underpaid adults was being produced by the burgeoning college system. Sophisticated shoppers were not necessarily wealthy shoppers, Coulombe theorized; they were educated buyers trapped in economic stasis. He decided to mate the convenience store with the liquor store, and that was Trader Joe’s, “Phase I.” His customers would be the classical musician, the journalist, the teacher, the young doctor. In a different article Coulombe read that the more education a person had, the more they drank, so he stocked 70 bourbons and about 100 scotches. (“I had penciled out what a union journeyman made to figure what I would pay my employees,” he says, “and adding liquor was the easiest way to fund those wages.”) Coulombe read about a jet known as the 747 that promised inexpensive air travel to Europe; Trader Joe’s would need to broaden its tastes to match the new traveler. In another magazine Coulombe discovered that the earth’s biosphere was threatened. Overnight, he says, he became a self-professed “Green” and spliced the health food store and the gourmet store onto Trader Joe’s. This was “Phase II” of Coulombe’s company.

Finally, Coulombe gave Trader Joe’s something most grocery chains didn’t have: a personality. It would have its own take on the world—cultivated but casual, spontaneous, moderately liberal, and smart. When you walked into a Trader Joe’s, you would know the store’s tone and its attitude. The personality that Coulombe conceived remains to this day the company’s voice: The Fearless Flyer.

Coulombe continued to tinker with Trader Joe’s. In 1972, he devised what he calls “Trader Joe’s, Phase III.” At that time the trend in grocery merchandising was bigger. Throughout the ’70s, supermarkets were headed toward becoming the 40,000-square-foot behemoths of today that can carry 50,000 items. Yet such steroidal markets would encounter drawbacks to their muscled dimensions. Eighty percent of supermarket shopping time is spent moving from product to product. Half of all store trips are for five purchases or less, and customers on such trips aren’t searching for sale items—price does not alter the behavior of someone looking for only a handful of things. What did this mean for supermarkets? As their floor plans expanded, their sales volume per square foot shrank. They were forced to invent new schemes to compensate for lost profits, charging fees to manufacturers for store placement and “floating” cash (earning bank interest on the daily take).

So once again Coulombe thought small. Instead of 50,000 shelved items, he would drop his number from 6,000 to 1,000. If supermarkets sold 20 kinds of cat food and 40 detergents, he would sell one of each. In doing so, Coulombe maximized the velocity of dollars entering his registers. Shoppers moving 5 feet between purchases instead of 50 pass through a store more quickly, leaving more cash behind. The average supermarket brings in $10 million to $30 million annually in sales. A Trader Joe’s one-fifth the size of a supermarket can make $1 million in a week’s time. Square foot for square foot, that Trader Joe’s outperforms an average Walmart, which would have to do $30 million in business to match it during the same period.

“I took her down to the rocker arms,” says Coulombe, describing the work he did in the late ’70s. “That’s the Trader Joe’s you know today.”

*****

I have a long history with Trader Joe’s. I practically grew up inside the Eagle Rock store on shopping trips with my family in the 1970s. My sister worked at the Arroyo Parkway store. And three years out of high school, I moved with a girlfriend to an apartment a block from Coulombe’s original. I think we walked there every night for dinner. I recall strolling in the rain in hats we fashioned from newspaper. Melissa was 18 that year; she’s published a cookbook since. “That store introduced me to red wine, French cheese, good mustard, and baguettes,” she said when I rang her up the other day. “I remember closeouts, special finds, small producers, whims, zany employees—the place was like a beatnik girlfriend.”

I went back to the Arroyo store after that call. It was the same: The Brueghel-esque vision of hell that is the jammed parking lot. A building that looks more like a wholesale hardware outlet than a place you can buy brie en croûte and lamb vindaloo. The champignon signage that appears to be “from the desk of Sid and Marty Krofft.” Inside I found the same $3.99 wine we drank 30 years ago, a Hungarian Bull’s Blood. (I uncorked the bottle later that night; it tasted like a beatnik’s hat.) The hand-drawn chalk murals—found at every location and typically featuring scenes of the neighborhood during California’s progressive era—hung above shelving units that were angled right to left.

This “chevron” pattern is used in all Trader Joe’s stores, aisles canting left. (Americans, it turns out, move counterclockwise through grocery stores: Our first bias upon walking through the automatic glass doors is to avoid going left, maybe because we shop as we drive, on the right.) The offbeat floor arrangement complements Trader Joe’s unregimented persona: “Hey, we just threw up some shelves, and there they are.” It’s also a retail trick. Angled passageways reveal a store’s contents in profile to arriving shoppers. Rows squared with the walls (see: any supermarket) inadvertently conceal their contents from customers peering into a corridor’s mouth looking for the toothbrush display. At Trader Joe’s, chevroning opens space necessary for the stores’ midsize liquor and produce sections. A fruit and vegetable section running the length of a store, common at Ralphs, is beyond Trader Joe’s needs; the company refuses to move into the perishable fresh produce format, preferring the shelf time and savings that plastic-wrapped organic broccoli crowns offer.

Because Trader Joe’s designs its own packaging, the company can coordinate its aisles into aesthetically pleasing color fields. Walk into a Ralphs or a Pavilions and examine the shelves. Morton Salt blue clashes with La Victoria green clashes with C&H beige clashes with Prego black. It’s a mess. But Trader Joe’s has a unified palette: The ice creams match, the pizzas blend with the masalas, the soups with the stocks. Not that every Trader Joe’s product carries the company’s logo—a branding tool originally thought up by Coulombe. There’s Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, Balance bars, and all that liquor—20 percent of the stock is estimated to carry another company’s label. But the Sweet Potato Frites, the Brownie Truffle Baking Mix, the Fully Cooked Seasoned Pork Roast with Barbecue Sauce, and the Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s? All are made by businesses that have sealed a relationship with Trader Joe’s. Typically such a pact arrives after one of Trader Joe’s four top buyers—who are said to circle the globe like Predator drones seeking fresh product—lock in on a provider. (Alternately companies pitch Trader Joe’s “category” buyers over the phone.) Often Trader Joe’s chooses regional companies for the price break. The European Style Organic Yogurt found at the Arroyo Parkway store is not cultured by the same dairy that supplies the 14th Street outpost in the East Village—Trader Joe’s would lose money refrigerating and shipping yogurt cross-country. Since those dairies also don’t need to fret over shelling out cash on advertising or supermarket slotting fees, they can offer yogurt to Trader Joe’s at a discount.

While Trader Joe’s has not made the task of ferreting out its providers easy, that hasn’t stopped the industrious folks at Chowhound from trying. Every couple of years the food Web site pulls eight items from Trader Joe’s and compares ingredients, portions, packaging, and taste with a motley lineup of suspects. Their best guesses? Trader Joe’s Soyaki sauce is Soy Vay Veri Veri Sauce that has been relabeled; the Vienna Style Lager is Gordon Biersch in a different bottle; the Organic Tofu Veggie Burgers are Wildwood SprouTofu Veggie Burgers in disguise; and This Strawberry Walks into a Bar breakfast bars are really Full Circle Strawberry & Fruit Cereal Bars slumming as tarts in drag. (The coffee you drink them with is probably roasted at the Mountanos Brothers plant in San Francisco.)

When was the last time you heard someone swear they can’t survive without Wildwood SprouTofu Veggie Burgers? I’ll venture never. Yet fake-meat lovers all over the Web are religious about the Trader Joe’s version. (“God bless,” says one.) Why? Information heretics that we are, tossing out the Dewey Decimal System for the Internet’s chaos, we ironically still crave order and simplicity. You may need five apps just to make one purchase—store app, recipe app, nutrition app, pricing app, where’s the kid app?—but isn’t it sweetly…quaint to have a single veggie burger to choose from, not 20, especially if Trader Joe’s has signed off on the quality? As consumers, we’ve cleaved ourselves in two: None of us would question spending an afternoon on the laptop comparing ten digital cameras on five review sites before making our selection. Yet plunk us down in the mac and cheese aisle of any supermarket—with ten brands on display, including Kraft, Stouffer’s, and Archer Farms—and instantly we rebel against corporate plenitude. In the current historical moment, we’re vintage mossbacks when it comes to our immediate interaction with food. Ideally we want an old-timey, friendly corner store we can identify with—preferably one on the way to our organic farmers’ market—that offers us just one mac and cheese (Joe’s Diner Mac ’n Cheese, to be precise). 

*****

Trader Joe’s headquarters sits in old-timey Monrovia, a block off Myrtle Avenue, where the streetside architecture has not changed much in a century. The corporate offices are a silent presence: a stark, single-story cement bunker with windows shielded in reflective material—very un-Monrovia. Tesco, the owner of Fresh & Easy, may have a huge sign outside its headquarters, and Whole Foods has an actual store attached to the home office in Austin—but Trader Joe’s doesn’t want to be found. Frankly the bunker is a little daunting on approach. I decided I’d call.

The person on the other end of the line at the corporate offices was superfriendly. “Hey,” I said. “I’m writing a story about Trader Joe’s, about its history and Joe Coulombe, and I’d like to talk to you about it.”

“Sure,” the staffer said. “Now, off the record, and this entire conversation will be off the record, OK?”

“OK…” I agreed, not thinking. Speaking off the record is a near-sacred contract in journalism. To invoke the phrase is to ask that a journalist agree not to reveal the information that follows, and certainly not the identity of the source. It’s a shield. It protects the source—a person—from the consequences of his or her speech. As a verbal contract, it is usually broken in only the most extreme circumstances.

But in this case the words that followed the stipulation were so unusual that they seemed to qualify as an extreme circumstance: “Off the record,” I was told, “Trader Joe’s will not cooperate with you on your story.”

That’s it? Actually, that’s really smart. Trader Joe’s is so evasive on the subject of itself that it has figured out a way to shut down journalists and at the same time stop them from reporting the refusal. While even Scientology spokespeople talk on the record, stories in which journalists communicate with Trader Joe’s are almost nonexistent. As the conversation went on, I was told how Trader Joe’s turns down all media requests that involve the company’s ownership.

If Coulombe appeared in my story, the question of who owns the company would come up—and Trader Joe’s wants no part in that discussion. The last report concerning Trader Joe’s ownership has Theo Albrecht placing the company in a family trust. Now that he is dead, to whom the company has passed is a mystery. We don’t know who or what owns Trader Joe’s.

In 1977, when Albrecht first expressed interest in buying Trader Joe’s, Coulombe was relatively young—just 47 years old. “But my friends were already beginning to die of heart attacks,” he says. Coulombe was worried about federal interspousal estate taxes, which at that time were as high as 50 percent. “If I’d died,” he says, “half the worth of Trader Joe’s would have gone to the government instead of Alice.” Still, Coulombe held off from selling his business. What little he knew of Albrecht couldn’t illustrate a Fearless Flyer item.

Albrecht had wanted to be an architect as a young man. But when he returned home from North Africa following the war, he discovered that the destruction in Essen was almost total. Essen had been home to weapons producers for the Third Reich, and it was the target of a long and intense Allied bombing campaign. As a prelude to Dresden, Essen was firebombed on the evening of March 5, 1943, when 442 aircraft attacked the city, leaving some 50,000 people homeless. Albrecht gave up his dreams of becoming an architect, choosing to stay on with his mother and her struggling corner shop. Eventually he was joined by his brother, Karl. In 1961, the brothers named their newly expanding grocery company Albrecht Discount, Aldi for short. Theo kept a low profile. In fact, the most public thing he ever did was to disappear against his will.

In November 1971, Albrecht was kidnapped at gunpoint. Initially the German police were confused. It was not Baader-Meinhof or Black September that had orchestrated the abduction. Instead it was Heinz-Joachim Ollenburg, a down-on-his-luck lawyer with gambling debts, and his accomplice, a bumbling thief nicknamed “Diamond” Paul Kron. The kidnappers, too, were at first confused: They didn’t believe the man in their possession wearing an inexpensive suit was Albrecht and demanded some form of identification. Albrecht was held captive for 17 days, during which time he reportedly negotiated down his own ransom of 7 million deutsche marks. Later he wrote off the sum as a business expense on his taxes.

By the time of his death last year, Albrecht and his brother had built Aldi into an umbrella corporation that included more than 9,400 stores in 20 countries. Trader Joe’s was not the brothers’ only foray into the American marketplace—there are Aldis across the eastern half of the United States. To navigate German laws of corporate transparency aimed at large organizations, the Albrechts broke Aldi into 66 smaller units. Theo ran Aldi North, and Karl managed Aldi South. “The brothers lived under intense security,” says Coulombe. “They never drove in the same car.” In 1979, Coulombe finally agreed to sell Trader Joe’s to Albrecht for an undisclosed sum. He stayed on, running the company’s operations until 1989, when, he says, “Herr Albrecht and I got into an argument over hiring my successor, and that became the turning point.” Coulombe left his company for good, and his contribution was eventually erased from Trader Joe’s corporate history.

After he’d been released by his kidnappers, Albrecht spoke briefly with reporters. “I am, of course, very, very tired,” he said. “It was a very exhausting business.” That was the last public statement he ever made. 

*****

Only Walmart comes close to approaching Aldi in size if not global reach, and the efficiency, popularity, and profits of Trader Joe’s have not gone unnoticed by the Walton family. You can’t dash in for a good bottle of chardonnay and a package of fresh chicken enchiladas at Walmart. Aisles stretch the length of a football field, and on entering, one panics like a jungle primate discovering the Serengeti; a sharp longing for the crowded warrens and easy pickings of Trader Joe’s can seize the mind.

In 2009, Walmart tried to duplicate the Trader Joe’s experience. Its homespun prototype was named Marketside by Walmart. Four stores opened in the Phoenix area, each averaging 16,000 square feet—large for a Trader Joe’s but postage-stamp size for Walmart. Marketside turned out to be a failure. Stores reportedly took in less than $70,000 a week, a fraction of what a single Trader Joe’s can earn, and last year Walmart ended its small-scale experiment, shutting down the Arizona quartet.

Fresh & Easy has enjoyed better luck chasing Trader Joe’s. The British-owned company runs 168 stores (more are slated), but Fresh & Easy has encountered setbacks, too. In the past year 13 stores have been closed for underperforming and, making matters embarrassing, Human Rights Watch has issued a 104-page report detailing violations of workers’ rights at Fresh & Easy and at its parent company, Tesco. Aggressive campaigns to avoid complying with U.S. labor laws were cited.

As market wars have ensued across the last decade, Alice Walton, the 61-year-old daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars collecting pieces of American art for Crystal Bridges, a museum she’s building to house them outside Bentonville, Arkansas. What Walton is doing at Crystal Bridges is akin to what Coulombe pioneered at his company. When she decided she wanted a Norman Rockwell for her collection, she secured the artist’s paean to women workers, Rosie the Riveter. In a similar manner, when Trader Joe’s decided it wanted an asparagus and spinach tortellini to add to its inventory, the company’s buyers searched the world for the best representation, then added it to their collection.

Coulombe’s singular gift to consumers is to evaluate groceries as a museum director would art. More than anything else, this distinction sets Trader Joe’s apart. No, the beef, the fish, and even the vegetables are not the best. But the lamb vindaloo, the beef Stroganoff, the chicken taquitos? With each item Trader Joe’s has sought out the finest—just as Walton has done in stocking her Arkansas museum. There is only one Rosie the Riveter. There is only one Trader Joe’s Raviolone in Brodo. And that has made all the difference in the world.            

Writer-at-large Dave Gardetta wrote about the Bodhi Tree bookstore in the July 2011 issue.

Photographs by Duncan Stewart
Illustration by Tomasz Walenta