Long before Trader Joe’s sold a buffet of fancy foreign cheeses, it had Brie. And Trader Joe’s had Brie first.
The story of how the Southern California-based grocery chain cornered the market on gooey French cheese is just one of the tales told in Joe Coulombe’s business memoir, “Becoming Trader Joe: How I did Business My Way and Still Beat the Big Guys.”
Coulombe, who grew up on an avocado farm in Del Mar, died in February 2020 at his Pasadena home at the age of 89. However, with author Patty Civalleri’s help, his words live on.
“Becoming Trader Joe” is a business book, one that tells the origin story of the wacky grocery store filled with wonderful and weird foods like pickle popcorn and Sriracha seafood potstickers along with, you know, normal stuff like bread and milk and other staples. It’s also the history of an iconic American brand, which is based now in Monrovia, that grew into 530 locations and sold untold bottles of Two-Buck Chuck wine.
The precursor to Trader Joe’s was Pronto Market convenience stores, a small chain that doesn’t resemble today’s grocery stores. At Pronto, you could have picked up oil for your car or toilet paper and candy bars.
“They called them variety stores because you could get a variety of stuff,” Civalleri said. “Mostly around-the-house kind of stuff.”
The origin of the book is itself a story: Coulombe had produced the manuscript, but plans for it had long been set aside and he gifted it to his best…