Trader Joe's is named after its founder, Joe Coulombe. The company began in 1958 as a Greater Los Angeles area chain known as Pronto Market convenience stores. Coulombe felt the original Pronto Markets were too similar to 7-Eleven and the competition would be too much.
Coulombe developed the idea of the Trader Joe's South Seas motif while on vacation in the Caribbean. The Tiki culture fad was fresh in the cultural memory and he had noticed that Americans were traveling more and were acquiring tastes they had trouble satisfying in American supermarkets at the time.
The first store branded as "Trader Joe's" opened in 1967 in Pasadena, California; it remains in operation as of 2020. In the first few decades, some of the stores offered fresh meats provided by butchers who leased space in the stores, along with sandwiches and freshly cut cheese, all in-store.
In 1979, Germany's Theo Albrecht (owner and CEO of Aldi Nord) bought the company as a personal investment for his family. Coulombe was succeeded as CEO by John Shields in 1987. Under his leadership the company expanded into Arizona in 1993 and into the Pacific Northwest two years later. In 1996, the company opened its first stores on the East Coast in Brookline and Cambridge, both just outside Boston. In 2001, Shields retired from his position and Dan Bane succeeded him as CEO.
In 2004, BusinessWeek reported that Trader Joe's quintupled its number of stores between 1990 and 2001, and increased its profits tenfold.
In February 2008, BusinessWeek reported that the company had the highest sales per square foot of any grocer in the United States. Two-and-a-half years later and in 2016, Fortune magazine estimated sales to be $1,750 in merchandise per square foot—more than double the sales generated by Whole Foods.
Joe Coulombe, the namesake of the brand, died in 2020.