In 1994, Naree Viner was a new intern at the Getty Museum. Her family was back in Indiana, so her colleague Madeleine invited Naree to her parents’ home in Pasadena for Thanksgiving.
“You’re going to Trader Joe’s house!” her co-workers exclaimed.
Naree had no idea what they were talking about.
Joe Coulombe and his wife Alice welcomed Naree with a flute of champagne. Each course had a different wine, which Joe described. The Coulombes were Francophiles so the main dish was goose, not turkey.
It was a delightful day. And — as Naree learned — Joe Coulombe was also known as Trader Joe.
The Trader Joe.
A Stanford Business School graduate and serial entrepreneur, in 1967 he’d turned a poorly performing Pasadena 7-Eleven into a new kind of grocery store.
The target market was “people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees who made teacher’s salaries,” Naree says.
The concept caught on. By the time of that Thanksgiving dinner, there were Trader Joe’s — the store’s name — across California. Joe Coulombe had already sold the company to German conglomerate Aldi.
In 2012 Naree and her husband moved to Westport. After leaving the Getty — armed with a master’s in art history — she became a headhunter. Specializing in museum directors, she’s worked with institutions like the Smithsonian and Yale Art Gallery.
She’s still friends with Madeleine. And Naree has never forgotten that Thanksgiving as an intern.
She marvels at what Joe developed. He thought of tropical costumes for employees, and created a corporate culture that celebrates smiles and good fellowship.
As she studies organizational culture for work, Naree is amazed that the now-national grocery chain has managed to maintain so much of its original charm.
Today Naree lives just a mile from the Westport Trader Joe’s. She loves finding new items there, and is not disappointed when favorites (like mango lemonade) disappear. One of the keys to Trader Joe’s success, after all, is low inventory.
Naree has told a few of the very cheery Westport crew that she knows the real Trader Joe — and that at 87 he’s alive and well, still painting and gardening.
“They’re amazed and amused,” she says of the local store staff.
Still, Naree wondered, why did I think this would make a great “06880” story?
“It’s fun and quirky,” I said.
Just like Trader Joe’s.