Trader Joe and Pasadena

First Trader Joe’s market in Pasadena, California

How do we find our ideas? What makes them come to life and work over many years? How do we adjust to the various stages of an idea’s life cycle? Do we keep our idea manageable and small, or do we encourage growth beyond our original purpose? To whom do we look for both inspiration and advice?

As Southwest Chamber Music began its activities, Jeff and I quickly came to know a couple in our city of Pasadena who influenced us greatly. Joe Coulombe, who created Trader Joe’s, and his wife Alice, were influential in the music community. Alice was also a founder of the Pasadena Arts Council; she took an interest in all endeavors including the new Southwest Chamber Music.

Alice and Joe Coulombe at home

We were sad to learn of Joe Coulombe’s passing recently. He and his wife touched many lives not only through their markets, but through their advocacy and support for music organizations throughout Los Angeles. Alice’s attitude was that non-profits needed not only financial support, but also hands-on involvement. Whether she hosted house concerts to introduce new people to various organizations, built donations for music education programs, or had a party honoring musical achievements, the music community knew they could turn to Alice for a “party at Trader Joe’s home.” Who could resist?

One of our biggest marketing regrets was that Joe and Alice sold Trader Joe’s before we received our turn to be featured on the shopping bags, free marketing which they offered to many of the local non-profits. It was the ultimate proof of having arrived as an arts organization in Los Angeles. However, we had no complaints as we received numerous donations over many years of wine and food for post-concert receptions. Fortunately, one Trader Joe’s store manager was a music aficionado, always commenting on my viola case when I would stop by the Eagle Rock store after concerts or rehearsals, or mentioning that it was Mozart’s birthday that day.

Pasadena City Hall

In those startup days, Trader Joe’s was based in Pasadena. As with any good idea, Joe did his research, and took advantage of the opportunity to purchase the Pronto Markets he was managing and turn them into a business that was responsive to societal changes. A proud Stanford graduate, Joe had the training and personality to develop innovative ideas. With our families in the food business, it was only natural that Jeff and I took an interest in Trader Joe’s as we developed our own ideas.

We were very proud that Joe also recognized that our idea meshed with changes in society. In classical music, chamber musicians lived (and still live) on the road, with touring presenters determining number of concerts and programming. Very few musicians, except the few superstars, earn enough, having to supplement their incomes with a teaching position. My teacher, Walter Trampler, looked at me once and said I should avoid touring and try to sleep in my own bed each night. And, he was at the top of the profession!

Carina Nebula’s ‘Mystic Mountain’ from Hubble Telescope/JPL NASA Pasadena

Joe knew he could control his own company by focusing on local and ethnic products, able to keep prices down and appeal to underpaid academics and artists. His observations of increasing college attendance and travel opportunities put him in the right place at the right time. Joe also knew his community: Pasadena is home to CalTech, NASA/JPL, and numerous arts organizations, a perfect “audience” for his innovative grocery stores.

Our greatest complement was when Joe said that Southwest Chamber Music was the arts community’s Trader Joe’s. He said to us once “You two remind me of a couple making a superb Gewürztraminer. You don’t need to be in a big super market chain because people will find you and you will be successful.” As we learned from watching Trader Joe’s, Joe was intrigued by our willingness to operate outside of the traditional classical music paths.

We chose Pasadena as the home for our organization for similar reasons: an educated and artistic community in the center of Los Angeles, with a long history of support for arts organizations. A member of our initial Board of Directors, Jim Donahue, arranged a meeting for Jeff with his boss Ernest Fleischmann, managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to make him aware of our new organization. Ernest said: “Pasadena is definitely the right choice for what you want to achieve. It will be a success because you base it there.”

Joe and Alice understood what we were trying to achieve. Their personal tastes in music were very conservative, but they respected that we had our own ideas to have a locally-based set ensemble that had not existed previously in the Los Angeles area, featuring music, old and new, that reflected southern California’s history, ethnic richness, and creative musical community.

Many people have ideas. It is the willingness and enthusiasm required to attack the necessary hard work that results in success. We entered new territory of learning computer skills, determining what marketing we could afford, writing our first grant to the Pasadena Arts Council, hiring musicians, renting performance venues, procuring music parts, writing our first press release and beginning our fundraising – all this while earning a living teaching, performing, playing for orchestras, films and shows! However, the inspiration was there from our teachers, colleagues, and families, who had their own businesses. We wanted more than anything to have our own business and not have to rely on contractors and presenters to determine where, what and how often we would perform music.

Southwest musicians Lorenz Gamma, violin, and Ming Tsu, piano, perform at the Coulombe’s

Joe continued to be an inspiration to us. We have lost count of how many friend raisers, house concerts, parties, and photo shoots they generously hosted for our ensemble. We recognized early on that the last topic that Joe wanted to talk about at a party was Trader Joe’s. We instead focused on wine, learning a great deal from Joe. In later years, we were honored that Joe would plant himself next to us during a dinner party to shield himself from people who wanted to talk business or get to know more about Trader Joe.

However, the door was open if we wanted to discuss our business. As the organization developed, we were trying to decide if we should pay for our first print advertising. Joe had paved the way for us to utilize radio ads, but print ads in the LA Times were a huge expenditure. We were opening a new venue, and the LA Times was beginning a new arts section. This might be the time for us. We weren’t certain if this was a good use of funds, so it was time to ask for advice.

Joe came to our office and after a little small talk, began his advice. “I do not know anything about your organization and what you do. Therefore I cannot give you advice. But what I can tell you is what I did and what worked for me.” We then proceeded to have a wonderful conversation about his opinion of print advertising. I had determined our budget, but as we agreed, it far exceeded the amount of revenue we would receive for the modest number of tickets we were selling. He used his Gewurtztraminer example again, saying “those who are interested in what you do will find you. You cannot justify spending this money if it is more than your revenue for the concerts. Always market from within, as that is what works and is most cost efficient.” It was excellent advice.

We continued to purchase much cheaper radio advertising, similar to Joe’s advertising on the classical radio station. Joe also advertised with his creative newsletters, and we went that route as well, attaching mailing labels on our dining room table. A few years in, Alice sent me a theater person for some advice who wanted to start a group. From our conversation, he appeared rather disorganized. We were sitting at my dining room table, and I patted the table and asked him “would you be willing to affix 3500 labels by hand to newsletters and brochures at the beginning, when your budget is small?” He said he didn’t think so, so I gently advised that he might want to think of doing something else as running an arts group has many necessary tasks which are difficult to delegate when starting out with a small budget and little or no staff. Obviously, it is much easier now with email, Constant Contact, Facebook, Twitter and all of the wonderful e-marketing with minimal expenditure!

Alice Coulombe introducing a concert at her home

Alice, and later her daughter Charlotte, served as Board members for Southwest Chamber Music. We treasured getting to know their friends, some of whom became dear friends of ours. When we began our 20 season Summer Festival at The Huntington, Joe and Alice’s involvement at The Huntington Library crossed over to help our series get off the ground. Charlotte’s employment at the new Getty Center helped with concerts in the Getty auditorium. It was a good example of the myriad ways that a few people can extend their influence beyond the pocketbook.

It is difficult to express how good it makes one feel to have an idea, work hard to bring it to life, and find that others support and respect your idea. That first grant, a house party at the home of a notable member of the community, introductions to other arts leaders, and attendance at concerts – these events keep one moving forward to realize your dreams. Joe and Alice represented the best of our community, and were just two of many board members, subscribers, donors, and attendees who helped us on our way. Having an idea is just the beginning. But it sure was nice to know Trader Joe.

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