The Explanation Behind Trader Joe's Hawaiian Shirt Uniforms

The grocery store chain Trader Joe's has a lot of singular qualities, from its wide-ranging selection of private label items to its inexpensive wine. Then there are the stores themselves. There are a dozen truly unique Trader Joe's stores across the U.S., including one located under a bridge in Manhattan and another in an old movie theater in Houston. But it's the stores' nautical theme, which leans heavily into the Pacific Islands, that is one of its most interesting characteristics. 

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Back in the 1960s, Joe Coulombe, the man who launched the Trader Joe's empire, wanted to open a grocery store for shoppers who liked to travel, were well educated, and were looking for products different from what was typically available. But he needed a name and a look for his new idea. He eventually hit on Trader Joe's and a nautical theme for his new grocery store. The famous Tiki bar Trader Vic's inspired the new store's name. But it was Disneyland and a now forgotten travel book about the Pacific Islands that led to its employees wearing Hawaiian shirts. Or was it? 

Adventurous traders on the culinary seas

The original Trader Joe's in Pasadena, California, which opened its doors in the summer of 1967, played on the then-popular Tiki aesthetic inspired by Polynesian culture. The first store had an ambiance that included tropical touches, fishing nets, Hawaiian music, and even half a rowboat. Joe Coulombe called his store manager "captain" and the assistant manager the "first mate" and instituted a uniform consisting of Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts. In 1979, Coulombe sold Trader Joe's to German grocer Aldi Nord, and the new owners continued the tradition of the tropical shirts.

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The corporate version of why Trader Joe's employees continue to wear Hawaiian shirts as part of their uniform combines the nautical with the fanciful. The reason they give on the company's website is that the employees are "adventurous traders on the culinary seas" searching "the world over for fantastic, interesting items to bring home for our customers to discover." While this may seem a bit silly, it stays true to Coulombe's original vision for Trader Joe's of providing customers with uncommon culinary finds. This includes the company's wine selection. And there are some tricks to help you pick the best Trader Joe's wines, like asking one of the Hawaiian-shirted staff members for a recommendation. But there is also another explanation for the unusual Trader Joe's uniform that comes straight from the source.

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[Featured image by Thaddeus Zajdowicz via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY 3.0]

A travel book and Disney inspired the uniforms

Joe Coulombe's version of the Hawaiian shirt origin story differs markedly from the official website version. "I'd been reading a book called 'White Shadows in the South Seas,' and I'd been to the Disneyland jungle trip," Coulombe recalled in an episode of the Inside Trader Joe's podcast. "And it all coalesced and that is why, to this day, the employees wear Hawaiian shirts. And it kinda, sorta worked."

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The book from 1919, by the journalist Frederick O'Brien, tells the story of the author's travels in French Polynesia. The Disney ride opened in 1955 and takes guests on a boat ride through a fake jungle that includes animatronic animals. Now that you know the true story behind why Trader Joe's employees wear Hawaiian shirts, be sure to ask one of the "adventurous traders on the culinary seas" to help you find the hidden gems in Trader Joe's freezer aisle, like the dark-chocolate covered strawberry pieces or beef birria. 

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