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Theo Albrecht, Trader Joe's owner, dies

Emma Brown

Update 11:30 am Thursday 7/29: The full obit has been posted.

Theo Albrecht, one of Germany's richest people and the businessman who brought the Trader Joe's grocery chain to cities around America, died July 24 in Essen, Germany. He was 88.

Famously reclusive and secretive -- their last photo appeared in 1980, according to Der Spiegel magazine -- Mr. Albrecht and his brother Karl made their fortune when they took over their parents' grocery store and turned it into the international Aldi chain.

In 1971, Mr. Albrecht was kidnapped for 17 days until his family paid a ransom of 7 million deutsche marks ($4.6 million). He bought Trader Joe's in 1979 and expanded the discount chain, which features cheap wine, giant chocolate bars and workers wearing Hawaiian shirts, from the West Coast to more than 340 outlets in nine 25 states (plus D.C.) across the United States.

albrecht.jpg

(The Washington area already has three at least 10 Trader Joe's stores, and rumor has it that the grocer is contemplating opening a new outlet in Arlington near the Clarendon Metro station.)

Even though TJ's wraps it vegetables in layers upon layers of plastic, it has a reputation for attracting crunchy-greenie natural-foods types. That image has come under scrutiny in recent years as the company has refused to freely disclose the sources of its products.

Forbes magazine reported in 2010 that Theo Albrecht's fortune tops $16 billion, making him the 31st richest person in the world.

(This post has been updated.)

By Emma Brown  |  July 28, 2010; 10:36 AM ET
Categories:  Emma Brown  | Tags: albrecht brothers, aldi owner dies, karl albrecht, theo albrecht dies, trader joe's owner dies  
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Comments

To the Albrecht family, thank you for bringing TJ to the Washington area. I use to have my friends from the West Coast bring me "2Buck-Chuck" and other products before I find the chain here. The Georgetown store is the greatest TJ on the planet. I think I will put a black band on my TJ shopping bag in memory of Theo Albrecht. May he RIP. A customer forever.

Posted by: concorde01 | July 28, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

I used to live across from the first Trader Joe's in South Pasadena, California. They did not "feature cheap wine" but quality products for a good value. Equating price with quality is a rookie mistake, especially in the food and wine business. The market was always busy but never overwhelmed with crowds, a real jewel. If you get one near where you live, you're lucky!

Posted by: eGREGie | July 28, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

What do you consider to be the "Washington area?" Not sure how you come up with three TJs in the area. I can think of four TJs stores in Fairfax County alone --- Reston, Centreville, Fairfax, Tysons Corner.

Posted by: Janie14 | July 28, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Hi Kelpius,

I did mention the Aldi chain (graf 2) as the source of the Albrecht brother's wealth. According to what I've been reading this morning, the bulk of American Aldi stores are in the Midwest, but the company website's store-locator feature says there are 20 Aldi (stands for Albrecht Discount) outlets in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Posted by: Emma Brown | July 28, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Hey Janie14, you're totally right ... my TJ-finding skills were way off. There's also one in DC proper and one in Springfield ... and at least four in Montgomery County. That brings it to 10. Gee whiz. What other stores am I missing?

Posted by: Emma Brown | July 28, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

There is one in Old Town Alexandria and another at Baileys Crossroads.

Posted by: amandaesq | July 28, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

There is also one in Howard County just outside Columbia (Route 108 and 175) and (okay, it's a stretch for "Washington area") one in Towson in Baltimore County.

Posted by: boyyourenosey | July 28, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

He probably didn't eat TJ's food. While all of the food from TJ I've eaten has tasted good it has some of the highest amounts of saturated fats I've ever encountered (the worst I've seen: one serving of one TJ's chocolate cake had 86% (!) of the RDA for saturated fat).

Maybe that's why TJ's food tastes so good. But at what price?

Posted by: GWGOLDB | July 28, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

There used to be an Aldi on NH Ave at the beltway--not sure if it's still there or not. I know of one in Ithaca NY--it's my grandparents' favorite grocery store.

Posted by: karen24 | July 28, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

TJ's was a brilliant idea, and Mr. Albrecht and his family have honed the concept continually to make the Trader Joe's chain a textbook success story. My girlfriend and I shop at the various Montgomery County stores regularly, and the combination of quality, prices, and value can't be beat! RIP, Theo Albrecht. You will be missed.

Posted by: niceFLguy | July 28, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

The original Trader Joe's in Pasadena was quite different, featuring bins and boxes. Later a signature product became frozen fish. The layout featured small checkout stands backed against walls or windows.

When first transplanted to the East Coast near us in the early 1990s, after founder Joe Coulombe had sold to Theo Albrecht, the California formula flopped. We enjoyed fresh fish markets and greengrocers and didn't find that much use for TJ's.

TJ's management proved agile and creative, soon finding out what we liked and where it could compete. The frozen fish is still around, but the bins and boxes are gone. There is an array of distinctive packaged goods and a carefully chosen selection of fresh produce, meat and poultry. Some produce, particularly fresh fruit, is sold unpackaged.

Although TJ's develops in-house products when it can, it also sells a range of branded goods, notably cheeses. Stores that can do so sell wines, with an interesting variety between about $8 and $20. Ready-to-eat meals in refrigerated containers have been improving recently. Bread remains lack-luster, because TJ's is still unable to cope with products that must be made fresh every day, and we have excellent small bakeries.

By offering reasonable wages and benefits and maintaining a friendly if busy workplace, TJ's keeps employee turnover low. Allowing some latitude in product selection and placement means stores are not exactly alike. Instead, to some degree they follow local tastes and trends. Overall, TJ's is not a formula story but a story of creative adaptation.

Posted by: AppDev | July 28, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Odd summary of their niche. I would have said they offer upscale food (comparable to "Whole Paycheck Foods") but at a relatively cheaper price.

I didn't even realize they sold wine. Of course I live in Montgomery County, so maybe they don't there.

Posted by: MeriJ | July 28, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

MeriJ,
I see where you're coming from on the inexpensive gourmet food front. TJ's is also famous for its Charles Shaw wine label, which sells for $1.99 in California stores (and a little more on this coast) and is affectionately known (perhaps especially among students and other thrifty folks) as Two-Buck Chuck.

Posted by: Emma Brown | July 28, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the author has been to a TJ's lately. Some produce is wrapped, but the bulk isn't. It would be about typical for what you see in a grocery store. Where TJ's shines is in providing gourmet goods at reasonable prices.

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | July 28, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

MeriJ is right -- Trader Joe's is like Whole Foods without the price gouging. Easily my favorite grocery store. I'll be stopping by for a bottle of 2-Buck Chuck on my way home tonight so I can toast Mr. Albrecht's memory.

Posted by: js_edit | July 28, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Aldi goes to great lengths to disconnect themselves from Trader Joe's. I believe Theo sold his stake in Aldi's a long time ago - that fact would be good to know.

Posted by: ssolomo | July 28, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

haven't shop for food, biscuits and bones for my dog, anywhere else for the past ten year. Danke schön Herr Albrecht.

Posted by: myrdav | July 28, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

TJ's has great prices on good food, not good prices on cheap food. Their nut selection is unequaled in both variety and price as is their seafood selection.

Posted by: wildfyre99 | July 28, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I want to commend Trader Joe's for great food at great prices. The only drawback is how far I must drive to get to one. Sure wish they would open a Ballston branch. Clarendon is walkable for me, but not with three bags of groceries. Right now I also shop at the Ballston Harris-Teeter, which is not as inexpensive as Joe's but also high on the quality scale. Trader Joe's would clean-up in Ballston!

Posted by: TJLinBallston | July 28, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for double-posting earlier. Breads and cold cuts are better at TJ's than ALDI. But the 1.1 lb. vacuum brick of German coffee for $3.99 makes a trip to ALDI worthwhile.

Posted by: kelpius | July 28, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Hi Emma Brown - I have not seen a Trader Joe's in Prince Georges County,MD, but there is an Aldi's (opened about 18 mths ago)in Bowie in Hilltop Plaza on Annapolis Road(Rte 450) There's also another Aldi's under construction in Brandwine,MD on Rte 301(Crain Hwy). It is scheduled to open in late fall 2010.

Posted by: Charitygirl | July 28, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

I've been emailing Trader Joe's monthly, begging them to open a store in the Central Florida area. When I shop at Whole Foods they are always packed and are making a killing, but I'd much rather shop at TJ's. C'mon, TJ, open an Orlando store! You won't regret it!

Posted by: DeniseDamiano | July 28, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

For Emma Brown: Trader Joe's web site store locator only shows 3 stores at a time. Probably where you got the original 3 stores in this area number. Bad design or dumb on their part.

Posted by: Ken55 | July 28, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

While I love Joe's and continue to shop there, I have to agree with Emma about the food being wrapped in plastic. I find it appalling that they wrap many of their veggies & fruits in plastic and place them in styro trays. So unnecessary and counter to their image. So unless they have unwrapped fresh fruit & veggies, I shop for those elsewhere.

Bon voyage Herr Albrecht!

Posted by: bob_in_SS | July 28, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

I live in Boston, and in response to requests from customers, Trader Joe's has drastically reduced packaging for produce in their area stores. If DC customers want to avoid the layers of plastic, they should speak up and tell their store managers....it worked here.

Posted by: ec3663 | July 28, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I'd say that the one difference between TJ's and Whole Foods is that Whole foods is a little more conscious and forthcoming about the origins of its food products. TJ's isn't, and this is a big reason why TJ's often undercuts Whole Foods on prices. "Organic" produce from China costs a whole lot less than organic food from California or that is locally grown, and since places like China and Chile have a really sordid history with "organic" labeling--foods are sometimes doused in pesticides in spite of the label--I'm considerably less confident in the quality of TJ's food. Whole Foods probably isn't perfect either, but at least I can usually see where foods were grown. TJ's typically tries to keep that information secret.

Posted by: blert | July 28, 2010 9:59 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the story, but in the effort to sound cool, it comes off as snarky in parts. "Cheap wine"? Please. Cheap wine is Ripple, T-Bird, etc. TJ's - at least in Calif. - stocked good, modestly-priced wine. Produce in stores is packaged and loose, but hardly "wrapped in layers upon layers of plastic." Snark. "Crunchy-greenie natural-foods types." More snark. How about reporting real news in the obit, like quoting someone in the grocery business who can shed light on why TJ has been so successful? And less snark. Especailly toward a guy who just died.

Posted by: schulzwh | July 28, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

The article is really hilarious. Theo Albrecht did not become rich because he owned Trader Joe's. Trader Joe's was only like a hobby for him (in his own words). He and his brother became one of the richest people in the world because of Aldi, a chain with grocery shops and because of there brand new whole concept of shopping.
I am from Germany and I think it is really funny that Americans always need similarities in their own country to understand the outside world. In another american newspaper I read that Aldi would be like the european Walmart. That is nonsense. Walmart is totally different and has absolutely nothing to do with Aldi. The same with Trader Joe's. Theo Albrecht owned Trader Joe's, yes-that is right, but he became rich and famous because of Aldi and not because of Trader Joe's.

Posted by: peter68 | July 29, 2010 3:22 AM | Report abuse

I am an employee of TJ's (a happy employee I must add) and am under the impression that TJ's stopped carrying any product, whether food or beauty supplies from China at least 1-2 years ago. Almost all of the packaging includes the country of origin and if it doesn't, any one of the crew members can easily get that info for you.

Posted by: tbranchaw | July 29, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for you post, peter68. I had to smile about some of these posts, too. I am German and live in Germany, close to Theo Albrechts hometown Essen, where he lived and died.
There is a lot of information on Aldi and why it is a success story in the internet -especially now in connection with Theo Albrecht's death - lots of it is in English - so it's not hard to get the facts.
A few remarks to some of these comments:
No, Theo Albrecht probably never ate the products of TJs (only myaybe when he visited the States) as he lived in Germany all his life and there's no TJ's over here.
No, he did not sell his stakes in Aldi. It's a family imperium and the wealth is in foundations in order to preserve this imperium even after both brothers are dead and to keep the heirs from fighting about it.
As far as I know, Aldi in the States is run by the brother Karl - it's the Aldi Süd part of the Aldi Group. That's why Theo bought TJ, because Karl got the rights to the UK and the US when Aldi separated into North and South back in History. Theo also has a minority stake in Albertsons.
Just to clarify - Theo and his brother took over their mother's store in 1946 in Essen, Germany and turned it into what Aldi is now. TJ was bought by Theo Albrecht when he already was a billionaire.

Posted by: mica2302 | July 29, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Hello Peter68 and Mica2302,

The full obit has been posted now at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/28/AR2010072805734.html, and I hope you'll find that the Albrecht brothers' revolutionary retailing via Aldi got its proper due.

Trader Joe's may have been a hobby for Mr. Albrecht, but here in the US it's beloved by many shoppers (and an avowed obsession of others). I learned yesterday that there are actually many more Aldi stores here than TJ's, but I don't know whether the American branch of Aldi has the same sort of devoted, outspoken following as TJ's. Thoughts, anyone?

Posted by: Emma Brown | July 29, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Hi Emma,

I am frequently in the States and I love TJ's, too. I didn't know TJ's belonged to Theo Albrecht for a long time, but was wondering, why I find German Chocolate and other German items there. My husband - who is American found some items here at Aldi Nord and was wondering why....that'S how we found out... TJ's is a bit different from Aldi,though and I think it's more sucessful in the States because it adopts the American way of shopping a bit more than Aldi. When Aldi was founded, Germans were poor. They didn't care what the shops looked like as long as they could get food there and that's where Aldi came from.
Aldi is an institution in Germany - Everybody - rich or poor - shops there I believe - at least sometime or other. I haven't seen an Aldi in the States so I can't tell if they look different than the stores here. But my in-laws were sceptical, when I took them to one over here the first time.

Posted by: mica2302 | July 29, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for posting, so sad. He was a very generous man. I love Trader Joes. It is a fair priced and healthy choice for a grocery store. Rest in peace.

Posted by: mayfield83 | July 29, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the above poster. Most produce is loose at TJ's these days.

I would also avoid exaggerations such as "layers and layers of plastic" in what should be more of a news story.

If food is wrapped it is in one layer of plastic.

Thank you.

Posted by: newleaf1 | July 30, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

blert:
tj's has country of origin information for every produce item in the store. you can find it on the actual piece of fruit, on the shelf tag, or easily with a crew member.

providing the country of origin is required for all grocers by the USDA.

and no, trader joe's no longer carries food from china. that has been company policy for some time.

Posted by: newleaf1 | July 30, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I learned of Aldi when my family lived in Germany and was thrilled to discover them here in the States.

Aldi has a devoted fan base here (see the Facebook fan page), but perhaps its reputation as a cut-rate store makes it less fashionable to be a fan of than TJs.

The store itself is no-frills. Products are on shelves, in coolers/freezers and in boxes on pallets. The store only takes cash or debit cards, charges for shopping bags (or brings reusable ones or uses boxes) and often seems understaffed (as part of its efficiencies, it only keeps 2-3 people in the stores at a time).

The product mix can be somewhat similar between Aldi and TJs, although Aldi carries far too many made in China products.

Still, Aldi's a great place to score very affordable yet high-quality German chocolate (and delightful holiday chocolate ornaments and other seasonal treats, including fine Stollen).

We also enjoy interesting frozen items. The German-imported schnitzel is quite good, better than most schnitzels one finds in restaurants in the States.

We also found fresh frozen, wild caught from Russian seas King Crab Legs, fresh fruit paletas, strudels, chocolate eclairs, and artichoke/cheese appetizers.

Like TJs, Aldi always offers a kind of a treasure hunt...perhaps a bit more hit or miss than TJs.

Many of the products are "house" brands, but Aldi's carrying more and more name brands, too. Often, it seems, manufacturers are using Aldi for some test marketing of new product lines.

Produce is both loose and shrink wrapped, often with some superficial blemishes. Aldi offers a double your money back guarantee for any dissatisfaction. A fellow in line one day had bought the berry strudel and chomped down on an unexpected pit, breaking a tooth. Aldi refunded his purchase times two and paid for his dental repair.

Then Aldi has a grab bag of unexpected hard goods. My desktop computer, laptop computer, various peripherals, memory cards, and tiny HD cameras have all come from Aldi. I wish Aldi USA would get some more computers in stock, because I'm in need of an upgrade or two.

We also got our made in the USA gas grill at a recently-opened Aldi for $75.

The Albrechts are smart and savvy retailers and Theo. leadership in food marketing will be missed.

Posted by: JuanitaHigginbotham | July 31, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

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