An article in Fortune by Beth Kowitt on popular grocery chain Trader Joe's mostly just repeats the same well-known story: Trader Joe's has a small but obsessive customer base, stocks high-quality but cheap products, and staffs quirky employees who evangelize the store to anyone who will listen. But Kowitt reports one interesting new detail. Trader Joe's stores might be warm and friendly, but their corporate overlords, "Germany's ultra-private Albrecht family" are "obsessively secretive" about the company and its management practices.
All of this raises the question: Why is Trader Joe's corporate management so secretive? Are they trying to hide, as Kowitt suggests, the fact that many of their products are produced by giant companies like Frito-Lay? Is it simply the nature of Albrecht corporate culture? Or is there something more at play?
You'd think Trader Joe's would be eager to trumpet its success, but management is obsessively secretive. There are no signs with the company's name or logo at headquarters in Monrovia, about 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Few customers realize the chain is owned by Germany's ultra-private Albrecht family, the people behind the Aldi Nord supermarket empire. (A different branch of the family controls Aldi Süd, parent of the U.S. Aldi grocery chain.) Famous in Germany for not talking to the press, the Albrechts have passed their tightlipped ways on to their U.S. business: Trader Joe's and its CEO, Dan Bane, declined repeated requests to speak to Fortune, and the company has never participated in a major story about its business operations.
Some of that may be because Trader Joe's business tactics are often very much at odds with its image as the funky shop around the corner that sources its wares from local farms and food artisans. Sometimes it does, but big, well-known companies also make many of Trader Joe's products. Those Trader Joe's pita chips? Made by Stacy's, a division of PepsiCo's (PEP, Fortune 500) Frito-Lay. On the East Coast much of its yogurt is supplied by Danone's Stonyfield Farm. And finicky foodies probably don't like to think about how Trader Joe's scale enables the chain to sell a pound of organic lemons for $2.