For Decades, Trader Joe's Employees Had to Work on Thanksgiving — and It's All Because of Wine

Trader Joe's
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Some grocery stores will be open on Thanksgiving, anticipating your desperate dash for some last-minute dinner ingredients. Trader Joe's won't be among them.

For more than 30 years, the national chain has shut down so employees "can spend Thanksgiving with family and friends," says the company's website. But it wasn't always that way. For decades, under founder Joe Coulombe, the national chain stayed open on Thanksgiving, making many of its employees work during the holiday.

According to Coulombe's memoir "Becoming Trader Joe," published a year after his death in 2020, the reason had little to do with food — and everything to do with drinks. Specifically, wine.

Coulombe opened the first Trader Joe's in Pasadena, California, in 1967. Initially, he wrote, he kept the store open on Thanksgiving to compete with larger chains: Most grocers around him closed, and staying open gave his tiny store a competitive edge, even if he had to pay employees triple wages.

By 1975, most national supermarkets were also staying open on major holidays — eliminating that competitive edge. But while many supermarkets made their name with food, Trader Joe's used quality, affordable wine sales to get ahead in its early days. And while Christmas was a "lousy wine day," Coulombe wrote, Thanksgiving was a "much bigger wine day than Christmas (which is, appallingly, a very good hard liquor day)."

So, the stores stayed open, albeit with limited hours and extra wages. It grew into a tradition: All members of the Trader Joe's management team, including Coulombe, worked in the stores on those days. Today, that's a relatively known practice — executives at diner chain Waffle House, for example, work in their restaurants on holidays.

"That's not just a policy," Njeri Boss, Waffle House's vice president of public relations, tells CNBC Make It. "It's a bedrock of our culture.

Whole Foods Market says "many" of its stores will be open on Thanksgiving this year with "modified hours," while most locations of the Kroger supermarket chain will be open until 5 p.m. on the holiday. Convenience store chains Walgreens and CVS will also be open.

But staying open on a holiday like Thanksgiving is tricky: The sales you're chasing might just barely outpace the exorbitant cost of paying workers overtime to remain open.

There's a "fixed demand" from shoppers around Thanksgiving, retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners president Craig Johnson told Reuters in 2018. In other words, stores that close on Thanksgiving are likely to make up the sales they missed on the day before or after.

After Coulombe retired in 1988, Trader Joe's began closing on Thanksgiving. In retrospect, he wrote, that was a smart decision by the company's management team.

"Today, it is impossible for a retailer to achieve differentiation through long hours," he wrote, adding: "It was a correct move, long overdue."

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