Pirate Joe's: The Scrappy Canadian Retailer That Took on Trader Joe's

Food Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

When I moved to Canada two years ago, I didn’t miss little copper pennies (Canada phased them out several years ago) or American politics. For me, Trader Joe’s withdrawal was the problem.

I’d imagine people who move away from California feel similarly about In-N-Out Burger, and those who develop a taste for French fromage during a semester abroad may find American cheese less than satisfying upon their return. I miss filling my reusable bag filled with kale chips, almond butter and pita bites—and still managing to spend less than $20.

In fact, whenever I’m south of the border, I leave luggage space for Trader Joe’s (no fresh produce or Three Buck Chuck since it’s much more complicated to import) and ration these goodies until my next trip. Canadian grocery stores just don’t have the same variety or low prices (although Canadian potato chips do come in exotic flavors like poutine, ketchup or creamy dill).

Clearly, I’m not alone in these cravings, because while Trader Joe’s has no official outposts in Canada, Vancouver, B.C. has Pirate Joe’s, a tiny storefront filled with Trader Joe’s products driven across the border and resold at a markup. (Another storefront is planned for Victoria, B.C. as well).

The brainchild of Mike Hallatt, former owner of Benny’s Bagels in Vancouver, Pirate Joe’s bills itself as “unauthorized, unaffiliated, unafraid” following Trader Joe’s unsuccessful attempt to shut it down (more on that later).

piratejoesinline2.JPG

Hallat is originally from Victoria, B.C. and got hooked on Trader Joe’s while living in California for nearly a decade. When he returned to Vancouver to raise his daughter Josie, he found himself without a job. “The Pirate Joe’s thing was just a response to the circumstances,” he says. “Needing a job and jonesing for T.J.s.” (He adds that you don’t vet your business ideas through a 6-year old or you’ll end up with a Pirate Joe’s.)

Hallatt opened the first Pirate Joe’s as a small, “need to know” shop in January 2012. Pirate Joe’s moved into a higher-profile space the following year, and a few months after the move, Trader Joe’s filed a lawsuit for trademark infringement. (Trader Joe’s declined to comment for this piece.) Hallatt approached them about partnering in Canada, but the company wasn’t receptive. “They don’t answer emails,” he says. “Their only answer has been through their lawyers.” For a time, the Pirate Joe’s window display read as “Irate Joe’s.”

Hallatt’s lawyers argued that because the trademark was filed in the U.S., it doesn’t apply to businesses operating outside its borders. “What are trademark laws?” Hallatt says. “They’re jurisdictional. You have to go to each jurisdiction and get it. If Trader Joe’s wanted to come into Canada, you could argue that they’ve got to go through us, because we’ve established our mark before theirs. What I’m doing is finding a market for something that isn’t being served.”

First sale doctrine also supports Hallatt’s position, since he and his buyers (Hallatt was eventually banned from all Trader Joe’s stores so he has others go through check out) are paying full price for the items at Trader Joe’s stores in Washington state and legally importing them into Canada. “If you buy it, you own it and you’re legally entitled to do whatever you want with it, which includes reselling it to my friends in Vancouver,” he explains.

The judge agreed, allowing Hallatt to continue operating. Trader Joe’s has appealed that ruling, but Hallatt doesn’t anticipate that the ruling on appeal will change things.

In fact, he’s planning to sell a limited number of products through the Pirate Joe’s website in time for Christmas. Shipping is more expensive in Canada (lower population density is one factor), so the free shipping offers commonplace in the U.S. are rare north of the border. However, Hallatt thinks he’s found that sweet spot where customers will be able to fill a box with their favorite Trader Joe’s items and ship it anywhere in Canada for a flat rate of $12.

piratejoesinline1.JPG

Pirate Joe’s won’t be the first to resell Trader Joe’s products online, though. Other so-called “pirates” resell Trader Joe’s products domestically on Amazon or eBay for those that don’t have a store nearby. “The term ‘pirate Joe’ is being used to describe anyone who buys stuff for the purpose of reselling,” Hallatt says.

Beyond the lawsuit, food labels were another challenge, since Canada requires food labels be printed in English and French. When Pirate Joe’s first opened, it carried 300 products, and Hallatt was able to satisfy inspectors by assuring them he’d ordered a label printer or was otherwise making progress.

Now, the store carries 1,500 products and a recent letter from Canada Food Inspection Agency informed Hallett that they would take everything that wasn’t properly labelled by a certain date. He created a computer database of all the ingredients commonly found in Trader Joe’s products and managed to get nearly all his products in compliance by the deadline.

Despite all the work Hallatt has put into starting Pirate Joe’s and defending it in court, he’s already thinking ahead to his next venture, which he plans to call Black M. “As we’re trying to become high-performance people, we don’t have high-performance fast food,” Hallatt says. His concept will include pesticide-free everything, grass-fed meat and a gluten-free seed-based bun.

Hallatt plans to crowdfund the first Black M location and hopes to put it in a food desert where kids don’t have easy access to nutritious foods. “We don’t have cool thoughtful food experiments that start out in underserved communities,” he says. And so begins another chapter for this Pirate Joe.

Also in Food