Pirate Joe's says Trader Joe's only has itself to blame for creating so many tantalizing flavors for such great prices. And if the Monrovia-based market would just open up an outlet in Vancouver, Canada, there would be no need for legal action. And then there would be no need for Mike Hallatt to masquerade as Pirate Joe.
"The only way this is going to end is if Trader Joe's opens in Vancouver," Hallatt said. "I would love that. They would put me out of business, but I'd love that. I love their stuff."
Let's back up for a moment and explain this looming legal showdown between the two Joes.
Hallatt is a Vancouver-based entrepreneur who is facing legal action from Trader Joe's, which wants to shut down his store, alleging, among other things, unfair business practices and trademark infringement.
Until recently, Hallatt would routinely drive his van over the U.S.-Canada border and cruise on down to the Trader Joe's in Bellingham, Wash., or other stores in the area. There, he'd purchase dozens upon dozens of grocery bags filled with T.J. favorites: peanut-butter filled pretzels, almond butter, candied ginger, gluten-free granola and so on.
He'd then take his haul -- usually more than 100 filled grocery sacks -- back over the border and sell them for a modest price increase to his grateful Vancouver neighbors. The name of his pop-up store?
Hallatt became a well-known figure at the Bellingham store after launching his enterprise in January 2012. Employees welcomed him, and sometimes even helped him hustle bags out to the car. Then, T.J.'s corporate offices caught a whiff of it. (Thank you, media coverage.) And earlier this year, Trader Joe's filed a legal action to stop him. You can peruse court papers at the blog on Hallatt's website.
But just like the cheery, Hawaiian-shirted employees at Trader Joe's stores, Hallatt sounds like a man without a worry in the world.
In an interview with The Times he said he has spent countless hours poring over commerce laws, meeting with business attorneys and becoming something of an expert in the likes of duty taxes, cheese imports, international sales doctrine, NAFTA and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
"I'm going to defend myself," Hallatt said, adding that he believes the lawsuit is frivolous. He confidently predicts victory, saying he is well within the law to do what he does.
The way Hallatt portrays it, it's almost as if he sees his business as an homage to T.J.'s.
He said he purposely does not pull up to a single Trader Joe's and, for example, buy all the almond butter on the shelf. Instead, he and a handful of employees buy a few of their desired items at each store, so as not to disrupt the shopping experience for others.
"I try to be really respectful of Trader Joe's," he said. He said his picture has been circulated among the staff at some of the Trader Joe's stores, including the one in Bellingham, and he has been asked to leave. So he no longer goes inside, but instead sends employees to do the shopping.
For its part, Trader Joe's is not talking, citing its policy against discussing pending legal action. Which leaves Hallatt to do all the talking, and to appeal to that American sense of capitalism he picked up while living for stretches in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Long Island.
"This is a very unique situation," Hallatt said. "I'm just a guy who is passionate about Trader Joe's, and passionate about the idea that free enterprise allows me to do it." He said he doesn't tack on exorbitant mark-ups, even though he could. He's just trying to provide a little relief to his Vancouver neighbors who suffer sticker shock when they walk into their local markets.
Here are a few examples he provided:
-- Gluten-free granola: Hallatt purchases it at Trader Joe's for about $3.49, and sells it for about $5.99. It flies off the shelves, he says, because local markets in Vancouver sell a similar item for $9 or more.
-- Candied ginger: He buys it at Trader Joe's for $1.99, sells it for $4.49, and can't keep it in stock. He says the high mark-up on this and a handful of other specialty items "pays the rent."
-- Almond butter: He pays about $4.99 at Trader Joe's and sells it for $7.49. A similarly sized jar might sell at a Vancouver market for about $9.99, he said.
-- Grade-A maple syrup: He buys it for $6.99 at Trader Joe's, sells it for $9.99, which is well under the $12.99 sales price you can find at other stores in Vancouver, he said.
He says his enterprise (a 650-square-foot storefront) is time-consuming. And it isn't making him rich.
But it is making him happy.
"I like to say I've never worked so hard to make so little money," he said.
He says he gets a kick out of bringing a smile to shoppers' faces, and the practical, hands-on learning will help him with his next enterprise, no matter what it might be. (Among his other endeavors over the years: He said he turned a bagel kiosk into a thriving cafe business and sold it for a profit.)
"I've got a million other business ideas," he said. "When Trader Joe's opens up here, I'll close my doors and move on to the next idea."
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