It starts with the realization that Canada has no Trader Joe’s.
The quirky specialty grocer known for its innovative private label products (and the fanatical, cult-like following they inspire) has yet to open north of the border. That means no Speculoos Cookie Butter, no Quinoa and Black Bean Tortilla Chips, no Triple Ginger Snaps—and that doesn’t sit well with our neighbors to the north, especially expats and others who’ve lived stateside and experienced the myriad glories of Joe’s idiosyncratic private label merchandise.
That’s Michael Hallatt’s story.
When he returned to his native Canada after a stint in the Bay Area, the self-proclaimed ‘food snob’ realized he that as a Canadian jonesing for Charmingly Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies and frozen Turkey Meatloaf Muffins, he was not alone. Whenever he made a border-crossing run to the west coast’s northernmost location in Bellingham, Washington he always found it packed with like-minded Canadians.
Shoppers without borders.
In 2012 Hallatt opened Pirate Joe’s, a Vancouver-based Trader Joe’s retail resale shop. He and his crew of professional shoppers make regular grocery runs to various Trader Joe’s in the Pacific Northwest. Because of NAFTA, most of his goods gain duty-free entry to Canada, where he generates new barcodes and reprints nutrition labels to meet Canada’s regulations. There’s no Two Buck Chuck because of restrictions on alcohol imports, but it’s an otherwise reasonable facsimile right down to the sassy chalkboard signs and distinctive red lettered logo.
Until you look at the price tags.
Hallatt pays full Trader Joe’s retail plus the cost of hiring border-crossing schleppers. On top of that he’s running his own full-blown retail operation with all the associated store overhead. There’s no shortage of customers who are willing to pay a premium if it spares them the half a day of passport-carrying travel they’ve been making just to get their favorite Smoked Chicken and Sweet Apple Sausages or Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Covered Almonds.
a Pirate Joe’s hired shopper’s haul
Customers are thrilled; Trader Joe’s, not so much.
This is piracy in name only; the goods are bought, transported, displayed, and sold legally. Nothing is counterfeit or smuggled past customs. The merchandise isn’t acquired through ‘official’ channels, but not only is that not a crime, it’s a practice that Trader Joe’s has itself engaged in as it scours the globe for well-priced goods.
Still, Trader Joe’s has hounded Hallatt from the start, sending orders to cease and desist, banning him and his shopping team from stores, and charging Pirate Joe’s with everything from trademark infringement to unfair competition and false advertising. So far nothing has stuck in part because Pirate Joe’s business model falls within the first sale doctrine, a well-settled bit of law that establishes a purchaser’s rights of ownership even over the objections of a creator.
The bigger legal obstacle for Trader Joe’s is the fact that it’s strictly an American company. If Trader Joe’s ever opens a Canadian store, some of their claims might become legitimate and enforceable. But remember that Pirate Joe’s only exists because there are no Canadian Trader Joe’s. If the American company takes up residence in Canada, presumably Hallatt shuts down his operation and it all becomes moot.