Shoppers of Pirate Joe’s, the Canadian renegade reseller of groceries from the U.S. chain Trader Joe’s, no longer have a place to buy products like Organic Carrot Turmeric Juice Blend or Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burgers.
Pirate Joe’s, which for more than five years celebrated its status as an unauthorized importer of Trader Joe’s products with a blend of cheeky humor and David-versus-Goliath determination, closed its doors at 12:01 a.m. Thursday after a protracted legal battle with the corporation.
Mike Hallatt, the founder of Pirate Joe’s, had an approach that was both simple and complex: He sought to meet a demand for Trader Joe’s products in Vancouver, British Columbia, by opening a store and selling the goods at inflated prices. But to get the groceries, he shopped in bulk at the Trader Joe’s stores almost three hours away in Seattle.
On Wednesday, the two sides reached a settlement in which Trader Joe’s agreed to drop the lawsuit and Mike Hallatt, the founder of Pirate Joe’s, agreed to close the store.
Trader Joe’s, a private company with more than 450 stores across the United States, is known for its loyal following, customer service and clever product names, like Speculoos Cookie Butter Cheesecake Bites and Chocolate Dilemma Cheesecake. Its stores are often desired by communities.
His bulk shopping trips got the attention of Trader Joe’s, and in 2013, the company filed a lawsuit against Hallatt for trademark infringement, unfair competition, false designation of origin and false advertising.
A U.S. District Court in Washington ruled that the violations occurred in Canada, where Trader Joe’s has no stores, and that Trader Joe’s failed to prove that Pirate Joe’s affected business in the United States. In August 2016, a federal appeals court sent the case back to the lower court for a trial to take place in November of this year.
Hallatt, who had personally spent about $75,000 in court costs, was trying to raise $50,000 by the end of this month to put toward the $250,000 he needed. As of Thursday, a little more than $5,700 had been raised, according to an online fundraiser.
On Wednesday, the two sides reached a settlement in which Trader Joe’s agreed to drop the lawsuit and Hallatt agreed to close the store. “They definitely didn’t want me to be a business,” he said.
A spokesman for Trader Joe’s, which is based in Monrovia, California, declined to comment on Thursday.
Hallatt had been banned by Trader Joe’s from stepping foot in its stores, but he had devised workarounds to shop undetected and keep his enterprise afloat.
At various times, he relied on a fake mustache and a wig, and once dressed in drag, the podcast StartUp reported last year. On another visit, he went for a more subtle look: a gray pinstripe suit and wire-rim glasses.
He would fill a cart with the items he needed and then have cohorts pay at the cashier — the most sensitive part of the expedition because it’s where he most risked being spotted. In ads on Craigslist, Hallatt recruited “day laborers” for $25 an hour.
He organized a “hot shop” — going to a Trader Joe’s and stocking up on vast multiples of a few items. His undercover shoppers would go directly to a manager with a cover story about some event or party.
In one trip, he hired a couple who he said did not look like conventional Trader Joe’s shoppers. They had dreadlocks and numerous tattoos and piercings. “They looked like they just walked off the set of a Burning Man documentary,” he said.
Their story? They were hosting a marijuana trimming festival. (Recreational marijuana is legal in Washington state.) “They went in there and lit the place up,” he said, noting they bought $600 worth of chips and crackers.
Hallatt appeared to revel in tweaking Trader Joe’s. On its Facebook page, Pirate Joe’s described itself as “running groceries from ‘undisclosed locations in the Pacific Northwest’ up into Vancouver.” And it declared itself, “Unaffiliated. Unauthorized. Unafraid.”
At one point, Hallatt dropped the “P” from his store sign so it read “Irate Joe’s” — a signal of his determination to fight the grocery chain. He opened his first store in a former Romanian bakery on Jan. 1, 2012, and later relocated to the storefront of a former dry cleaner’s.
For all the attention and news coverage his business garnered, its closing happened abruptly and with little fanfare. “Thank you to everyone who has ever supported us,” he wrote on the store’s Facebook page. “We are sad that it had to come to this, but hey, at least we had some fun while we were at it right?!”
He closed the doors at 9:30 p.m. to put one of his daughters to bed, and returned to find people still lined up outside.
At the end, the shelves were mostly bare, and Hallatt rang up the last customer a minute into Thursday.
The customer bought gluten-free pancake mix, matcha green tea mix and shortbread cookies with dark chocolate filling.
He threw in a free bar of organic milk chocolate — his personal favorite.