British Columbia

'David vs. Goliath': Pirate Joe's shuts down following legal battle with Trader Joe's

Vancouver store closes its doors following multiple lawsuits from America-based Trader Joe's

Vancouver store closes its doors following multiple lawsuits from America-based Trader Joe's

The Vancouver-based Pirate Joe's altered its branding to Irate Joe's following mutliple lawsuits for by the American-based Trader Joe's. (Pirate Joe's/Facebook)

There's bad news for Canadians hoping to pick up some Trader Joe's Milk Chocolate Smashing S'mores or Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole. 

Pirate Joe's, the Vancouver-based retailer known for reselling products from American chain Trader Joe's, abruptly shut its doors on Thursday, citing a costly legal battle with the large corporation.

For over five years Pirate Joe's owner Michael Hallatt has been operating what he described as a "David vs. Goliath" operation to bring beloved Trader Joe's products to Canada.

His operation involved conducting clandestine bulk shopping trips to Trader Joe's locations in Seattle, then bringing them over the border to resell them in his Vancouver store.

In 2013 Trader Joe's filed a lawsuit against Hallatt for trademark infringement and false advertising, a move he says ultimately shut his store down.

"When you have your supplier as an adversary and a litigant it sort of adds another layer of difficulty and uncertainty," he told CBC As It Happens host Carol Off.

Hallatt also cited the high U.S. dollar as a factor impacting his business.

"It's really hard to run a business like this with the U.S. dollar running away on us," he said. 

Hallat was known for his tongue-in-cheek humour and unique social media presence. At one point he dropped the "P" from his store's signage, leaving it at the "irate joe's" in protest of the lawsuit. 

The abrupt announcement of his business's closure was no exception.

"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 wrote in an Facebook post.

'Pirate seeks pirate'

Despite the legal battle, Hallatt said he maintained a pleasant relationship with Trader Joe's, characterizing his interactions with the corporation as "cordial and adverserial."

Hallatt says he would often be recognized on his shopping trips and would be asked to leave the store, prompting him to don a variety of disguises and eventually, hire help.

He said he would post job ads on Craigslist with descriptions like "pirate seeks pirate — unauthorized undercover international grocery smuggling operation needs help."

Hallatt said the genius of Trader Joe's is the corporation's unique ability to come up with products that everybody wants before they even know it.

He cited the example of a product called the "everything bagel spice" that's designed to give any food item the unmistakable garlicky taste of an all-garnished bagel.

"Their stuff just flies off the shelves. I don't know how they come up with it. I won't even have heard of it yet and I'm already was already getting phone calls about the stuff," he said.

"Someone will come in from across town and say do you have the gluten-free buttermilk pancake mix?"

Hallat said his customer's passion for the products inspired him to keep up his grueling travel schedule, but that with no end to the legal battle in sight, he ultimately decided it was time to close his doors.

"The customers and their enthusiasm for what I was doing up here has been fuelling my passion, but at the same time you have to have some rationale for it and the legal hurdles I needed to climb were just really hard and high," he said.

With files from CBC's As It Happens