Pirate Joe’s, Untouchable in Vancouver

Pirate Joe’s, Untouchable in Vancouver
Pirate Joe's owner Michael Hallatt stocks the shelves at his Vancouver store where he resells products from the U.S. specialty grocery store Trader Joe's, Aug. 21, 2013. Hallatt has been crossing the border and buying products from the stores and reselling them since January 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Mike Hallatt can’t help but laugh about being sued by a giant corporation for selling what he calls used groceries.

His store, Super Pirate Joe’s, is a Trader Joe’s re-seller that will reopen in Vancouver next week. It brings beloved products from the U.S. chain across the border to avid Canadian customers.

Hallet has been sued the U.S. retailer. He says he is “zen” at the moment, but a big question remains: How is he going to fill his 1,500-square-foot store when he is banned from entering Trader Joe’s itself?

The store used to be called Pirate Joe’s but he added the “Super” during construction of his new, larger location.

“My whole schtick comes from people that come in,” he said.

Pirate Joe's really isn't pirating anything, as once a product has been bought it can be resold by the new owner.

In this case, a man riding his bike past the new location stopped and asked what it was going to be. Hallatt explained it was a Pirate Joe’s but larger, with more stuff.

“You mean like a super Pirate Joe’s?” asked the man.

The same goes for their slogan, imprinted in the concrete of the entrance to the store. “Better than nothing,” it reads.

It comes from a conversation he overheard of two women in his store who were “hardcore shoppers” noting that his prices were higher than Trader Joe’s across the border in Bellingham, but...

Hallatt came to love Trader Joe’s quality, low-cost food during a 10-year stay in California. When he moved back to Canada he missed the unique products, so in 2012 he opened a store in Vancouver’s upscale Kitsilano specializing in Trader Joe’s fare.

Originally named Transilvania Trading, the store was later renamed Pirate Joe’s.

Grey market

Trader Joe’s doesn’t have any stores in Canada. To fill the shelves in his store, Hallatt buys products at various U.S. Trader Joe’s stores, pays full retail price, and transports the goods to Canada in his van that at times has sported a slogan “Grocers Without Borders.”

Staff re-label the products to meet Canadian labelling requirements and Hallatt adds a mark-up so he can make a living. However, he claims that his profits are marginal.

Pirate Joe’s operates on the grey market. It’s legal, but some don’t like it. Pirate Joe’s really isn’t pirating anything, as once a product has been bought it can be resold by the new owner. Trader Joe’s foods are retailed on Amazon and eBay.

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A team of Pirate Joe’s employees (nicknamed cats because of how difficult they are to manage) cross into Washington State to buy the Trader Joe’s goods. They sometimes need to drive to other states to get all of the products the store’s customers require.

However, Trader Joe’s wants Hallatt to stop selling its products and filed a suit in Washington in May of 2013 claiming trademark infringement, unfair competition, false designation of origin, and false advertising. The company says Hallatt’s store is not an approved retailer of their products.

Hallatt himself has been banned from shopping at Trader Joe’s and his picture has been circulated by the company’s head office to keep him out of their stores.

In October 2013, Judge Marsha Pechman dismissed Trader Joe’s case with prejudice—meaning it is dismissed permanently and can’t be brought back to court. She concluded that Trader Joe’s did not provide evidence of lost revenue and the alleged trademark infringements didn’t occur within the United States.

Trader Joe’s applied for a Canadian trademark in 2010 but to date has not received approval. If the trademark is approved, Trader Joe’s can try to sue Hallatt in a Canadian court.

Not backing down

For now, Pirate Joe’s tagline is “Unaffiliated, Unauthorized, Unafraid,” and the store has a dedicated following despite the added burden of a weak Canadian dollar increasing the prices of some goods. It seems there are many people who like to buy Trader Joe’s products without having to take the time to drive to the U.S. and endure border waits.  

A 2013 Financial Post article on retailers who have not come to Canada listed Trader Joe’s as the number one company Canadians would like to see here.

Should Trader Joe’s ever open shop in Canada, Hallatt says he will close his store. As for being sued by a company he has a deep affection for, he doesn’t let it bother him.

There are two sides to Trader Joe’s, he said. One is the big corporate company, the other is the people who run the stores and come up with the great food ideas.

“They are really the soul of the company. That appeals to me.”

For every challenge, there’s been a funny story to go along with it. Like the time he was busted by police who thought he was going to rob a drugstore. He was outside the drugstore dressing in drag to disguise himself for a shopping trip to a nearby Trader Joe’s.

Or the time one of his cats, a retired grandmother from Boston, was interviewed by Mo Rocca on CBS after being threatened by Trader Joe’s staff members.

Then there was the time he temporarily renamed his store after hamming it up with a TV news crew covering the lawsuit. They wanted him to put on a pirate hat or do something fun, so he got rid of a letter in the name.

“And if you think this guy is backing down, think again,” the news anchor intoned as Hallatt walked over to his window display and removed the letter P, changing the store’s name to Irate Joe’s.

He’s not irate anymore, and next week, if all goes according to an oft-delayed plan, he'll be open again and serving up all those Trader Joe’s goodies that his customers can’t wait to get their hands on.