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Rainbow goes beyond fuel and feta

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Rainbow goes beyond fuel and feta

Perhaps a byproduct of its roots in a spiritual community, Rainbow Grocery's focus on service has been a guiding force for the San Francisco co-op, but keen attention to business practices saved it from demise when other ideals-based groups were folding.

Started in 1975 by a San Francisco ashram on 16th Street near Valencia—at the time, a skid row—the store was part of the People's Food System, a network of stores that married inexpensive, pure food with community activism. Popular among the counterculture youth of the neighborhood, the store quickly shed its religious roots and morphed into a secular collective. A few years later, it left behind the People's Food System and its larger political aspirations to focus on food, fortuitously avoiding the network's later demise. Two locations and 32 years later, Rainbow Grocery's members still hold to its founding principles, applying them in new ways—from adding a biodiesel pump to maintaining the bulk section.

What started with a 2,000-square-foot shop and eight founders—who have all moved on to other endeavors—has become a 25,000-square-foot retail space run by a co-op of more than 200 members.

Cheese buyer Gordon Edgar, who's going on 14 years with Rainbow Grocery, orients all new members to the store's history and collective structure.

"We have people that stay a long time and work on the floor every day," he says. "We're not here just trying to capitalize on the new, growing organic market. We've been here the whole time. Our customers are loyal."

Jeff Ray, a co-op member of 16 years who works in the building-maintenance department and serves on the public-relations committee, attributes Rainbow's success and longevity to that customer loyalty, which he says also stem from quality products, low prices and a tangible commitment to the environment and community.

One of Rainbow's hallmarks is its massive bulk section, which draws tours from culinary institutes and elementary schools alike. Part of the department's success is that it not only cuts down on waste, but also cuts costs. Ray says Rainbow's buyers are frugal. "We have some space, so we try to get good deals, buy a lot and put it in the back," he says.

This is a store that also composts, has its lights automatically set to maximize daylight, installed solar panels on the roof and may add windmills—"ones that won't kill birds, obviously," Ray says.

"People who shop here realize they're not only shopping for the quality of the product, but helping support a system that is democratic and fair and healthy toward its workers. We don't take the planet lightly."

Ray, in fact, recently worked with a Rainbow founder, Bill Crolius, to create a pumping station for 100 percent recycled biodiesel at the store. After leaving Rainbow, Crolius helped create the San Francisco Biofuels Cooperative. Now its members can fill up their cars at the Rainbow loading dock three nights a week.

Despite its traditional roots and simple philosophy of providing low-cost, natural foods while minimizing its carbon footprint, Rainbow Grocery doesn't hesitate to embrace technology. Its Web site has become a priority, and in the next few months the site will include video and art. "We have no desire to be a mystery to people," Ray says. "We want people to mimic us."

Toward that end, Rainbow helped launch the People's Grocery in West Oakland, an area with few natural foods options. "We're wary of expanding ourselves, of starting a store and running it from somewhere else," Edgar says. "So helping somebody else start is very much in line with our mission. We're very supportive of other worker cooperatives opening."

Edgar says people have a hard time understanding the worker-owned cooperative, and assume that decision-making is slow and difficult in such a setup. "By taking a longer time to make decisions and having an open process about it, there's a lot less hassle after the fact, which is not necessarily true in other stores," he says. For big decisions, he says, members talk through an issue until a solution is reached. It's the smaller decisions that sometimes present problems. "When we moved to this location, we had to decide what color to paint the building. It was a huge fight between whether to paint it green or terra-cotta, and it really got angry until finally the board said, 'We're going to let the contractor decide,' and the contractor was sick of it so he painted it beige. It was the worst decision-making process ever—it's not beige anymore."

The paint dispute might have been a small price to pay for a staff comprising people who, because they share ownership, care deeply about what happens to the store and have a lot of pride in what they do. Take the cheese department, for example. Edgar and the others don't have to consult with anyone outside their department about what to buy or how to set up displays. And still, they've built one of the most knowledgeable cheese departments in the city, with a cheese blog to boot. They talk about their "cheese pride," a slogan that developed with the move to the current location in 1996. "When we got the plans, we realized we were in the back of the store, behind the pillar. We were like, 'OK, we've got to turn this around.' We made up buttons that had a triangular cheese logo and said 'cheese pride, cheese visibility.' Our department does have a lot of pride. Every department does."

Jessica Centers is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 162

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