If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve seen me mention Berkeley Bowl quite a few times. Besides the farmers markets and CSAs, it’s the place to go in the East Bay for produce and bulk foods. A huge store, it caters to those looking for organic, local foods, as well those desiring more exotic fare. It also carries products for mainstream shoppers who just want their Lean Cuisine. I think Berkeley Bowl tries to be all things to all people (although, as you’ll see below, they deny it), and therefore, it’s sometimes great and sometimes falls short.
Berkeley Bowl’s produce department is huge. Their web site says that it’s the largest in Northern California. Unlike Rainbow Grocery, which has a decent produce department of all-organics but also encourages its customers to shop at the farmer’s markets instead, Berkeley Bowl overflows with everything from 30 kinds of locally-grown tomatoes in the summertime to purple potatoes from Hawaii. And the prices are comparatively low.
Berkeley Bowl’s bulk section, on the other hand, is a distant second to Rainbow’s. Still, they have more bulk food bins than any other grocery I’ve found besides Rainbow, especially of dry foods like grains (including flours, whole grains, cereals, and pastas), beans, nuts, seeds, and some teas, herbs and spices. Where their bulk section is lacking for anyone trying to avoid plastic packaging is in “wet” foods. In fact, blocks of tofu are the only wet item that is sold in bulk, in the true sense of the word.
What I mean is that when I asked a store clerk where I could find bulk olive oil, he pointed to a shelf containing plastic containers of olive oil that had been pre-filled by the store. In other words, oils, fresh pasta, peanut butter, and any other wet item you might have been able to put in your own container at Rainbow have been packaged in a new container by Berkeley Bowl. So I suppose the idea is that the store buys it in bulk but doesn’t offer it to the customer in the same way.
And unlike Rainbow Grocery, Berkeley Bowl offers few if any bulk personal care products. I was able to purchase my gallon container of Dr. Bronner’s soap, but I don’t think I can go back for refills.
Another issue at Berkeley Bowl is that while I can depend on the store for dry bulk foods and produce when I miss the farmers market, I must never forget to bring my used plastic bags! Berkeley Bowl offers only new plastic bags for these items. Just a few weeks after I began my plastics project, I sent an e-mail to Berkeley Bowl asking why they don’t offer an alternative to plastic bags. Nearly a full month after sending that e-mail, I received their reply:
Subject: plastic bags
Date: Sat, 4 Aug 2007 15:06:33 -0700
From: “Evans, Larry”
I received your e-mail regarding plastic bags.
Thank you visiting Berkeley Bowl.
Yes, we [do] sell a wide variety of bulk items, and produce items also. We have been approached by manufacturers of corn based bags on several occasions in the past. At this point in time, corn based bags are 20 or more times as costly as resin based bags. As you may or may not know, our customers come to us for value. We offer a good selection at good prices. We fully want to do our part in helping to create a more “green” environment and economy, but we also need to be what our customers want us to be.
As a company, we would not mind paying more for a green solution to plastic bags. We have already started doing so in our kitchen area by using corn based plastic cups because although the price of them is higher than that of conventional cups, the gap is close enough for us to absorb without raising prices to the consumer. As technology improves, I think we can look forward to prices dropping to a point that we can do the same for plastic produce and grocery bags.
Unfortunately, using paper bags for produce exposes us to a different type of loss, and this exposure is one reason grocers started using plastic bags to begin with. People being people, will put high end items in the bottom of the bag, and inexpensive items in the top of the bag, hoping that the checker will ring the whole bag at the price of the inexpensive item. You may not believe this, but I have been around a long time, and have seen this happen many, many times first hand. It produces an uncomfortable experience for the checker, the front end supervisor, and customers alike. (You simply wouldn’t believe what people will try.)
Places like Whole Foods, Safeway, and Andronico’s have the ability to absorb these losses through their very high prices. We do not. We do not have the buying power of these big players and consequently we pay more for the merchandise, yet we sell it for less. This means we run on a very lean margin.
It is very easy for people to criticize us on all they feel that we do wrong. There is an old saying: “In business you can’t be all things to all people”. We simply try to do the best that we can to please as many as possible.
Perhaps that explains why my bottle of Dr. Bronner’s was $38.95 at Berkeley Bowl vs. $44.00 at Rainbow. And why a $0.99 roll of Seventh Generation Toilet paper from Berkeley Bowl is a whopping $1.35 at Rainbow. Like Berkeley Bowl, Rainbow is also an independent grocery store and probably can’t afford to absorb much loss either. But I guess by raising their prices, they can afford to trust their customers. They allow us to bring in our own containers for wet bulk foods, weigh the containers ourselves, and report the weight so it can be subtracted from the total. And they don’t bother to open the container to make sure it really contains what the customer has written on the label.
In fact, although Rainbow does offer free plastic bags for produce and dry bulk items (and I am currently waiting for a response to an e-mail I sent to Rainbow a couple of weeks ago about this very issue), they sell and encourage their customers to purchase and use organic cotton bulk bags, which are completely opaque. And they don’t check inside those either.
At Berkeley Bowl, by contrast, customers are required to bring their bulk foods to a central bulk foods counter to be weighed and labeled before checking out. Customers don’t write the bin number on the bag; the store clerk determines what’s actually in the bag and labels it. And I guess this would explain the wet bulk foods prepackaged in clear plastic containers. Berkeley Bowl chooses loss prevention over ecological sustainability and keeps its prices down. Rainbow is just the opposite. It saddens me that these choices have to be made. But until there is enough demand for alternative packaging, the sustainable option will carry a higher price tag at the checkout, while the true costs of environmentally harmful packaging will remain hidden from most American shoppers.
Still, I’ll continue to bring my own reused clear plastic bags to Berkeley Bowl and shop its bulk bins since they are just down the street rather than across the bay. And I may be willing to have a cold beverage from their kitchen, now that I know they use biodegradable cups. But I left my heart in San Francisco at Rainbow Grocery, and I’ll stock up there as frequently as I can.