The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
August 15, 2007

Store Report: Rainbow Grocery

I’ve mentioned Rainbow Grocery in quite a few posts, and now I’m going to explain it, so those folks who are not lucky enough to live in the SF Bay Area will know what I’m talking about. Rainbow Grocery makes me wish I still lived in San Francisco. There’s a certain familiar smell and feel that I can only describe as “crunchy” that takes me back to the early 90’s when I’d first moved to San Francisco from Maryland and everything was new and wonderful. And even though Rainbow is no longer in its former location in the Mission District, it still has the same dreadlock-sporting, tattoo-wearing, shaved head, tie-dyed, just rolled out of bed looking staff and customers that make me feel so at home. (Even though I don’t actually look like any of them anymore.)

See the “staff” are all owners of this co-op grocery store, as well as workers. So it’s like it kind of is their home, sort of. Well, if their house were a huge warehouse with bins and bins of bulk foods and produce and all kinds of other natural products.

The entrance to Rainbow Grocery is a patio, where in addition to selling fresh herbs in Eco pots, they grow their own small native plant garden. In fact, Rainbow Grocery is currently the only Certified Green grocery store in San Francisco. You can read about their ecological practices here.

Inside is a wonder of fresh, organic produce, natural foods and body care products, and sustainable household products. But the main reason to shop at Rainbow are the bulk bins. Rainbow Grocery carries over 800 bulk items: herbs, teas, spices, coffee, over a dozen types of rice, over 30 types of flour, all kinds of beans, whole grains, dried pastas & noodles, oils, cereals, dried fruit, a full olive bar, nut butters, honey, miso, tofu, crackers and chocolate and trailmix, oh my!

If you were wondering how I have been avoiding buying foods wrapped in plastic lately, Rainbow Grocery is one of the ways. The system is beautiful. You bring your own containers to the weigh station near the back of the bulk foods section and weigh and label them empty. That way, the cashier can subtract the weight of the container from the total weight and only charge you for the contents. Rainbow also sells all kinds of empty containers for you to use if you forget to bring your own or need extras.

Alas, Rainbow does provide free plastic bags in the bulk section which are preprinted with their logo and a message about reusing the bags. I don’t know why they don’t use compostable bags. I’ll have to ask about that. In addition to the free plastic bags, they also sell organic cotton drawstring bags in 2 sizes. The bags are kind of pricey ($3.99 and $4.59), but I bought a few that I use for flour and other dry goods and then throw into the washing machine with the rest of the laundry. Washing out plastic bags is starting to become a headache, even with our handy Bag-E-Wash bag dryer.

Besides dry bulk pasta, I recently discovered the wonders of Rainbow’s bulk handmade fresh pastas. That’s right! I can bring my own containers and fill them up with different kinds of fresh ravioli or gnocchi. I’ve stopped whining about finding plastic-free frozen entrees because I can stock up on these and freeze them for later. (Thanks for small miracles.)

Cheese is another story. As I mentioned in a post last week, I can bring a container to the cheese counter and have it filled with whatever they happen to be cutting at the moment. But it’s a lottery, really, and since I don’t care for every kind of cheese (moldy blue veins, no thanks), I’m not going to count on this method.

On the other side of the store, Rainbow carries personal care and household products. Some of these are offered in bulk too: liquid soaps, shampoos, massage oils, lotions, bath salts, henna, dish soap, washing soda, laundry detergent, even boric acid and diatomaceous earth. And then there is a whole counter devoted to essential oils, many of which are offered in bulk.

There are also, of course, aisles of vitamins and supplements, packaged foods, frozen and refrigerated foods, mostly organic produce, and wines. The only grocery item you won’t find at Rainbow is meat. But I’m not a huge meat-eater and for those times when I really need some flesh, I am happy to get it somewhere else.

Rainbow’s packaged items tend to be a bit more expensive than what I’ve found in other stores. For example, a roll of Seventh Generation toilet paper is $1.35 at Rainbow; whereas, it costs .99 at Berkeley Bowl. (I’ll write a full report on Berkeley Bowl in a few days.) And a 1 gallon bottle of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap costs $44.95 at Rainbow. Berkeley Bowl sells it for $38.75. And buying a lot of perishable foods at Rainbow is not practical for me anyway since I have to cart them across the bay on public transporation. The real reason to make the journey all the way down to Rainbow is for those wondrous, plastic-saving bulk bins.

7 comments
Sarah
Sarah

I am embarking on my own less waste/less plastic journey, and decided to read your old posts for inspiration. Man I wish we had bulk stores like Rainbow in Utah! One big issue I have faced on my green journey is the lack of bulk items here. Compared to California we are sorely lacking. Maybe I should just move...

Louda
Louda

I feel like I'm in Oz when I'm at Rainbow... here's a funny poem another reviewer wrote about it:I left my eggplantIn San FranciscoI know it will turnipAt the store Rainbow.Where the workers are so niceYou can buy your beans & riceAnd you can even find vegan food to go.My favorite health food storeIs over the RainbowThe bulk food section, it calls to meeeeeeWhen I get home to you, little RainbowI'll eat golden raisins and russet potatoesand sharp kimchee.I love that other people see this as a haven, too.

axelle
axelle

I discovered it is easy to wash and dry plastic bags once I started thinking of them as containers instead of plastic bags. I wash them, inside and out, just as I would wash a glass or plastic container, and dry them, inside and out, with a dishtowel. Works fast, works great.

Anonymous
Anonymous

i forgot to say YAY to the no meat or profit from meat products. that's awesome and in turn motivates me to maybe make a stop after work when there are less people there! *marika

Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank
Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank

Hi Sunny.I have noticed that being frugal and being green often overlap. There's a web site that I read often called Wise Bread, which is all about ways to save money. But I quite often find ways to use fewer resources, recipes for less toxic products, etc.And about Trader Joe's, they are a mystery, aren't they? More on them later. They're opening up near my house this year.

Sunny
Sunny

I used to have a store like this down the street from me in Corvallis but in Salem it's a bit further away. I have learned to buy less frequently and buy what I really need though so that's probably better anyways. I can't believe more people don't buy stuff in bulk. The idea of spices alone in those little glass/plastic containers that cost an arm and a leg and aren't fresh just kills me. It wasn't that I've always been trying to be green, I am just practical. Buy what you need, don't pay for packaging, and hey it's green too. Hope it encourages others!PS What's up with stores like Trader Joe's (I don't have one very close) wrapping all of their produce in plastic?

Anonymous
Anonymous

i've read some negative things about rainbow and their workers in the papers lately...have you heard any of this.also...we always wanted to go there but everytime we're in that area we get scared by the massive amounts of people there. neither the boyfriend or i do particularly well in crowds. the stupidity of others just overwhelms me and irritates me to no end so most weekends i opt to not go rather than deal with all that. is there a time that you've noticed the store to be more empty than others? *marika