The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 15, 2007

Store Report: Rainbow Grocery

rainbow_logoI’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.

rainbow_gardenThe 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_bulkRainbow 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.)

rainbow_cheeseCheese 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 transportation. The real reason to make the journey all the way down to Rainbow is for those wondrous, plastic-saving bulk bins.

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3 years ago

Is it possible to bring into the discussion of buying in bulk an issue that faces people with Coeliac disease? I have been reducing and attempting to eliminate plastic in my home for some time. I have a medically diagnosed gluten free diet, and it is rare, if not impossible to be able to buy bulk foods that are confirmed gluten free and uncontaminated. Restocking of bulk containers often contaminates products with gluten, either by handling products/utensils simultaneously or by changing containers without consideration of the potential contamination impact. This causes no harm to non-coeliacs, but for coeliacs, it is dramatic and ensures I continue to need plastic wrapping on any gf flours and pastas I buy. I make almost everything else, but need these basic ingredients in order to do that. I seek out and have found some products packaged in paper. However, the majority, are plastic wrapped, or bulk foods are listed as potentially contaminated.

3 years ago

rainbows compostable plastic bulk bags are actually compost-worthy! unlike most other green compost bags, rainbow has a special one partnered with SF Recology to make sure that they actually get recycled and are according to recologys standards. note, most recycling composting factories do not heat their material long enough for the lids, straws, bags to properly break down. also, did you know rainbow is solar photovoltaic powered too? (by my family business ;) )

11 years ago

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…

16 years ago

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 eggplant
In San Francisco
I know it will turnip
At the store Rainbow.
Where the workers are so nice
You can buy your beans & rice
And you can even find vegan food to go.
My favorite health food store
Is over the Rainbow
The bulk food section, it calls to meeeeee
When I get home to you, little Rainbow
I’ll eat golden raisins and russet potatoes
and sharp kimchee.

I love that other people see this as a haven, too.

16 years ago

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.

16 years ago

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 Terry
16 years ago

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.

16 years ago

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

16 years ago

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?