Before Whole Foods, There Was Rainbow Grocery

San Francisco's first major organic and natural food store helped pioneer how we eat today

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Rainbow Grocery store counter

Updated Jun 12, 2017 @ 3:26 pm

By Rachel Levin

If you’re interested in knowing where many of the latest trends in natural, organic foods and products get their start, then turn your eyes to San Francisco, where at the historic Rainbow Grocery in the Mission District, you’ll find the proverbial pot of gold.

Since 1975, when the natural foods collective was started by members of a hippie ashram, Rainbow Grocery has embraced the ideals of the organic food movement and communal, progressive values. What began as a group of volunteers selling staples like oatmeal and whole-wheat flour out of barrels has morphed into an enormous worker-owned warehouse-like space that stocks one of the most mind-blowing selections of healthy foods and products you’ll ever encounter—all vegetarian aside from animal food. Especially notable is their niche selection of products from small, local Bay Area food artisans that—you guessed it—often become trendsetters for the nation.

“One of my favorite aspects of our store is that we are very often an entry point for new endeavors in the health food market,” says Destin Morris, a Rainbow Grocery worker-owner who gave Clean Plates a recent tour. “Very frequently, we stock something on our shelves before any other retailers.” For example, they carried Evolution juices and Odwalla when they were “teeny tiny little juice companies,” says Morris—long before they were acquired by Starbucks and Coca-Cola, respectively.

Spices at Rainbow Grocery

Being on the front line of trends isn’t necessarily by design. “We don’t seek trends,” says Morris. Due to Rainbow’s reputation as a gateway to some of the nation’s most discerning healthy tastemakers, food artisans often approach Rainbow first. According to Morris, “They kind of end up seeking us to help launch them. And we’re very receptive to doing that.” Because of the co-op structure, Rainbow isn’t as motivated by profit as national corporate competitors, so buyers in each department have more flexibility to take a risk on something brand new and untested.

The buyers are also über-specialists in their fields. To understand the co-op’s structure, says Morris, “Think of it like the federal government, and each department is kind of like a state. They break themselves up into very small specialty sections and then they just nerd out on that section,” which means workers may spend their whole career at Rainbow specializing in one area like produce, crackers or tea. This allows Rainbow to stay at the forefront of new and exciting goods in each specialty section.

Making the decision to stock a brand-new item is equally grounded in Rainbow’s historic values. “We try to keep the healthiest possible option in mind, and that can be a lot of levels,” says Morris, explaining that buyers ask themselves a multitude of questions: “What’s healthy and unhealthy for the farmers growing it? What’s healthy for the economy of the place where that’s coming from? Are those people being given a fair living wage for their work?” If an item is not healthy on all of those levels, it won’t find its way on to Rainbow’s shelves.

While the store’s offerings are overwhelmingly certified organic, Rainbow also makes a concerted effort to buy from small, local farmers who use organic growing practices but may not be able to afford expensive certification. Rainbow keeps signed legal affidavits on file that attest to each farm’s sustainable practices so that these valuable small-scale operations aren’t excluded from the market.

“We’re definitely a crew of idealists,” says Morris. “It’s a lot of hippie magic.”

Here are five exciting, healthy new products we encountered on our tour:

1. Local Wild Sea Beans: This green marine plant with a slightly salty taste and crunchy texture is growing in popularity, especially among local chefs who may pickle them or use them in salads.

2. Odang Udon and Veggie Broth: These locally crafted noodles, launched via food truck, are the first and only fresh, preservative-free udon made in the U.S. Pair the noodles with the savory broth enriched with kombu seaweed.

3. Yum Yum Tonics Drinking Vinegar Concentrate: Sipping vinegars are trending as a healthy and unique way to flavor cocktails or mocktails. Made in the Bay Area, these tonics blend apple cider vinegar with local, seasonal fruit-and-root infusions and come in flavors like hibiscus-rose and strawberry-rosehips.

4. Haverton Hill Creamery Sheep Milk: Are sheep the new goats? Sheep’s milk—which is more easily digestible and has twice the protein of cow’s milk—is garnering quite a local following. This Petaluma dairy’s glass bottles of the creamy, unctuous beverage are increasingly popular.

5. Jamnation Jams:  No longer just for toast, jam is showing up on local cheese plates and in marinades, stir-frys and more. Made in the Bay Area with local, organic fruit, exotic spices and organic, unrefined, fair-trade cane sugar, these crazy delicious jams come in punny flavors like Apricot Up in the Moment (Royal Blenheim apricots with almond extract) and Midnight in Pearis (Bosc pears with Madagascar vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon).