Rave: Rainbow Grocery

The longer I live in the East Bay, the more I miss Rainbow Grocery.

I’d expected to miss my beloved little BiRite, but I figured we’d find plenty of alternatives to Rainbow. After all, Rainbow is an old school health food store, and I figured that by moving closer to Berkeley, I’d be closer to the country’s original health food stores, probably still run by aging hippies.

But I’ve been sorely disappointed in the East Bay’s grocery stores. Even the famed Berkeley Bowl left me cold. Sure it has a huge produce section, but I get my produce at the farmers market, and aside from produce, I found little to distinguish the Bowl from any other grocery store.

I do appreciate that many East Bay markets carry local foods, but they’re often priced far higher than San Francisco stores do (or even the farmers markets). Straus milk at the grocery store closest to our East Bay home is twice what BiRite charges (and BiRite isn’t exactly known for their low prices). They also charge $11 for a pack of Primavera tamales that we can get at the farmers market for $8.

Of course, I could try to go to a different store that charges less, but most stores close right around the time that I’m getting off BART. (This could be another post: why do so many places in the East Bay close so early? Grocery stores close at 7pm on weekdays (earlier on weekends!) and even many restaurants close by 9pm. Is this because the E.B. is packed full of families and kids are put to bed by 9pm? Please explain.)

Rainbow is different: it’s open until 9pm; it stocks lots of local foods and it charges less for them. You’ll find food from some of the same farmers that come to the Ferry Building Farmers Market: produce from Knoll Farms, Rancho Gordo beans (in bulk and cheaper than anywhere I’ve seen), St. Benoit yogurt  (again cheaper!), raviolis from The Pasta Shop (in bulk!), Primavera tamales.

Rainbow’s bulk section is unparalleled. You can get nearly any grain, legume, dried pasta, chocolate chips, olive oil, vinegars, tea, even salt in bulk. Their bulk selection goes beyond food, though: you can also get organic liquid soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and laundry detergent. It made it easy to make ‘greener’ choices. We brought home far less packaging when we shopped there. Our pantry was transformed from disposable to reusable. We threw out less, too, by simply refilling a container of hand soap, for example, instead of buying a whole new bottle.

If you haven’t been to Rainbow yet, a few words of warning: it’s not Whole Foods. It’s a basically a warehouse, the floors are concrete, the cashiers may have dreads and aren’t likely to chat with you, they don’t sell any meat, and it’s in an absolutely hideous location (South of Market, under the freeway) — a place I hate to walk or drive.  But you should go there. I mistakenly avoided Rainbow for years for exactly these reasons, but now I struggle to live without it.


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