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Joolie Geldner of Rainbow Grocery: A Worker-Owner Co-op


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As the only Certified Green grocery store in San Francisco, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative is unique in more ways than one.

First of all, you won't find any meat in Rainbow. If you are not a vegetarian or vegan, don't let that turn you off from shopping here though. This is the best selection of natural, organic, fair-trade, local, international, sustainable, and raw foods next to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. It's not too often that you find a grocery store with a mission statement either. With an extensive recycling, composting, and "daylight harvesting" program, it is clear that this is more than a green grocery store - it is a community.

Secondly, the store is a co-op; not just your usually grocery chain. As described by Rainbow:

It's true that many people use the terms "co-op" and "collective" interchangeably, but there are some distinctions. A collective is a business that operates exclusively or almost exclusively through direct democracy (i.e. "flat structure," "no hierarchy") whereas "cooperative" is a term that encompasses collectives as well as member-owned and operated businesses that use representative democracy and/or managers. It could be said that Rainbow is a cooperative made up of collectives (our individual departments). Unlike 'Consumer' Co-ops we are not owned by our shoppers, but by our workers.

I've personally been shopping at Rainbow for over three months now and I can't imagine going anywhere else for my weekly food needs (minus the previously-mentioned farmer's market, of course). At first, my boyfriend was a bit hesitant because: 1. they had no meat (I'm a vegetarian, but he is not) and 2. it is on the opposite side of town that we live on. Despite these challenges, we have risen to the occasion and are passionate Rainbow customers. As environmentalist, it doesn't make sense to shop anywhere else in the city.

Recently, I had a chat with Joolie Geldner, a member of the Rainbow Grocery Public Relations Committee and a Bulk Department Member. As with all the other employees at Rainbow, Joolie was more than happy to answer a few questions for me.

Victoria Everman: What is it about Rainbow Grocery that sets it apart from all the other markets in the city?

Joolie Geldner: Many things set Rainbow apart from other grocers in San Francisco. For one, we are one of only two cooperatively owned and operated natural foods stores in the Bay Area (the other being, Other Avenues on Judah in the City). This means that there is no one owner, no single boss making all the profit off of the workers effort. We do not have a managerial structure (so no bosses or managers) and try to run our business as democratically as possible. Considering our size, nearly two hundred worker/owners, the fact that we are able to retain this level of democracy is a testament to how cooperative can really succeed.

Another way we are different than your average grocers or even natural grocers is our selection. We strive to have not only everyday good quality, ethical staple groceries but stock our shelves with many hard to find items for food, health and body. In fact, many of our customers travel from all over the Bay Area to shop at Rainbow not only for our premium selection but also for our prices. We intentionally keep a low mark-up on staple items and are consistently lower in price than other natural foods stores on most items.

VE: How did you first get involved with Rainbow Grocery?

JG: I first got involved with Rainbow Grocery Cooperative as a shopper back in 1998. I came from Minneapolis, where community owned consumer cooperatives were extremely popular and was excited to find another coop in San Francisco. When I leaned more about Rainbow, that not only is it cooperatively owned by its workers but that the workers collectively run the store, or that it is a store that sells no meat, I felt even better about shopping there. In fact, I felt so inspired and in-line with the Rainbow mission statement that I decided to try to become part of the cooperative. So, in 2000 in was hired into the Bulk Food department and seven years later and still inspired.

VE: Do you ever feel that your store is competing with other "sustainable" grocers, such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or even the big Saturday Farmer's Market on Embarcadero?

JG: Competition is always a factor in almost any business, but especially the natural foods industry which has been growing at an unforeseen rate in the last ten years. It's such a large new market that even conventional supermarkets like Safeway are dedicating large space in there stores to “natural foods” or creating their own line of organics. In some ways, this type of competition can be seen as a difficult situation for an independent natural foods store: hard to compete with chain store prices, or certain perks that come with large store money. But mostly for Rainbow, we look at it as an expansion of the market, an expansion of education, a way to reach more people with healthy food. The more people that start caring about and turning to natural foods means the more business for all. Also, since one of our main focuses in on local economy and supporting local businesses and farmers, we encourage people to shop at the Farmers Markets, even though that is directly taking business away from us.

VE: Currently, Rainbow Grocery is the only grocery store that is a certified green business by the city of San Francisco; was that a difficult process to go through? Why do you think there aren't more certified green markets?

JG: The San Francisco Green Business Certification was not necessarily a difficult process, but a very stringent one. They have many excellent and stringent requirements about waste production, energy use and other green factors for businesses in order to achieve certification. These requirements probably factor into why there are not as many Certified Green Businesses in the City: it takes a lot of commitment and consistency. It wasn’t a lot of extra work for Rainbow because being a green business has always been part of our mission since the beginning. We’ve always composted all our in-house vegetable and food waste, had extensive recycling and stayed current with energy saving upgrades like our solar power roof.

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