Morning came early for Esteban Garcia’s mother when he was growing up. “On days she wasn’t working, she would up early getting breakfast ready before the roosters were even up,” says Garcia, who now heads up the public relations and bulk hiring committees at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery . The reward of being raised in a Mexican household, says Garcia, was that there was never any shortage of food. “Meat, rice, and beans around the clock!”
Garcia learned to love to cook and it remains one of his favorite things to do. “It’s the reason why I’m part of the organic food service industry,” he says. “People should have access to good organic food at [an affordable] price.”
Garcia worked at numerous natural food stores throughout California before landing at Rainbow Grocery. “The idea of a worker-owned coop really sparked my interest,” he says. Garcia sparked Rainbow Grocery’s interest as well, and the fit was natural. In his four years at the coop, Garcia has become trained in the housewares, produce, and bakery departments, as well as becoming fully versed in his main areas of responsibility: bulk foods and public relations.
Now celebrating its 40th year, Rainbow Grocery is a landmark coop in the San Francisco natural foods scene. Its counterculture roots in the 1970s imbue it with a rich history. Rainbow Grocery was an offshoot of a local ashram’s bulk food buying program and it opened with all-volunteer labor. Although the store eventually began to turn a profit and was able to compensate staff, the store’s founders were committed to fair labor practices. Instead of realizing personal gains, they turned surplus revenues into increased compensation for the store’s workers and investments in the store’s expansion. Four decades later, the store’s operations are still guided by the principles of education, strong community connections, and a healthy and inclusive work environment.
It’s why Garcia likes working at Rainbow Grocery. “Rainbow donates to numerous organizations, schools and grass roots projects,” he says. “We also sponsor local events and give back to our community as much as possible. Rainbow is a worker-owned coop meaning I benefit from all the work I put into my company (not a corporate big-wig you never see). Profits are shared amongst the coop and the community.”
Rainbow Grocery’s customers are as diverse as its product offerings. In fact, the customers are the reason the grocery’s shelves are so well-stocked with products not frequently found in other stores. “We’re extremely proud of the types of customers we draw in. I get to work with people coming from all sorts of backgrounds, lifestyles, race, and religion,” says Garcia. “Artists, activists, vegans, teachers, doctors, chefs, business women/men, anarchists, punks, musicians, farmers; we try to cater to everyone’s needs and lifestyles.” He continues, “Having customers who are socially aware helps us when hunting for quality products.”
The theme of quality products produced with minimal negative social and environmental consequences is one echoed throughout all aspects of Rainbow Grocery. Buyers for each department exercise their own buying styles, but Garcia says “one thing that is consistent when buying new products is quality. When looking to add potential items to our shelves, we screen for the best quality products around.” He adds, “Bluebird Grain Farms fit the bill for us.”
They also seek out producers who are equally committed to fair labor practices, like Bluebird, whose Whole Grain Emmer Farro, Potlatch Pilaf, and Split Emmer Farro can be found in Rainbow’s bulk foods department. “Rainbow has always big in the fight for fair labor practice and for quality treatment of our vendors and farmers,” says Garcia. This dedication to labor rights extends to the store’s annual closure on March 31 for Cezar E. Chavez Day, to honor the labor and civil rights movement he led.
“I could go on and on about why I love this place,” continues Garcia. “We offer our workers a livable wage along with cheap health benefits. We share our profits with our workers and community.” But it’s not just the staff advantages that Garcia appreciates, it’s the close and supportive relationship with the surrounding community. Rainbow offers donations and cooperative grants programs, investing in education, social justice, the arts, health awareness, environmental protection, sustainable agriculture, human and animal rights, and community development. They build strong ties with other local small businesses. They even offer guidance to starting your own coop. Garcia says “When customers shop at Rainbow, they’re not only buying groceries. They’re keeping the money in the community!”
Rainbows are formed when water droplets break sunlight into colors, casting a feeling of optimism over an area. Rainbow Grocery has this same effect, illuminating the sentiment of hope that is inspired by a dedication to healthy food, cooperative organization and sustainable living.
For more information about Rainbow Grocery, visit their website.