Rainbow Grocery Cooperative

A Worker-Owned Coop

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From their website.

We opened our store in San Francisco’s Mission District over 40 years ago. Since then, we have always worked to offer the widest selection of organic and locally sourced products at the most affordable price. Along with being your local, independent grocery store, we are also a resource for our community to exchange information about the health and sustainability of the foods we eat.

As a worker-owned cooperative, those of us who work here are more than simply the people who stock your favorite products, recommend a favorite cheese or ring up your groceries. We are the owners and decision-makers of the business. While we have come to work here for many different reasons, we all share the common desire to work in a fair, democratic workplace where everyone’s opinion matters. So, not only do we hope to make a difference by providing healthy food and organic products to everyone who shops with us, we believe that our successful business model for cooperative work is also putting the ideals of sustainable living into practice.

Since we moved to our current location at 13th and Folsom, we have more than doubled our workforce from about 85 people to over 250. While we add new worker/owners every year, some of us are celebrating our 20th, 30th, even 40 year anniversaries as part of the coop!
Rainbow is more than just a job for us. And we hope that for you, our store is more than just a place to find healthy, organic food!

The Origin of Rainbow

The early years
Although it quickly became a secular project, Rainbow Grocery was started by a spiritual community, an ashram that existed in San Francisco in the early 1970s. In order to have access to inexpensive, vegetarian foods, the ashram had a bulk food-buying program. The buying program was coordinated by Rich Israel, an ashram member who also worked for the People’s Common Operating Warehouse of San Francisco, a political project using food distribution as a form of community organizing and political education. The People’s Warehouse was striving to build a “People’s Food System,” including a network of small community food stores throughout San Francisco. Rich helped convince the ashram to launch a community food store.

When Rainbow opened in the summer of 1975, the People’s Food System already had two stores: Seeds of Life, in the lower Mission, and Noe Valley Community Store. The ashram members who organized the opening of Rainbow Grocery ­ (Rich Israel, Janet Crolius, Bill Crolius, and John David Williams)­ did so largely by studying and copying the operations of the Noe Valley store.

Around that time, many other community food stores opened, including: Community Corners (Bernal Heights), Noe Valley Community Store, Haight Community Store, Inner Sunset Community Store, Other Avenues Cooperative (Outer Sunset), The Good Life Grocery (Potrero Hill), Flatland Community Store (Berkeley), Ma Revolution (Berkeley), The New Oakland Community Store (Oakland) and Rainbow Grocery (The Mission).

The first Rainbow store was located on 16th Street near Valencia (where Gestalt Haus now resides). Despite the rundown nature of the street, Rainbow’s location turned out to be auspicious as it was close to many neighborhoods populated by counterculture youth. Rainbow quickly became the busiest of the dozen or so community food stores launched in the mid-70s.

Rainbow opened with exclusively volunteer labor. After the first few months, there was enough income to pay the project’s two most active workers (its de facto coordinators) something approximating minimum wage. As the store became increasingly successful, it was able to bring more workers on paid staff, although people were generally not brought on to payroll until after several months of consistent volunteering. As the staff at Rainbow grew larger, the need for more defined organizational relationships increased.

A business blossoms

For the purpose of simplicity, Rainbow was started under the legal ownership of founders Janet and Bill Crolius. Though the store operated collectively, this meant that Bill and Janet were responsible for reporting Rainbow’s operations on their tax forms and were responsible for any debts or lawsuits; in 1976 they transferred ownership to a nonprofit corporation. When incorporating, Rainbow workers simply adapted the corporate documents of the People’s Warehouse, which included the Warehouse’s statement of six political principles underlying the Food System. Including the six principles was done, in part, as an attempt to appease Warehouse’s activists who thought Rainbow was not political enough. Copying from the Warehouse’s incorporation documents also simplified the legal work. Unfortunately, the Warehouse’s legal model was not very appropriate or functional. The Warehouse had written up their incorporation documents with the hopes of obtaining tax-exempt charitable status, which they were unable to do. While Rainbow’s workers already knew Rainbow Grocery would not qualify as a tax-exempt charity, they still incorporated using the nonprofit model of the Warehouse.

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