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Apr 13, 2009 08:36 PM

The Rainbow Grocery thread - what to buy?

Rainbow Grocery gets reccomended often when people are looking for specific items.

However, what specifically is good there? What should be avoided.

As of this date Yelp has almost 700 posts about Rainbow. I gave up reading them at about 80 because they all said the same general thing ... outstanding bulk section, high prices, no meat sold, bad parking, and personal comments about the staff.

But WHAT are the outstanding, amazing bulk items?

I went Saturday to check out the bulk sauerkraut.

The last time I went to Rainbow was probably around the time it opened at the current location. I swear at the time they had NO parking at all ... no garage on the side.

What attracted me this time is that they sell Rancho Gordo beans in bulk, They aren't any less expensive, but I like the idea of being able to try out small quantities of the beans.

The black olives with cumin are really swell with a nice spicy burn. the olives with cinnamon and cardamom were fine, but sounded more interesting

How is the Trader Point whole milk and yogurt? I don't think I've seen another place sell St. Benoit yogurt in quart mason jars ... not even the farmers markets I frequent. For St Benoit, it was a really good price.

I never even heard of raw colostrum milk. It sounds scary.

I know this is a long shot and I should just pick some up next time, but has anyone tried something called 'Inka'? It is a mix of barley, rye, chicory, beet root powder. It seems to be mixed with water to make some sort of porridge?

Maybe Saturday is the big sample day, but they really, really had lots of free samples. What I liked best was Marieke raw milk gouda with foenegreek which is aged on pine planks imported from Holland.

I may be wrong, but produce didn't seem to be a strength and it seemed even more pricey than Whole Foods. However, there were quite a few yelp comments that while the selection was small it was very good.

They really have a big selection of wheat free bread and baked goods

They sell Primavera tortillas. They also sell Tortilla Factory organic tortillas, but they have guar gum in them. I haven't seen Grindstone Bakery breads at markets where I usually shop.

They even have cooking demos some times. On March 7th they had a demo down the street at Chez Spencer by Bryant Terry, author of Vegan Soul Kitchen

A few things I gleaned from reading the Rainbow website and reapeated comments on yelp.

- they have a cheese registry where if you are in the store and find a cheese you like they will record it so you don't forget. I wish Cheeseboard had something like this as I often forget what I tried and liked.

- ask and you can get a sample of any cheese

- they will special order items and they have a pretty good turn around, usually a few days

- On Wednesday and Thursday there is a 20% discount using a coupon found in the AT&T yellow pages of the phone book. It is a zoo on coupon night

- there is a Bakery Delivery Schedule on the website so you can tell when each bread is delivered

- there is a discount if you bring your own containers. If you bring a heavy container like glass, take it to the customer service desk to get weighed and they will mark it so the weight is subtracted.

- There are a number of discounts for various groups such as the SF Bike Coalition, senior citizens, etc

- additional parking spaces available every day of the week from 12 noon to 8pm. The garage is located at 1748 Folsom (across Folsom Street from Rainbow).

While the staff is great, it is hard to believe there is a place where the customers are more, uh, preoccupied than either Whole Foods or Berkeley Bowl. It is like Berkeley Bowl before the move on steroids. The pattern seems to be for people to stand in the middle of narrow aisles and strategically place their cart to block whatever remaining room there is. They then peer endlessly at the shelves, oblivious to anyone around them. The poor dears obviously have hearing problems as well so the only way to get by is to enunciate clearly and loudly “Excuse me” ... a number of times.

So, what have I missed. What do you specifically recommend to buy ... or avoid.

Rainbow Grocery
1745 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94103

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  1. The current location use to be a St. Vincent DePaul and the old RG use to be on Mission and 14th(?) and it was scary as hippie funk.

    Any way, no rec's on the bulk but comprehensive and fresh, stuff seems to move and the stuff seems clean as opposed to being there years. I buy beans and lentils from them. The produce is sub-par but's like they have no concept for buying produce...or they have pre-existing relationships. I use to buy apples and some citrus when I lived in SF but that was it. The cheese section is huge but I'm not a cheesehead.

    Price-wise, a bit more expensive then other places but if I'm there and need something, I buy it there. Huge and very good natural health section.

    The clientele are a hoot because you get all kind, as are the workers...real pre dot com SF hipster, self involved, boho the old mission art scene. I find the workers charming in that sort of slacker way but great, not sure if that's the word. The people on the floor are helpful but cash register people are affected. I don't really mind aloof or attitude but cellphone calls while you check'n.

    That said, I do like RG. I hope they stay in business because it's like a living time capsule in there.

    1. The cheese staff are just wonderful. Super friendly and enthusiastic, approachable, and what they don't tell you they write on those little cards that they balance on top of all the cheeses.

      The grains, the flours, the oddball baking items in bulk, I find pretty unbeatable. About twelve years ago they gave in and allowed white sugar, IIRC, and they haven't looked back.

      The herbs, the bulk seaweeds, the nut butters, the dried mushrooms, the bulk oils and vinegars and soy sauces are first-rate, encyclopedic and fun.

      It's a great place to experiment with the bulk brand-name alternative cleaning products and personal care stuff. You can bring home fifty cents worth of henna and see what happens, do one wash load with some kind of vegan lavender soap powder, etc.

      When I had little babies in the house I appreciated the excessive variety of baby foods and gruels my mother had never encountered--cream of amaranth, anyone?

      The produce is definitely anomalous, and I think the canned and "ethnic" sections are weak also, but really in every other department the buyers are knowledgeable and continually experimenting. This is what I like the best--that I can get over there three or four times a year and find stuff all over the store that I haven't run across anywhere else. And I find the prices competitive, too.

      1. What I buy at Rainbow:
        Swanton's jams
        chocolate bars
        sometimes tea

        What I generally don't buy there: produce, which tends to be local, organic, but pricey and not sufficiently beautiful. I don't shop in bulk and find the self-serve stuff intimidating. If I remember I need popcorn, great, but seeing 10 kinds of rice in huge containers doesn't make me want to buy any. Ditto for quinoa.

        I do prefer the atmosphere at the Bowl (not on a Sunday) or Whole Foods. And I don't agree the staff at Rainbow is great; the front registers are hellish. The focus is not generally on service, (not like at Bi-Rite, where they will slice cheese for 20 minutes in an attempt to find the perfect pairing, without any pressure to buy). The Rainbow cheese people are great though.

        1. The most comprehensive bulk food selection, mostly organic. Neither Whole foods nor Berkeley Bowl comes close. Great dried bean selection—flageolets, scarlet runners, white runners, the Rancho Gordos. Great bulk seaweed, sea salts. Great dried herb selection, bulk teas. Personally I love having 10 different kinds of rice, much of which is organic. Just bought some "bamboo rice", lovely pale green and said to have a scent of vanilla when cooked, but I've yet to try it. Excellent selection of natural and organic personal care products (and don't say this isn't food related, it's food for the skin!). Bulk umeboshi!
          One of the few cheese shops which regularly carries Cantal.
          I think the produce section is improved recently, but not as good as the farmers markets.
          Ever since they moved to this location I think of it as creditable one stop shopping for the organic, natural foodie. Wish they could see their way to selling sustainably raised meat, but I respect that they stick to their principles.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Armoise

            Berkeley Bowl has that green rice too. I like it but never could detect that vanilla scent

          2. As a (gulp) 28 year veteran of the place, I find this a hard question to answer. So I might end up with multiple answers. (BTW, it was located on 16th btwn Valencia & Guerrero when I first started shopping there -- a tiny little store.)

            The bulk tea and spices are unbeatable. All of their spices are kept fresh, and there are often multiple sources/varieties. Bulk nuts, grains, pastas, oils, miso, tamari, tahini, peanut butter, olives, yeast, dried fruits, dried 'rooms... you get the idea. Best selection of granolas. Great selection in the dairy coolers, especially juices. Great selection of vinegars. You've already mentioned the cheese department -- I never miss a chance to sample whatever they have out for tasting.

            Sure, the ever-so-PC-and-holier-than-thou produce is not as beatiful as BB/WF... truly local, organic produce does have blemishes. The ones that cull it down to the beautiful specimens are selling luxury and not the whole package. That said, I do tend to pick and choose what I buy from the produce dept.