I’ve been wanting to visit Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco for over ten years, ever since a friend visited and described it as a ‘huge, huge version of Unicorn’, a weird concept to me at the time given that Unicorn is itself unusually large compared with the UK’s fairly tiny wholefood shop norm!
And Rainbow is, quite simply, massive. Its retail floorspace is at least five or six times that of Unicorn’s, and departments that take up a shelf or two at Unicorn have their own Rainbow aisle. If you’re lucky to live nearby you literally wouldn’t need to go anywhere else. Its bulk section is probably the most inspiring, offering not just the staple grains, pulses, dried fruits and spices but a heady range of fresh pastas, nut butters, condiments, oils and snacks. Rainbow reckons upto 50% of bulk purchases are packed into customers’ own re-used bags and jars, a huge packaging saving.
But as a co-op geek, and part of a co-op that’s experiencing sustained and rapid growth, it’s Rainbow’s internal structure that interests me the most. While sixty five or so members at Unicorn sometimes feel like a lot, Rainbow’s structure allows for participative, democratic governance by a seriously impressive two hundred and fifty people.
It achieves this by operating as a co-op of multiple collectives - the shop departments and function areas. Each department operates with a very high level of autonomy, doing their own recruitment, rota-ing, peer evaluation and strategic planning. We love our multi-tasking roles at Unicorn, and before visiting Rainbow I had envisaged this meaning that members only ever worked in the department they were hired by. But happily, there are lots of opportunities to work in multiple areas, in fact members are encouraged to do so. Multi-tasking also happens within teams, meaning many members, if they want to, carry out a real mixture of practical shop-floor work and management-type roles.
Despite its size, Rainbow's as comitted as ever to its founding ethics of workplace democracy, anti-oppressive practices, and sustainable, healthy food. It’s been great to see a working model of a business so similar to Unicorn on this kind of scale. We’re not likely to reach 250 members any time soon(!), but it’s always reassuring to learn about effective models that could be utilised to see us through further growth. And to be reminded that getting big doesn't mean selling out.