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The End of the Rainbow

After 13 years, the funky little grocery store under the el has succumbed to gentrification, upscaling, and the mass merchandising of natural foods.



The Rainbow Grocery, the little natural-foods store under the el on West Wellington, had about one hour left to live when I walked through the door for my final visit, and I was surprised to find it teeming. News of the store's demise had got around, evidently. Regular customers, past customers, and even a few new customers had come for a curious last look, or to say good-bye. The shelves were nearly barren, the produce was picked over, the bulk-food bins were three-quarters empty, but the store itself was more crowded than I'd seen it in a year. It was like a party in there.

Steve Schwalge, the manager, said hello and sighed, telling me how crazy the day had been. Gesturing to the busy aisles and chattering shoppers, he asked sadly, with an edge in his voice, "Why couldn't they have come before? Then maybe we wouldn't have to close!" A dark-haired woman in her early 30s, wearing big earrings, walked in and caught Schwalge's eye, miming tears and calling out, "I'm so sad! Last day!" Schwalge shrugged and smiled at the same time.

Back by the produce area ("Self Service: Produce Must Be Weighed and Priced At Scales!"), the "crying" woman greeted another employee with that late-60s look about him. "You giving away food tonight?" she asked. The worker grinned and said, "I'll tell you one thing--there's going to be a lot in the garbage later!" The customer, mock-interested: "Really" "Yeah," said the stock man, "I'll tell ya we do have our regular customers, they come in, they buy their milk and their eggs. then they go out and pick through the garbage. Hey, I don't blame them."

At the bulk bins, their dwindling contents announced by now raggedy hand-lettered signs--"BREAD SHOP HONEY GONE NUTS!" "COUNTRY LIFE GRANOLA!" "VEGGIE ELBOWS!" I spoke with Matt the Carrot Juice Man. Along with Jim ("the hippie with the Cubs hat and the overalls"--and a waist-length red ponytail), Matt is one of the more visible and vocal characters employed by Rainbow Grocery, Inc., which now includes the three Foodworks stores (on Diversey, Armitage, and Morse) and Rainbow Distributing, a wholesale warehouse on North Rockwell. A cheerful man who clearly enjoys his work--he makes a gentle "whoosh, whoosh" sound as he demonstrates how he feeds the carrots into the juicer--Matt had come to help with the RaInbow's closing.

The Rainbow was famous in some quarters for the high quality of its produce, and on its last night Matt revealed the secret: the produce section was tiny. The vegetables and fruits were hand tended and cared for. Matt shook his head. "Not like the big stores. It won't be like this anymore."

The blues and rock that had been blaring through the store--from old clunker speakers perched on wooden crates--abruptly shut off. This was it. "Well," Matt said, "if you want fresh carrot juice, come over to Morse!" He leaned a little closer. "There's lots of half-price stuff there!" I walked out, he wished me good luck, and that was the end of the Rainbow.

The Rainbow Grocery opened in February of 1975. In its first few weeks it was run on a strictly volunteer basis, operated largely by followers of the young Guru Maharaj Ji. After about a month the workers went on staff, full time, at a salary of $40 a week. Then, following extensive debates and political discussions, wages were raised to a more livable $4 an hour, with everyone making the same amount.

Initially a true cooperative, Rainbow was open to the public but gave a discount to its card-carrying members, a practice that lasted until about a year ago. The store's fixtures were basic--"cardboard barrels with plexiglass tops on a skid that people scooped out of to get their bulk items," recalls Phil Davis, one of the first employees. And with minor exceptions--a new front sign, an additional weigh scale, a rack of greeting cards--it changed little in its 13 years of business. On the day it closed it looked much the same as it did when it opened.

When Steve Kriston (then a carpenter "looking for a more conscious way to live my life") and Bob MacFarland (a Northwestern linguistics major "interested in personal development") bought the store in 1978 from the not-for-profit group that had founded it, the neighborhood, which is now called Lakeview Central, didn't even have a name. The population was a mix of actors, dancers, artists, and singles with an ethnic blend of elderly Germans, Hispanics, and Japanese. But in 1983, with the onset of the "Reagan recovery," renovation of the area began in earnest, and the neighborhood was overrun by new yuppies and by old Lincoln Parkers attracted by Lakeview's not-yet-outrageous real estate prices. Now the old folks have died off. The hippies and artists have moved on. And the baby boomers have taken over. What used to be a "Cerveza Fria" joint on a comer near the Rainbow has changed to a glitzy video bar complete with weekend valet parking. What was once the bombed-out shell of a nearly defunct opera house is now "the Vic," a music night spot that causes major traffic jams. A corner church, an old shoe factory, the Filipino "grocery and furniture store," an empty lot--anything that could be snatched up has been turned into "loft living" or look-alike "luxury town houses."

In Ramibow's early years its customers were people who shopped for inexpensive staples in large amounts, who cooked from scratch, who had more time than money. In its heyday, in the early 80s, the Rainbow was a regular monthly stop for health-conscious South siders and suburbanites who couldn't find natural foods in their own areas. People bought 60-pound containers of honey and five-gallon bottles of soy sauce. Many customers still bought in groups, dividing the food later at their homes, as was common in the early days of collectives and food cooperatives.

When Rainbow's business became too large for the small store, a new location was found at Diversey and Sheffield. The plan was to move the little store, then literally overflowing with customers, to a bigger and better facility. But as plans for development proceeded, owners Kriston and MacFarland decided instead to open an additional grocery store, one that would shift the emphasis from natural foods to high-quality foods--Foodworks. Considerate of Rainbow's "special role" as a neighborhood institution, they kept the bulk items there and deliberately maintained it as a "more strictly hard-core natural-food store"--which meant, among other things, that they continued to shun products made with white sugar. Meanwhile Foodworks satisfied their entrepreneurial vision of an "upscale" grocery to serve the neighborhood's growing population of affluents.

Foodworks opened with a much broader variety of products--a deli, meats, wine and beer, gourmet items, housewares, cleaning supplies--and a much more extensive produce department. And of course the differences (which extended to such things as parking spaces and shopping carts) were soon reflected in the two stores' clienteles. While newcomer baby boomers and yuppies flocked to Foodworks, the Rainbow was left with the "ideological shoppers"--people whose eating habits were connected with a life-style and a view of the world. As their numbers dwindled in the neighborhood, so did the Rainbow's business.

The natural foods industry has also changed dramatically over the last ten years. Following the national trend, big companies have bought up little ones as the natural foods business has gone commercial. Items like tahini and rice crackers, formerly found only in a handful of stores, can now be purchased at the Jewel or Dominick's. Tabbouleh salad and other once-exotic products are now available as packaged mixes. The Celestial Seasonings herbal tea company (which used to invite customers on every box to "Please write to us. We like to hear from you") was purchased by Kraft, and Kraft is now selling it to Lipton's. Mountain High yogurt, once a west coast specialty, is now owned by Beatrice. Concern over problems like pesticides and the antibiotics used to raise meat has expanded the market for organic produce and naturally raised poultry. And shoppers who prefer neither Coke nor Pepsi now have a large selection of natural ("100% juice with vitamins") sodas and soft drinks like Corrs, Natural Flavors, and Nature 90. All these changes ate away at the Rainbow's business.

So is this the end of an era? A neighborhood tragedy? A watershed in natural-food retailing? Not if you ask the Foodworks people. Phil Davis, onetime manager of the Rainbow and now the buyer for the main Foodworks store on Diversey, sees the changes this way: "A lot of the social institutions of the mid-70s that I've had contact with have had to either change or disappear. The first year I was at Rainbow, I made $3,000 and I saved $1,500. But I lived with four other people in a three-bedroom apartment where we paid $175 rent, right here in the neighborhood."

Steve Kriston still feels much the same way about alternative life-styles as he did ten years ago, but he has come to feel less of a need to express his attitudes outwardly. "I've realized it's up to me, the way I live my life. I don't feel any big need to demonstrate that, or to justify it to the world." Bob MacFarland, the other half of the Rainbow/Foodworks ownership, sums it up like this, "Obviously, things have changed, but I'd like to think that my basic interests have stayed the same. It's all a part of growing up."

Of course there are some who see the changes differently. Kriston and MacFarland say they closed the Rainbow because of escalating overhead costs--including the neighborhood's rising rents--and dwindling sales. Not all of their customers have accepted the explanation. One highly dissatisfied shopper put this note in the little handmade suggestion box that sat in the front of the store. "I can't tell you how pissed I am that you are closing a 'down home' store like Rainbow because you make a lot more $$ in a Yuppie Botique 'Food' store like Foodworks. I didn't believe for a minute your reasons for closing Rainbow . . ." The writer carefully signed his note and then--as if to prove there will never be another Rainbow--included his phone number in case the owners wanted to discuss the matter further.

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