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Rainbow’s customers a growing, diversifying group

No one should accuse the Rainbow Natural Whole Foods Cooperative Grocery of being trendy. While healthier diets and environmental conservation are now making headlines and becoming more and more mainstream, the Rainbow Co-op, which encompasses both a store offering natural, organic products and the award-winning High Noon Café, has been focused on body-smart foods and organic, green issues for decades. Once financially strapped, it is now enjoying an ever-widening customer base and is far exceeding expectations.

“At one time, our customers were the diehards, vegetarians, people with special medical needs or illnesses,” said Daniel Johnson, outreach coordinator at the Rainbow Co-op. “But over the past five years, as diet plans have come and gone, some of which proved detrimental to consumers’ health, we have seen more and more customers who are simply wanting to lose weight or feel better. People now understand that diet is critical to good health. Today, we probably have the most diverse set of checks of any bank deposit in Mississippi.”

Pioneering organization

The roots of Rainbow Co-op trace all the way back to the 1970s. Its “parents” were two former health-conscious organizations that eventually grew and merged into the co-op of today. Rainbow was properly established in 1980.

It is a member-owned and operated cooperative dedicated to providing natural, organic products and services that promote health awareness, clean environment and a strong community at the lowest price possible. Its members elect the board of directors, which is responsible for defining goals and objectives, determining policy and making long-range financial commitments.

Co-op members have a voice and are encouraged to attend board meetings, volunteer in the store (which qualifies them for additional discounts) and to vote at the annual meeting. Membership is open to the public, but one does not have to be a member to shop in the store or eat in the café.

In 1997, the Rainbow Co-op moved into its current facility on Old Canton Road. Part of the historic Fondren District, the area known for its eclectic blend of stores and businesses has proven a perfect venue for the cooperative.

But being ahead of its time was not always easy. Approximately four years ago, the Rainbow Co-op was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A death knell for a majority of businesses, the co-op not only reorganized and rebounded, it has flourished.

More than food

The Rainbow Co-op has the numbers to back up its claim of success. Currently, membership stands at nearly 3,000. The store averages 400-500 shoppers per day, 35% of whom are regular monthly customers, and it is common to see people from Tupelo, Ocean Springs and even Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta. The High Noon Café, on average, serves 110 eaters daily, a figure more impressive when considering it is only open for lunch. A total of 45 workers are employed between the store and café.

The store offers practically everything a conventional one does. It stocks produce, frozen foods, dairy and meats, purified water, bulk products such as dried fruits, beans, flours and nuts as well as grocery items from snack foods to baking mixes.

In addition, the store provides supplements, gifts and incense, books and magazines, environmentally-friendly cleaning products and like items, health and beauty selections and even pet stuffs, which have gained in popularity recently in the wake of the tainted pet food tragedy.

Johnson said many do not shop in the store because they believe it is far more expensive than conventional stores. But he said that the co-op’s buying power, lower cost of product packaging and advertising and other factors keep prices fairly competitive with those found in other stores, especially so with its bulk offerings.

The Rainbow Co-op focuses on organic not only as it pertains to healthier diets, but environmental protection, as well. A good example is containers for the bulk products. No fossil fuels were burned to manufacture the store’s carryout containers. And for those even more nature-conscious, the store allows them to bring in their own containers.

The intimate High Noon Café has made a name for itself via its lunch fare and deli foods prepared without the use of trans-fats, hydrogenated oils, MSG, meats or GMOs. Open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., it serves a diverse menu as well as a soup and special of the day. The Grab and Go Deli offers ready-made healthy entrees, salads, desserts and specialty items, and the salad bar is open from 11 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.

Johnson touted Rainbow Co-op’s staff. Friendly and helpful, they are well trained and take seriously the fact that people are coming to them with their health needs, trusting they will get good advice.

Johnson said the co-op is not content to rest on its laurels. He said the organization was constantly monitoring the wants and needs of its members and customers, and it was continually looking to improve the quality of its products. He said the Rainbow Co-op was also looking to buy as much as possible locally, and praised the recent change by the state in shortening the length of time it takes producers to earn organic certification.

“People can learn to create good, nutritious food, and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg,” Johnson said.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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