Organic grocer set trend for 20 years

Posted: Tuesday, May 02, 2000

The difference between Rainbow Foods and mainstream supermarkets has narrowed over the years -- but not enough for Juneau's only natural foods store to lose its niche.

Rainbow Foods isn't the radical alternative it was when it opened on April 1, 1980. But majority shareholder David Ottoson said he still is more adventurous than others in stocking dietary supplements and new health-oriented foods.

Ottoson celebrated Rainbow's 20th anniversary last week with an open house at the store, at 200 Seward St.

``I think it's wonderful,'' said Rod Swope, co-owner of Galligaskins clothes and gift store downtown. ``They offer something that nobody else offers. ... And he's been a real good business person, too.''

Ottoson began the store with Suzanne Downing and Shar Smith in the Emporium Mall as the reincarnation of a health food store owned by Smith, Season's Supply. Rainbow Foods has relocated twice, and has been at its current location since 1992.

Although Rainbow Foods has a strong downtown clientele and attracts the Capitol crowd for lunch, Ottoson said that most shoppers use it to supplement their main grocery purchases.

And over the years, other grocery stores in Juneau have added sections with organically grown food.

``That's a big change,'' Ottoson said. ``When we started, we were the only ones that sold these kind of things. They were considered kind of weird.''

Now, he estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of what he carries can be found elsewhere in Juneau, although in less variety. For example, soy milk, popular among the lactose-intolerant and known for anti-carcinogenic properties, can be purchased most places, he said.

Still, ``When new products come out, we're usually the first ones to have them,'' Ottoson said. ``We're a little more adventurous about trying new things than a regular supermarket would be.''

One of his newest products is a granola bar with hemp seeds.

Rainbow Foods broke ground in Juneau by introducing bulk food items, certified organically grown produce and packaged organic products, Ottoson said.

More than 90 percent of the produce is organically grown, which means that no chemicals were used and that the food was grown in a field that had been fertilizer- and pesticide-free for at least three years, he said. The produce, mostly procured by a Seattle wholesaler, comes from Washington and Oregon in the summer and California and Mexico in the winter, along with occasional spot purchases in Juneau and from Chilkat Valley Farms near Haines.

Not everything that's marketed as a health product is necessarily healthy, Ottoson said, and he does some research.

With dietary supplements, in particular, ``We like to have some level of confidence they are what they say they are,'' he said. ``We have to be more judicious about what we carry'' than other grocery stores. Customers are good sources of information, both informally and in an annual survey the store conducts, he said.

Ottoson has chosen not to carry diet products with ephedra, a Chinese herb that boosts metabolism. It can exacerbate high blood pressure, and ultimately it's hard on the adrenal glands, he said.

Ottoson, who moved to Juneau from Washington, D.C., in 1978, was only 23 when he helped start Rainbow Foods. He said he had no idea it would be his career 20 years on.

``It's a good living,'' he said. ``It's work I can feel good about doing.''

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