The end of the rainbow: Competition took its toll on small grocery

There was no sign on the door, no notice in the window. The lights were off and the locked door of Rainbow Grocery on the morning of Monday, April 23, was the only announcement that the independent, natural foods store on 15th Avenue East was closed for good.

Not that the closure came as a complete surprise. The increasingly bare shelves had caused concern among the market's shoppers for some months. On Saturday, April 21, the curbside sandwich boards advertised specials and bade the Rainbow's customers farewell. One said "End of the Rainbow! We [heart] you!" and another declared the store's "Bye Bye Sale."

"Yes," said a store employee. "It happened suddenly."

Shelf space far exceeded the need Saturday, as only a few items stood vigil here and there through the store. Wine bottles stood like teeth gapped by some bizarre dental disease. On the shelves were signs announcing the store would close May 1. But that date proved an optimistic assessment. The store closed on Saturday, April 21.

Following the closure, regular customers glanced into the store as they walked past. Their faces registered curiosity, puzzlement or sadness; sometimes one look followed another. The little store had its supporters, and it will be missed, not just by the neighborhood but by its suppliers. Rainbow Grocery always tried to buy locally.

"I'm sad," said Julie Anderson, who has lived on Capitol Hill for almost 20 years. "It's the end of an era."

She said the Rainbow Grocery was a very special store, but couldn't survive the appearance of bigger stores close by. Madison Market, a co-operative grocery, and Trader Joe's, a national chain store, are comparatively new neighbors nearby on East Madison Street. Added competition from larger grocery stores which have increased shelf space devoted to organic produce, also contributed to Rainbow's demise.

Anderson said she was a regular shopper, "sometimes daily. For sure, weekly." She tried to do as much shopping there as possible, but she said there was getting to be less and less on the shelves.

"It's just a special place," she said sadly, comparing it to the long-defunct City People's Mercantile at 15th Avenue East and East Republican Street, which sold a wide variety of household goods and hardware, and The Surrogate Hostess, on East 19th Avenue, noted for having only communal tables.

"I would walk to the store every day and get a few things," Anderson said. "It's European."

The store is more than 20 years old and has had several owners over the years. The most recent owner, Mark Smith, did not return phone calls concerning this story.

"Wow!" said Anita, after trying the door and learning the store has gone out of business. "Maybe they got crashed by bigger things." She said she liked to go to the store two or three times a week, especially for the home-made soups. "I was supporting local businesses."

The grocery, in a substantial one-story brick building, is small. The entire floor space is less than the deli and meat counters at Safeway. Nonetheless, Rainbow Grocery enjoyed a good reputation for high-quality, organic produce, bakery goods and other natural foods. (Rainbow Natural Remedies, three doors south of Rainbow Grocery, has no connection to the store.)

"I knew they were really struggling," said Mary Heiny, when she discovered the store closed. She had come for her morning, custom-blended juice. She said she has been patronizing the store from its very beginning.

"I had a feeling it [the store closure] would happen when Trader Joe's went in," Heiny said. "I was trying to do my part to keep it alive." That meant shopping there several times a week. One of the things she found appealing about the store was the bulk nature of the products. She said she lives alone and it was very convenient to buy small amounts of items she needed at the store.

Heiny added that she thought the Rainbow Grocery was not as expensive as the PCC Natural Markets [the Puget Sound regional chain] or Whole Foods Market [a national chain], and bemoaned the loss of jobs for the closed store's staff. The store employed about 20 people.

"I liked that it was a neighborhood place," she said. "This is so sad."

John Berry, who also discovered the news by trying the door, said he was not surprised. He said he shopped the grocery regularly from his home, just four blocks away, but "only for certain things."

The number one item on his Rainbow list was Ciro's bread, an artisan bread baked in Ballard and stocked on Capitol Hill only at Rainbow Grocery.

"It's the best bread in Seattle," he declared confidently. He said the rest of his list tended toward fresh vegetables and cheese and "sometimes wine." He said the store stocked a good selection of higher-end wines. Berry said he has patronized the grocery from the start, too.

"Actually, I remember when Rainbow was down on 19th," he said.

Freelance writer Korte Brueckmann lives on Capitol Hill and can be reached at editor

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