By Manna Zel
At their package-free grocery store in Highland Park, Los Angeles, re_ grocery is redefining the grocery experience. Launched on Earth Day 2020, re_ grocery carries over 400 bulk goods that are organic, clean, and free of genetically modified organisms—without the need for single-use plastic packaging. Customers can bring in their own refillable containers or can make a deposit on re_ grocery's reusable glass jars and bottles, taking home their goods in 100% post-consumer recycled paper bags.
“‘Tare’ means the weight of an empty container,” says Lauren Macrino, who co-founded re_ grocery alongside her husband, Joseph. “You can bring your own empty, clean, dry container from home and we’ll sanitize and ‘tare’—or weigh—them on our iPad app. It’s super easy, and means you only pay for what’s inside, not the container itself.”
Below, the re_ grocery team shares about their closed-loop partnership with Youth To The People, their mission to make sustainability accessible to everyone by accepting EBT, and their thoughts on why bulk and package-free purchasing is so sustainable for the environment.
Your bulk buying system reduces a lot of waste by drastically reducing the need for packaging. Can you walk our readers through the bulk and package-free purchasing, and why it is so sustainable for the environment?
Package-free grocery shopping is by weight, not by unit, so you’re able to purchase as much or as little as you’d like. We purchase all our bulk products in large quantities, making it as fresh, sustainable, and affordable as possible. We essentially want to eliminate the unnecessary step of portioning, individually packaging, and branding at a factory. This adds time, expense, and waste. Instead of 32 12oz bags of product individually packaged in plastic, we buy one 25lb paper bag of product that gets divided up by the customer into their own endlessly reusable containers.
Can you explain more about your closed-loop partnership with Youth To The People and how our readers can upcycle their empty containers through re_ grocery?
We're such huge fans of Youth To The People and feel there’s a great natural alignment between our brands. We love that every YTTP product is packaged in glass, meaning it can be forever reused, and we’re excited to collaborate on closed-loop skincare. You can bring back any empty clean and dry YTTP container purchased from re_ grocery for $2 off a new YTTP product. Containers will be cleaned, sanitized, and returned to the packaging stream.
What was your process behind selecting the grocery items you’d offer in store?
We strive to source only the highest quality organic, non-GMO, clean, and traceable food, cleaning, and skincare products. If it’s vegan, even better! If it doesn’t meet these standards, we try to source something else. Our zero-waste and reusable accessories must be plastic-free. We work with ethical brands that have a focus on sustainability and offer their products to us in large quantities. A good example of this is Clevr Blends out of Santa Barbara. They typically sell their instant superlattes in 2lb bags but have made an exception for us to offer their product in 20lbs to limit the amount of packaging.
We’ve developed relationships with other local independent brands like Canyon Coffee, working together on a closed-loop fulfillment that produces no packaging at all. Casey and Ally have our food bins at their roasting facility in Chinatown, so that when they make their weekly coffee delivery, they fill and bring those fresh roasted coffee beans in our bins and take the empty ones from our shelf. No bags necessary! It’s a pretty cool concept and we are working with some of our other local suppliers to do the same.
Why was it important to you to make sustainability accessible to everyone by accepting EBT?
We believe everyone should have access to affordable, healthy, organic food. Our community is so important to us—we live here, we’ll raise our future kids here, and we want everyone to flourish. We’ve been really inspired by intersectional environmentalism and Leah Thomas [Editor’s note: read more by Leah Thomas by clicking here]. The injustices that happen to marginalized communities and to our planet are interconnected. We want to do better. We want sustainable grocery options to be available to everyone and accepting EBT is part of that.
Talk to us about the experience of working with your community to source plastic bags to create the “NO THANK YOU” display in the front window of the store.
Before we opened re_ grocery, Joseph was working downtown at a cafe in the Financial District. He would sit outside the restaurant on his lunch break and ask the passersby if they wouldn’t mind giving up their plastic “THANK YOU” bag from their take out order. Joseph told them it was for an art installation, which was true, but everyone still thought it was weird. Most of them didn’t mind. He also posted on NextDoor and Craigslist asking if he could have any bags our neighbors had stuffed in junk drawers. The window illustrates the average American’s monthly consumption of single-use plastic bags. Turns out, people had more than enough to give up. The response was overwhelming and many of them are now regulars at re_ grocery after hearing about the store.
As a new business, how is your team finding its flow while balancing COVID regulations?
We're so grateful to be here and to be of service to our community right now. We opened on April 22nd, Earth Day, right in the middle of the pandemic and we had to adapt pretty quickly to the changing regulations. We’re taking extra precautions to keep everyone safe and healthy by limiting the amount of people in the store. Some of our focus had to shift to a pickup/delivery model. I worked my butt off to build us an online store in less than a month, which is something we weren’t originally planning on!
We've had a lot of people visit that are totally new to this style of shopping and are excited and enthusiastic to give it a go. People are really embracing a simpler life right now—reconnecting with each other, with food, and with the planet. Opening a business during a pandemic has been incredibly challenging, but we're optimistic and inspired by our community.
Since customers currently can’t use their own refillable packaging due to COVID guidelines, how have you had to pivot when it comes to packaging?
Reusables are back! It took creativity and some sanitizer, but we’re now set up to accept customer’s empty, clean, dry containers for refilling. We’ll take your container to the back of the store for sanitization before we re_ grocery it. For those that don’t bring their own container, we offer glass jars for sale, as well as 100% post-consumer recycled paper bags to use. Since COVID-19, there’s been a restriction on self-serve in bulk bins and salad bars, so we are doing the shopping for you! It’s a fun way to meet our customers, get an idea on how they are using our ingredients, and also helps keep the store super clean!
What are your favorite ways to upcycle your glass packaging when you’ve finished a product?
We have a pothos plant that’s taking over the house, so we make cuttings and grow new little ones. The roots look really cool in the glass bottle with some water. We’ve also been using the jars to fill up shea butter at the store. Perfect travel size. Any paper packaging gets shredded and put in our home compost to return to the earth!
Photos courtesy of Justin Chung