Rainbow Natural Foods turns 40

The Decatur health food store's owners reflect on the last four decades

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Shopping organically often means a stop by Whole Foods or Fresh Market. Yet Atlanta has many independent grocers who are locally sourced, sustainable and truly have organic roots.

Rainbow Natural Foods has been open since 1976 at North Decatur Plaza, one of the first strip malls in Atlanta. For 40 years the little shop has offered bulk herbs and spices, organic produce, vitamins and supplements, body care, freshly made food and baked goods, and natural foods groceries.

This month marks Rainbow's official 40-year anniversary, but the store has been celebrating all year with raffle drawings to win bags of natural products. During the anniversary week, which began Aug. 14 and ends this Sat., Aug. 20 there will be special deals for loyal customers in addition to free t-shirts and bags printed with the Rainbow Natural Foods logo.

General Manager Laura Pallas says the difference between Rainbow Natural Foods and other leading health food stores is its humble beginning.

“We started as a business built to be helpful. We aren’t a flash in the pan. Our success is thanks to long-term people who have kept the consistency of the recipes and have a passion for healthy lifestyles,” Pallas says.

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Rainbow Natural Foods originally started as a buying club. Founders Jim Emerson and Tony Castaldi sought to bring affordable food to the area and serve the community. Through the years, Rainbow Natural Foods has focused on feeding the community, providing jobs, and maintaining good business practices. Laura Pallas, who started as a cashier in the '80s, has carried the torch as co-manager with David Hamilton since 1990.

Just like top competitors, Rainbow Natural Foods does its best to source organic fruits and vegetables from reputable distributors year round. for instance, the store has been getting locally sourced sprouts and grass from Vonnie’s Greens, a Decatur farmer who has been growing nutritious microgreens for more than 30 years.

“Vonnie Webb has a high work ethic and researches the best seeds. We’ve been buying from him for many years,” Pallas says.

In addition to groceries, there is the Rainbow Hot Bar that serves vegetarian and many vegan and gluten-free options daily. Jon Buran and Larry Sutton oversee food production, keeping the salad bar garden fresh and creating a weekly roundup of hot and hearty entrees. The hot bar rotation features artichoke feta strada, creamy mushroom stroganoff, and thick cubes of spinach lasagna and spanakopita, as well as brunch on Sunday. 

“A favorite is a spicy and hot roasted cauliflower. Believe it or not people call in to ask if it is on the menu that day,” Pallas says. No value assigned

Rainbow recipes live on thanks to the Rainbow deli chefs who create original salads, entrees, and desserts in the store’s two kitchens. The deli consistently offers favorites including quinoa and spinach salad and chickpea and feta salad and Rainbow’s top selling hummus. Rainbow Natural Foods even helps everyone enjoy Thanksgiving flavors and can cater everything from sweet potato casserole to vegan tofurky roast and many, many pies.

Healthy lifestyles often include healthy indulgences. Rainbow’s ovens are always busy making unprocessed cookies, gluten-free chocolate cake and apple pies. The store’s most popular cookie is the Cowboy, dense with oatmeal, chocolate chips, walnuts, and coconut.

The busiest aisle Rainbow Natural Foods is packed with herbs and vitamins. Rainbow Natural Foods is a mainstay in Decatur for offering a diverse selection of reasonably priced name brand and high-quality vitamin supplements, herbs, homeopathic remedies, and essential oils. While Rainbow doesn’t have many aisles, they staff health professionals who are quick to answer any questions or special order any item not found in regular grocery stores.

“My knowledge of the business and products is a day by day process of adding to my head library. Little by little, I learn more about the power of herbs and there’s always something new coming out,” Pallas says.

Pallas says she recently attended the Medicines from the Earth conference in June and was impressed with the collaborative use of herbs for cancer research. In October she will attend the Southeastern Women’s Herbal Conference to continue her holistic education.  

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Herb aficionado Joe Nelson has been working at Rainbow Natural Foods since 1984. He says that he has learned more from ideas shared by customers in the store than any book could have taught him.

“It spurs me to delve into further study about remarkable healing strategies,” Nelson says.

In the next 40 years Rainbow Natural Foods may or may not create a cookbook, but Atlantans can count on them representing healthy lifestyles in the community.

“We always try to do what we do best: stay true to our roots. That’s our strength,” Pallas says.

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