Refilleries Are Coming for Your Grocery Shopping Routine

“This is slow shopping,” says Roque Rodriguez about his refillery grocery store, Seed and Oil, in Woodside, Queens. “It’s about slowing down, being more present, being more aware: What’s the impact of the choice I just made? We educate folks when they come in, we talk to them, and you see people getting into the rhythm of it.”

I don’t think it’s that much slower to shop at package-free stores like Seed and Oil—you bring your own container and weigh it, then you fill it up with the amount of rice or walnuts or Peanut M&Ms that you want to take home. But I get what he means. The rising trend of refilleries opening across the country feels very much in contrast to the relentless imperative of easier, faster, more convenient—of delivered groceries, boxed meal kits, and single-serving everything. It takes advance planning to bring containers out with you (or extra cash to buy one there), not to mention actually cooking the ingredients you buy.

Bulk aisles aren’t new to the United States. Most of the refillery owners I interviewed said they spent years shopping bulk at chain stores but found the aisles unattended and messy, and sometimes the products were stale or inedible. It was always awkward for customers to bring their own containers to supermarkets and have them weighed by cashiers, but when many stores banned the practice outright at the height of COVID, the need for an alternative to the bulk aisle became clearer than ever. Grocery co-ops can provide a better bulk goods experience, and in fact there seem to be fewer refilleries in areas better served by co-ops, like Vermont and Washington. However, co-ops often take a minimum of five to ten years to launch, according to Grocery Story author Jon Steinman. The Refillery Collective lists over 500 refilleries in its US directory (most sell home goods, while about a quarter are grocery stores), and creator Jaime Durheim estimates that half were launched post-COVID.

Rodriguez and his partners opened their store in November after eight years of running Suryaside Yoga down the block, which grew a community so robust and supportive that it helped raise the store’s initial capital. Grocery is a completely different business, but to him, it’s just another way of fulfilling a need in his neighborhood. Many of the refillery owners I spoke to come from different backgrounds—restaurants, organic farms, earth science PhDs, waste management engineering, local government, big-box stores—but they share a mission of serving their communities by changing the way people shop. This is not easy. They know they can’t compete on convenience, so what they offer instead is an experience that’s more human, connected, and local. These stores use their small scale to their advantage by nimbly adapting to customer needs and by developing direct relationships with local suppliers who can meet their sustainability and packaging standards. Though the prices aren’t the lowest, most stores carry items that are local or fair trade and made by small producers, so you’re getting good quality for the value.

For me and many regulars, stopping by my local refillery, Maison Jar, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is like going to my favorite coffee shop or my closest bodega. I greet the cashiers and chat with them about what I’m cooking while I stroll the silos to see if there’s anything new. I started shopping there because it was the only place with a fresh peanut butter machine in my neighborhood; then I found that the eggs were gorgeous and golden (and at 50 cents each, they cost slightly less than the organic and Certified Humane ones at my supermarket). Later I discovered a chai spice granola that became my favorite breakfast (and it’s $16 per pound, 30% cheaper than the bagged version). I started buying small-batch tofu from a maker in Ithaca, New York, in a returnable jar ($5 after the jar deposit), and vegetables when I couldn’t make it to the farmers’ market.

I’m a chef, working as a cooking instructor at Hudson Table, and I’m sensitive to the quality and freshness of my ingredients. I also care about sourcing in terms of the distance food travels and whether the people and animals involved are treated humanely. I’ve gotten to know the owner of Maison Jar, Larasati Vitoux, and I appreciate that she cares about the same things, which helps me trust her curation.

“In a big grocery store, there are a lot of products, so it actually can take more time because you have that choice paralysis,” says Vitoux. Trust is a big element in the relationship between refillery owners and their regulars. Shopping at these stores can be a way of offloading the mental weight of making good choices in a competitive, greenwashed marketplace of “sustainable” food products. In a world where “natural” means nothing, it’s comforting to trust a person from your community over a big brand that you’ll never have a conversation with.

Of course, not all refillery owners have PhDs in earth science (although Jessica Walden and Chris McGuire of Amis de la Terre in Orange County, California, do), and they can struggle with how to balance sustainability concerns with quality and price when choosing suppliers. However, the exigencies of “package-free” often translate to local and fresh as well. Jim Switzer from Black Cat Bulk Goods in New Paltz, New York, called a “zero-waste general store,” picks up 25-pound bags of flour once a week from a local community grain project, Wild Hive Farm, that mills it fresh for them. Paula McPhee of Vancouver Island Refillery brings returnable containers to tofu, yogurt, and granola makers within a five-block radius. Rachel Garcia of Dry Goods Refillery in Montclair, New Jersey, found a tomato sauce vendor, My Dad’s Sauce, that cans in her area and convinced the company to create a line using returnable jars for her store. She also hired a private composting service so that customers can bring back the small amount of packaging in the shop to ensure that it gets commercially composted.

Some of the shop owners acknowledge that being located in an affluent neighborhood keeps them in business—though there are plenty of exceptions, from economically mixed neighborhoods like Woodside to rural locations like Pine Plains in New York’s Dutchess County. Many of the stores accept EBT; Garcia knocks off an extra 15% for anyone who uses it. But it’s a niche market that requires a willing, paying clientele to keep the lights on in a business with margins so tight that many shop owners choose to forego salaries for their first year or more.

Matt Zimbalist, Carly Fishman, and Peter Lollo at Re-Up Refill Shop in Oakland, California, say they’ve consulted with around 50 prospective owners looking to start their own stores, and that the majority either never got off the ground or went out of business quickly. Even large refilleries with dedicated followings, like Scoop Marketplace in Seattle, Washington, and in.gredients in Austin, Texas, which raised $30,000 from supporters on Indiegogo, weren’t able to stay open for longer than five or six years, citing rising business costs. People loved these stores, but are refilleries just another eco fad, like putting all your trash in a Mason jar? In the bigger context of the zero-waste movement, do these tiny stores actually mean anything?

“Stores that offer bulk [items] are great, but they rely on individual consumers to change their behavior,” says Mara Shulman, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). “That isn’t ever going to be enough to fix the plastic trash crisis we are experiencing in the United States and globally. And, after all, the corporate actors responsible for our trash crisis should be responsible for fixing it, not individual consumers.” Only 9% of plastic is recycled globally, and the bulk of plastic waste comes from food packaging. CLF is pushing to change packaging laws that fail to hold giants like Amazon accountable. Meanwhile, independent refillery stores are swimming upstream in a system where everything is optimized against them.

“We spent so much money, as a culture, investing in these assembly lines and packaging lines in America that plastics are damn cheap. And so it’s actually much more expensive to do bulk,” says Zimbalist. Part of what makes the refillery business so challenging is that they’re not only trying to change consumer behavior, they’re trying to change supplier behavior, which is essentially the entire American food system.

The trio at Re-Up, though, have spent their careers in the waste reduction field, and as their store grows, they’re starting to see successes. Dr. Bronner’s, Forager Project, All Good Body Care, Beber Almondmilk, and Moon Valley Organics are among the businesses they’ve persuaded to incorporate reusable or “circular” packaging into their supply chain. This can mean individual containers that can be returned for a deposit or large drums that Re-Up trades directly with the supplier. Whenever possible, Re-Up tries to educate customers about the work they’re doing. “We’re pretty excited that it’s gaining traction,” says Zimbalist. “For us, the idea is that more consumers get exposed to a different way of consumption. They change the way they think about their purchasing power and hopefully demand more as consumers and as voters, and everything along the way.”

It’s hard to imagine what a different grocery landscape might look like, but France could offer a clue. Vitoux got her idea for Maison Jar after returning to visit friends and family and finding refilleries in every city. The trend started ten years ago in France, but it was bolstered by the government’s anti-waste legislation in 2019, which bans some single-use plastics, puts pressure on suppliers to use circular packaging, and even forces big chains like Auchan and Carrefour to dedicate one-fifth of each store to bulk goods. French people have a different attitude toward food and shopping (a robust social services net allows the French to spend around 14% of their income on groceries, versus our 7% in the United States) and a history of stronger government regulation in the food industry, so I don’t see us transforming our system to look like theirs anytime soon. But it’s encouraging to know that a different way of shopping is possible.

“I don’t know when the breakthrough moment happens—if it’s the mom-and-pops that come from the bottom, if it’s a corporation that finally figures it out, or if it’s a combination of grassroots meets corporation meets law—but I do feel like it’s growing,” says Garcia, when I ask her about the refillery movement as a whole. “I don’t know if refilleries like mine are the solution. But I think it’s realistic to say that a store like ours is changing minds in the community…The change in mindset is hopefully the actual trend that’s happening, more than just opening refilleries.”

When I go shopping at Maison Jar or Seed and Oil (it’s farther from me, but they have Burlap & Barrel spices in bulk), I’m thinking more about what I’m going to cook for dinner than what effect my beans might have on government policy or big-box infrastructure. But I notice that it feels strange now to unwrap my supermarket bananas and toss out the plastic bag. I’ve started bringing my soap containers to refill at the stores since I’m going there anyway. I’m changing some habits, one at a time. And while I know that it isn’t sufficient for me, or for any of us, to change our shopping habits, it is also necessary if we are to someday live in a world with less waste.

#Refilleries #Coming #Grocery #Shopping #Routine

“This is slow shopping,” says Roque Rodriguez about his refillery grocery store, Seed and Oil, in Woodside, Queens. “It’s about slowing down, being more present, being more aware: What’s the impact of the choice I just made? We educate folks when they come in, we talk to them, and you see people getting into the rhythm of it.”

I don’t think it’s that much slower to shop at package-free stores like Seed and Oil—you bring your own container and weigh it, then you fill it up with the amount of rice or walnuts or Peanut M&Ms that you want to take home. But I get what he means. The rising trend of refilleries opening across the country feels very much in contrast to the relentless imperative of easier, faster, more convenient—of delivered groceries, boxed meal kits, and single-serving everything. It takes advance planning to bring containers out with you (or extra cash to buy one there), not to mention actually cooking the ingredients you buy.

Bulk aisles aren’t new to the United States. Most of the refillery owners I interviewed said they spent years shopping bulk at chain stores but found the aisles unattended and messy, and sometimes the products were stale or inedible. It was always awkward for customers to bring their own containers to supermarkets and have them weighed by cashiers, but when many stores banned the practice outright at the height of COVID, the need for an alternative to the bulk aisle became clearer than ever. Grocery co-ops can provide a better bulk goods experience, and in fact there seem to be fewer refilleries in areas better served by co-ops, like Vermont and Washington. However, co-ops often take a minimum of five to ten years to launch, according to Grocery Story author Jon Steinman. The Refillery Collective lists over 500 refilleries in its US directory (most sell home goods, while about a quarter are grocery stores), and creator Jaime Durheim estimates that half were launched post-COVID.

Rodriguez and his partners opened their store in November after eight years of running Suryaside Yoga down the block, which grew a community so robust and supportive that it helped raise the store’s initial capital. Grocery is a completely different business, but to him, it’s just another way of fulfilling a need in his neighborhood. Many of the refillery owners I spoke to come from different backgrounds—restaurants, organic farms, earth science PhDs, waste management engineering, local government, big-box stores—but they share a mission of serving their communities by changing the way people shop. This is not easy. They know they can’t compete on convenience, so what they offer instead is an experience that’s more human, connected, and local. These stores use their small scale to their advantage by nimbly adapting to customer needs and by developing direct relationships with local suppliers who can meet their sustainability and packaging standards. Though the prices aren’t the lowest, most stores carry items that are local or fair trade and made by small producers, so you’re getting good quality for the value.

For me and many regulars, stopping by my local refillery, Maison Jar, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is like going to my favorite coffee shop or my closest bodega. I greet the cashiers and chat with them about what I’m cooking while I stroll the silos to see if there’s anything new. I started shopping there because it was the only place with a fresh peanut butter machine in my neighborhood; then I found that the eggs were gorgeous and golden (and at 50 cents each, they cost slightly less than the organic and Certified Humane ones at my supermarket). Later I discovered a chai spice granola that became my favorite breakfast (and it’s $16 per pound, 30% cheaper than the bagged version). I started buying small-batch tofu from a maker in Ithaca, New York, in a returnable jar ($5 after the jar deposit), and vegetables when I couldn’t make it to the farmers’ market.

I’m a chef, working as a cooking instructor at Hudson Table, and I’m sensitive to the quality and freshness of my ingredients. I also care about sourcing in terms of the distance food travels and whether the people and animals involved are treated humanely. I’ve gotten to know the owner of Maison Jar, Larasati Vitoux, and I appreciate that she cares about the same things, which helps me trust her curation.

“In a big grocery store, there are a lot of products, so it actually can take more time because you have that choice paralysis,” says Vitoux. Trust is a big element in the relationship between refillery owners and their regulars. Shopping at these stores can be a way of offloading the mental weight of making good choices in a competitive, greenwashed marketplace of “sustainable” food products. In a world where “natural” means nothing, it’s comforting to trust a person from your community over a big brand that you’ll never have a conversation with.

Of course, not all refillery owners have PhDs in earth science (although Jessica Walden and Chris McGuire of Amis de la Terre in Orange County, California, do), and they can struggle with how to balance sustainability concerns with quality and price when choosing suppliers. However, the exigencies of “package-free” often translate to local and fresh as well. Jim Switzer from Black Cat Bulk Goods in New Paltz, New York, called a “zero-waste general store,” picks up 25-pound bags of flour once a week from a local community grain project, Wild Hive Farm, that mills it fresh for them. Paula McPhee of Vancouver Island Refillery brings returnable containers to tofu, yogurt, and granola makers within a five-block radius. Rachel Garcia of Dry Goods Refillery in Montclair, New Jersey, found a tomato sauce vendor, My Dad’s Sauce, that cans in her area and convinced the company to create a line using returnable jars for her store. She also hired a private composting service so that customers can bring back the small amount of packaging in the shop to ensure that it gets commercially composted.

Some of the shop owners acknowledge that being located in an affluent neighborhood keeps them in business—though there are plenty of exceptions, from economically mixed neighborhoods like Woodside to rural locations like Pine Plains in New York’s Dutchess County. Many of the stores accept EBT; Garcia knocks off an extra 15% for anyone who uses it. But it’s a niche market that requires a willing, paying clientele to keep the lights on in a business with margins so tight that many shop owners choose to forego salaries for their first year or more.

Matt Zimbalist, Carly Fishman, and Peter Lollo at Re-Up Refill Shop in Oakland, California, say they’ve consulted with around 50 prospective owners looking to start their own stores, and that the majority either never got off the ground or went out of business quickly. Even large refilleries with dedicated followings, like Scoop Marketplace in Seattle, Washington, and in.gredients in Austin, Texas, which raised $30,000 from supporters on Indiegogo, weren’t able to stay open for longer than five or six years, citing rising business costs. People loved these stores, but are refilleries just another eco fad, like putting all your trash in a Mason jar? In the bigger context of the zero-waste movement, do these tiny stores actually mean anything?

“Stores that offer bulk [items] are great, but they rely on individual consumers to change their behavior,” says Mara Shulman, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). “That isn’t ever going to be enough to fix the plastic trash crisis we are experiencing in the United States and globally. And, after all, the corporate actors responsible for our trash crisis should be responsible for fixing it, not individual consumers.” Only 9% of plastic is recycled globally, and the bulk of plastic waste comes from food packaging. CLF is pushing to change packaging laws that fail to hold giants like Amazon accountable. Meanwhile, independent refillery stores are swimming upstream in a system where everything is optimized against them.

“We spent so much money, as a culture, investing in these assembly lines and packaging lines in America that plastics are damn cheap. And so it’s actually much more expensive to do bulk,” says Zimbalist. Part of what makes the refillery business so challenging is that they’re not only trying to change consumer behavior, they’re trying to change supplier behavior, which is essentially the entire American food system.

The trio at Re-Up, though, have spent their careers in the waste reduction field, and as their store grows, they’re starting to see successes. Dr. Bronner’s, Forager Project, All Good Body Care, Beber Almondmilk, and Moon Valley Organics are among the businesses they’ve persuaded to incorporate reusable or “circular” packaging into their supply chain. This can mean individual containers that can be returned for a deposit or large drums that Re-Up trades directly with the supplier. Whenever possible, Re-Up tries to educate customers about the work they’re doing. “We’re pretty excited that it’s gaining traction,” says Zimbalist. “For us, the idea is that more consumers get exposed to a different way of consumption. They change the way they think about their purchasing power and hopefully demand more as consumers and as voters, and everything along the way.”

It’s hard to imagine what a different grocery landscape might look like, but France could offer a clue. Vitoux got her idea for Maison Jar after returning to visit friends and family and finding refilleries in every city. The trend started ten years ago in France, but it was bolstered by the government’s anti-waste legislation in 2019, which bans some single-use plastics, puts pressure on suppliers to use circular packaging, and even forces big chains like Auchan and Carrefour to dedicate one-fifth of each store to bulk goods. French people have a different attitude toward food and shopping (a robust social services net allows the French to spend around 14% of their income on groceries, versus our 7% in the United States) and a history of stronger government regulation in the food industry, so I don’t see us transforming our system to look like theirs anytime soon. But it’s encouraging to know that a different way of shopping is possible.

“I don’t know when the breakthrough moment happens—if it’s the mom-and-pops that come from the bottom, if it’s a corporation that finally figures it out, or if it’s a combination of grassroots meets corporation meets law—but I do feel like it’s growing,” says Garcia, when I ask her about the refillery movement as a whole. “I don’t know if refilleries like mine are the solution. But I think it’s realistic to say that a store like ours is changing minds in the community…The change in mindset is hopefully the actual trend that’s happening, more than just opening refilleries.”

When I go shopping at Maison Jar or Seed and Oil (it’s farther from me, but they have Burlap & Barrel spices in bulk), I’m thinking more about what I’m going to cook for dinner than what effect my beans might have on government policy or big-box infrastructure. But I notice that it feels strange now to unwrap my supermarket bananas and toss out the plastic bag. I’ve started bringing my soap containers to refill at the stores since I’m going there anyway. I’m changing some habits, one at a time. And while I know that it isn’t sufficient for me, or for any of us, to change our shopping habits, it is also necessary if we are to someday live in a world with less waste.

, Refilleries Are Coming for Your Grocery Shopping Routine

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