Was it just a few months ago that the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative declared an end to coupon day? It was. But this week, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition announced that, as of January 1, 2012, Rainbow would be ending its discount for SFBC members. 2012 is also the year that the world will end, according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar. Coincidence?
Most die-hard everyday Rainbow customers had already learned to avoid the store on coupon day. Who needed to jostle elbows with beatific hippie families in front of the bulk bins? Who needed to wait in line for 20 minutes, quietly feeling insignificant in comparison to the ruthlessly healthy purchases of other shoppers, or speculating as to lifestyle choices of the heaping cart in front of you, piled high with legumes, coconut butter and strange-looking massage devices?
A membership with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition got anyone 10 percent off on any day they remembered to actually show their card to the cashier. Membership was $35 a year at the low end of the year — sometimes even cheaper. A few weeks of grocery shopping and one had easily made back one’s self-interested investment in bicycle advocacy.
But signs that things have been souring with the bike discount have been evident for a while. In the early days, simply saying you were a member was enough. Then cashiers began checking cards. Then cashiers began demanding photo ID.
“Do people ever try to fake the SFBC discount?” I once asked the man scrutinizing my membership card like a cranky bouncer outside of a nightclub. “ALL THE TIME,” he said, darkly.
“Funny,” I said. “SFBC membership is really easy to get.”
“What I’ve heard,” he said, “is that since we started the discount, their membership has been through the roof.”
SFBC’s membership has risen significantly since 2008 — from 10,000 to 12,000. This despite the fact that for much of that time, the actual pro-cyclist changes to the city’s infrastructure that the SFBC had once regularly delivered via lobbying were at a complete standstill, due to a lawsuit filed against the Citywide Bike Plan.
“Our goal with the discount was to help broaden the membership of the SFBC,” says Marcus, who handles public relations for the cooperative. The thing that ultimately drove the decision to eliminate the discount, he says, was when the SFBC realized how much money Rainbow was giving away through the discount in relation to how much the SFBC was getting through signing up new members. “They said, ‘Wow. If you just gave that to us, just think of how much more we could do for cycling in the city,’” recalls Marcus.
How much money? Marcus is uncomfortable talking about that. “A lotta money,” he says. “Within the tens of thousands.” As discounts go, it was second only to the store’s senior discount. Which customers are also notorious for trying to bluff their way into. “They’ll say things like, ‘I’m buying these groceries for my mom. But she’s at home,’” says Marcus.
Another rationale behind the discount, Marcus says, was to alleviate Rainbow’s parking crunch. The store did wind up having to double the number of bike racks in its space, but it’s still a struggle to find a spot. And while the SFBC and occasional Rainbow cashiers did maintain that people needed to ride their bikes to the store to use the discount, Marcus says that biking to the store — or even biking, period — was never a requirement. “It was never about having to show your U-lock or your helmet or whatever. It was really just about broadening their membership.”
The meeting about eliminating the bicycle discount was a contentious one, Marcus says, but the issue was ultimately decided by a vote. How close was the vote? He won’t say. The store is still tackling other ways it might promote cycling — donating directly to the SFBC, and setting up a way for customers to borrow bicycle trailers to transport large loads of groceries.
Meanwhile, the injunction against the Citywide Bike Plan was lifted in August 2010. Even before then, Valencia Street was bristling with new bicycle racks, and new programs like Pavement to Parks were taking spaces formerly reserved for cars and making them more convenient for cyclists and pedestrians.
So, it’s the end of an era. More bike racks on the street, fewer discounts on bamboo cutting boards. Will Rainbow, the place where almost all the city’s subcultures — the foodies, the yuppies, the yoga instructors, the vitamin nuts, the anarchists, the socialists, the capitalists, the cheese-obsessed, the bulk-bin shopping grandmas — collide, be a madhouse come December, when all the bicycle people see the end on the horizon? Will the aisles be crowded with desperate people in clip-on shoes? We shall wait and see.