LA’s New Grocer Shows Us That Plastic-Free Life Can Still Exist in a Post-Pandemic World
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 06/10/2020 | 6 Minute Read
The Coronavirus pandemic put pressure on businesses to adapt or face closing their doors indefinitely. But what about the places that hadn’t even opened yet, ones that planned to debut during this time? Without the chance to do business as usual, surely they were doomed from the start, right?
If you were to ask husband and wife team Lauren and Joseph Macrino, co-founders of TARE, they’d disagree. The new grocery store in Los Angeles, which opened on Earth Day 2020 (April 22), offers consumers all plastic-free items and foods to buy in bulk. They’d been thinking about creating a plastic-free grocery store for years, so postponing their opening didn’t make sense and instead, they opted to forge ahead with their operations and provide the Highland Park neighborhood with organic, non-GMO items. After all, even in the middle of a pandemic, consumers still want and need eco-conscious products.
“It feels like it’s virtually impossible when you go grocery shopping in the United States to avoid plastic packaging,” Lauren said. “We basically created something that we wanted.”
Lauren hails from Australia, where she admitted this type of shopping was much more common. Even for consumers who purchase from the bulk food aisle in their local Whole Foods, they’ll be given plastic containers to pack items up. Plastic-free stores in the US do exist, although they certainly aren’t widespread yet as it’s still a growing trend. Plastic is a widely used material to preserve food and drink, and it can be a challenge to escape—but not impossible.
TARE sells over 400 products, from nuts to oils to spices, plus things like grind-your-own nut butters, kombucha on draft, and a plant-based milk bar. “Our sort of hierarchy when sourcing all the food is: is it organic, is it non-GMO, is it local, is it traceable,” Joseph said. “We really want to know where all the food is coming from, if we can dial it down to as local as the farm it’s on or even just the state or the country, then that's exactly what we're aiming to do.”
Sourcing locally, like TARE strives to, not only ensures consumers get fresh ingredients from nearby, but it helps to cut down on packaging from suppliers.
“From the standpoint of the supply chain, it's extremely difficult to put pressure on manufacturers to reduce their plastic usage,” Lauren admitted. “Over time, as we get bigger, we hope to have more pull on them to be able to request plastic-free packaging. But we also try to work with as many local businesses as possible. For instance, we're working with Canyon Coffee, and they're doing a completely closed-loop system with us. They take one of our bins, fill it up with their products, and then give it to us. And it's kind of like we never have any packaging in the whole process.”
During normal operations, customers would walk into TARE with their own refillable jars and bags. But nothing about April 2020 was ordinary, and Lauren and Joseph opened a store during the COVID-19 outbreak which, they joked, made things “interesting, to say the least.”
They intended to open an online store further down the road, but to boost their sales, Lauren set up a website for people to order online. That wasn’t exactly a small task to photograph and list over 400 items, but they did manage to get it up quickly and make things easier on consumers who wanted to shop there.
The pandemic also meant consumers couldn’t provide their own reusable containers—which, for a plastic-free store, is sort of the point. At the moment, they’re using 100% post-consumer recycled paper bags instead, and while they’re not sure when the regulations will get lifted, they hope that they can allow reusables again soon.
“The main thing is we’re taking extra precautions in the store and making it super safe for our employees and our customers,” Joseph stated. “We’re only allowing three people in at a time, and people appreciate that we're taking extra care and caution with it. We’ve also kind of become everyone's personal shoppers, and we're getting to know our customers really well during this time. We're learning what they use our products for, and we get a lot of cool feedback by talking with them.”
One might think that a pandemic would make consumers wary of stores where you take in your own reusable containers to fill, but Lauren and Joseph believe plastic-free is still the future. TARE customers seem to agree—Joseph explained that a lot of guests expressed a sense of relief when going into the store because it lacks plastic, and it’s their first experience being in a space like that.
But is there a concern that food in a package-and-plastic-free shop gets contaminated?
We want to believe our food comes packaged to us in its most pristine state. But at some point along the line, the food gets handled by someone (or someones), and that might be even less ideal than in a small, local shop like TARE where you have employees that get trained on how to properly handle the merchandise and keep an eye on how customers interact with what they have available during a pandemic.
“People forget that, with packaging, it’s been packaged somewhere by someone with their own hands,” Lauren mentioned, explaining how our plastic-wrapped, super clean foods are an illusion.
“People have been shopping like this for decades,” added Joseph, although they’re ensuring things are extra clean with hand sanitizer stations set up throughout the store. “We’ve worked hard to design the store to reduce the risk of contamination, all the way down to how the food bins open. With those, for example, you actually have to remove the scoop before opening the bins, so you won’t leave the bin open accidentally.”
Both Lauren and Joseph look forward to what’s to come for TARE. For many customers, it’s their first time experiencing a grocery store sans plastic—and rather than being bombarded with an overload of packaging and branding messages, they can experience grocery shopping that’s focused on the quality of the product first and foremost.
“People are like, ‘Whoa, this is an option?’” Lauren said. “They can live their lives without so much plastic, and they’ve been really excited, particularly people who have not shopped this way before.”