Hope Armstrong
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Where to Buy Bulk Food in the SF Bay Area

Refill, please.

When I moved to the SF Bay Area in 2012, my go-to grocery store was Safeway. With a convenient location, weekly sales, and a wide selection of foods, I was quite content. When I moved about a mile down the road, I found myself living smack dab in front of a Lucky's grocery story. It's a less-known grocery chain with a similar vibe as Safeway: your typical no-frills, mainstream grocery store. I felt fortunate to pop in after work, on my way home from the train station. During that time, I made more frozen pierogies for dinner than I care to admit.

Flash forward to today, and I've moved from the peninsula (south of San Francisco for you out-of-towners) to the East Bay. I do the vast majority of my grocery shopping at the Berkeley Bowl, a locally-owned store with an incredible selection of produce and bulk bins. I'd say 80% of our food comes from there, 10% comes from the farmer's market, and we shop elsewhere for that last 10% which is bulk liquids, organic teas, and bread. While we're certainly spoiled by lots of bulk food options here, it does take a bit of searching to find all the bulk things, since no one store has everything - except for perhaps Rainbow Grocery, but that's too far away from me to be my usual grocery store. You'll see that most of the recommendations skew to the East Bay since that's where I live. To find bulk shopping stores in your area, check out Litterless directory of stores listed by state.

Here are my favorite bulk finds:

Berkeley Bowl

Website

West: 920 Heinz Ave, Berkeley, CA 94710 | Main: 2020 Oregon St. Berkeley, CA

I'm more familiar with the West Berkeley store, so here's my account of their selection. The main store's selection may differ.

A selection of items they carry (this list is not exhaustive):
  • Grains: brown rice, white rice, oats, couscous, quinoa, farro, barley
  • Flours: whole wheat, unbleached all-purpose, buckwheat, oat, etc.
  • Baking stuff: baking soda, aluminum-free baking powder, arrowroot powder, cornstarch
  • Sugars: unrefined white sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar
  • Dried pasta: ramen, spaghetti, orzo, elbows, penne, and more
  • Beans: several varieties
  • Granola: several varieties
  • Dried fruit: The medjool dates and mango are my favorites.
  • Tofu! It's not in the bulk section; it's in the refrigerated area in the asian section.
  • Snacks: oyster crackers (no oysters involved!), rice crackers, peanut butter pretzel nuggets, popcorn
  • Nuts: The flavored pistachios are so good.
  • Seeds: chia, sunflower, etc.
  • Sweets: The dark chocolate covered pretzels are mental. Dark chocolate chips.
  • Soup mixes
  • Vegetable broth powder
  • Spices
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Teas
  • Bagels (They're not in the bulk section; it's towards the front of the store, across from the deli.)
  • Lots of plastic-free produce
Wet foods are notably missing from their bulk selection:
  • Nut butters
  • Liquids (oils, vinegars, maple syrup, etc.)

A note about the olives:

Olives are sold by weight in the salad bar, but it's a difficult process to purchase them in your own jar. Once you have the weight of your jar, you can add the olives to it. Then you'll need to wait in line at the meat counter for the final weight. There is often quite a line here, and sometimes you can sneak in for a quick weight but usually the people waiting in line glare or the employee refuses to give you a quick weight. They also rarely experience someone wanting to buy olives in their own jar, so it leads to them asking another employee for help. One time, they asked to empty my olives into a plastic container since they didn't know how to subtract the tare weight of the jar. Frustrated by this process, I've stopped buying olives from the salad bar and instead buy cans of olives.

Recipes for bulk foods are on their website.

Rainbow Grocery

Website | 1745 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94103

Rainbow Grocery is THE BEST place to shop for bulk foods in the Bay Area. With over 800 products to choose from, and a welcoming spirit for zero waste shoppers, shopping in bulk here is a joy. The only reason I don't come here often is because it's a far drive away (12 miles is considered "far" when you have to cross the bay bridge and fight all the San Francisco traffic, ha!). It's a few blocks away from the 16th Street Mission BART station, and the next time I go I'll lug my 50lbs of mason jars with me. It's a very special destination with loads of zero waste goodies.

Special, hard-to-find bulk items they carry:
  • Fresh vegan ravioli
  • Tofu
  • Miso
  • Tahini
  • Nut butters
  • Kimchi
  • Pickles
  • Sauerkraut
  • Salsa
  • Syrups: agave, brown rice, maple, molasses
  • Oils: olive, canola, sesame, safflower, grapeseed, coconut
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Bragg Liquid Aminos
  • Tamari
  • Fresh baked vegan pastries
Standard, yet very useful staple items:
  • Olives
  • Dried pasta
  • Beans: several varieties
  • Grains: brown rice, white rice, quinoa, farro, millet, barley
  • Flours: whole wheat, unbleached all-purpose, buckwheat, oat, etc.
  • Baking stuff: baking soda, baking powder, arrowroot powder, cornstarch, xanthan gum, agar agar
  • Salts
  • Beet root powder
  • Sugars: white sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar
  • Snacks: dried fruit, pretzel
  • Nuts
  • Granola
  • Spices
  • Teas
  • Coffee

The Food Mill

Website | 3033 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, CA

I haven't been here in a year or two, so my list isn't going to do this store justice. But trust me, it's an excellent store with a wide variety! It's a must-visit if you're in Oakland. Established in 1933, The Food Mill is a long-standing, family-owned store in Oakland.

Wet food selection includes:

  • Olive oil
  • Peanut butter

Dry food selection includes:

  • The usual staples.
  • Dried pasta
  • Grains
  • Flours
  • Beans
  • Flours
  • Broth powder
  • Falafel mix
  • Dried fruit
  • Granolas
  • Nuts
  • Snacks

Whole Foods

Website | Several locations

It seems that all Whole Foods stores have a quaint bulk section with the basics listed below. The one near me has a few nut butter grinders, which is exclusively where I get my weekly jar of peanut butter. My store also has a separate olive bar and fresh pasta bar, but I haven't attempted to shop there yet.

Typical items include:

  • Granolas
  • Flours
  • Sugars (but not powdered, and usually not rare ones like beet sugar)
  • Dried fruits
  • Nuts
  • Nut butters
  • Dried beans
  • Trail mix
  • Chocolate chips
  • Candy

El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company

Website | 10367 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito, CA

This store has a terrific bulk selection, much more than what's listed here. I'm not a regular at this store, so I don't remember everything off the top of my head but I'll take notes the next time I'm there. The most unique aspect is their selection of wet foods (which still sounds gross, but that's the only way I can think to describe it).

Wet food selection includes:

  • Olive oil
  • Vinegar
  • Peanut butter

Dry food selection includes:

  • The usual staples.
  • Dried pasta
  • Flours
  • Granolas
  • Nuts
  • Snacks

Berkeley Natural Grocery Company

Website | 1336 Gilman St, Berkeley, CA

I love this charming little neighborhood shop. It's owned by the same company as the El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company, but it's much smaller. When I come here, I'm zeroed in on one or two items I need, so I'm not intimately aware of all their offerings. Next time I visit, I'll take notes and report back.

Wet food selection includes:

  • Peanut butter

Dry food selection includes:

  • The usual staples.
  • Flours
  • Granolas
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit
  • Chocolate

Monterey Market

Website | 1550 Hopkins St #2711, Berkeley, CA

This shop has a great bulk selection packed into a relatively small and bustling space. Whenever I shop here, I use produce bags exclusively. I've heard reports that they don't know how to subtract the tare weights from jars, and that the employees aren't trained to check out glass jars of bulk goods. They have a machine that makes freshly squeezed orange juice, yet it appears that it can only be filled into the provided plastic jugs. I eyeball that machine every time I visit, just wishing I could fill up a quart jar of it. They don't have any wet foods in bulk

Dry food selection includes:

  • The usual staples.
  • Flours
  • Granolas
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit
  • Chocolate

Sprouts

Website | Several locations

Sprouts is a last resort for me. They have a small selection of dry bulk foods, but it's mostly candy, dried fruits and nuts. There aren't many staple items for everyday meals. But the main issue is the checkout process. I've gone there several times over the last few years, and 90% of the time, the cashier has no idea what to do with jars of bulk food. It becomes a whole ordeal where the manager is called over to figure out the tare weights. They typically know how to do it, but sometimes there's a struggle to remember exactly what key commands to press, or sometimes they have to call over a third person. Holding up a grocery line is an awkward experience, especially when a bunch of anxious folks are sending stink-eye glares in your direction. I only go here in a real pinch, when I really need something they happen to carry in bulk and I'm passing by a store.

Dry food selection includes:

  • Granolas
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit
  • Chocolate

Lhasa Karnak Herb Company

Website

2506 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley, CA | 1942 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA

  • Herbs / spices
  • Teas

Far Leaves

Website | 2626 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley

  • Teas

Coffee Conscious

Website | 1312 Gilman St, Albany, CA

  • Tea
  • Coffee (ground or whole bean)

Raxakoul Coffee & Cheese

Website | 1578 Hopkins St, Berkeley, CA

  • Teas (including a wide selection of organic)
  • House-roasted coffee

I hope this run-down of bulk food shopping options helped you out. Over the past couple of years, I've amassed a mental map of the selections at these various stores, and in the beginning there was a learning curve to figuring out what store offers in bulk. Over time, you'll figure out a flow that works best for your location and food preferences. If you're anything like me, it may include patch-working your grocery list across a couple stores. If you only have time to do your weekly shop at one store then you can go to a store with a larger bulk selection once a month or so and really stock up on the unique finds. Happy bulk shopping! Let me know if there's something you're having trouble finding.

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