Retailer, wholesaler, activist, lifelong vegetarian and above all wholefoodist – Rainbow Wholefoods founder Richard Austin tells Natural Products editor Jim Manson why he is still fired up by a desire to change the world
Natural Products: Can you tell me how you first got into the natural and organic world?
Richard Austin: In the early 1970s I was doing a law degree. I was working very hard and I discovered that a lot of my friends weren’t working quite so hard! In fact, they were busy having a great time on different university campuses. So when I finished I went off to live in America for about six months. It was long enough to realise I didn’t want to live there. So I came back and started a philosophy at UEA. It was the first time I’d lived outside London, I was deep in the country and I loved it.
I got to the end of my philosophy degree, by which time I’d managed to clock up seven years in further education, and I thought, actually, now I want to do something. But I wanted to do something that was part of the alternative society. So I thought I’d start a whole food shop, which I thought was the perfect way to continue my student lifestyle – and I definitely wouldn’t have to get a hair cut! So I started the shop in Norwich in 1976. And it’s where we still are today – although not in the same premises
When I made my first order I went down to Community Foods and ordered one of everything. That was how much I knew about wholefoods. I got 25 kg of porridge which lasted about three days and 25 kg of arrowroot that would probably has lasted me about three years. So I didn’t know anything about any of it. It was really all about being alternative.
NP: Beyond not having to have a haircut – as you’ve said, an unthinkable act – what did you think you were setting out to achieve?
Well, there was a kind of prevailing belief at the time that things could be different and better, and that it was possible for anyone to contribute to this. There was a gathering of plans and people and ideas. It sounds absurd now and it has been ridiculed but at the time it felt very real – and I still subscribe to lots of those values, that desire to try and create a better world.
And that was what motivated most of the wholefood companies then. Peter Deadman at Infinity, John Law at Community – these guys all had their lights on. I’d looked at what these people were doing and thought, yeah, that’s fantastic. I remember waltzing into shop in Bristol – Stone Ground I think it was called – and telling them I was opening a shop and they just completely and utterly helped me. That fellowship, the enthusiasm for joint projects and making things better was so much stronger than all the commercial tosh that goes on these days. It was easier in that respect because everyone wanted to help. I suppose we thought that the world was going to be massively different – it is different, but in more subtle ways than we thought it would be.
NP: Rainbow was very much part of the wholefood movement from the beginning. Do you make a distinction between the different approaches – wholefood and health food?
RA: I think the trade is pretty much split in two. So, that’s the supplements end of things, the health food stores. They have different values, they are often first and foremost businesses – and there is nothing wrong with that. And then there’s the wholefood end, which in some cases still have exactly those set of values that I was talking about. In that very nice room where I received my award from the HFI, which they were very kind to give me, I felt they were giving the award to someone from the other side! Perhaps the other division is a better way of putting it.
It’s interesting that when you read the articles in Natural Products where people are talking about their stores, there is still a sense of shops falling into either side of that divide.
The wholefood and natural food stores that started appearing in the 70s were in a way challenging the increasingly supplements-focused outlook of the health food stores. Robin Bines was very much part of that. The first shows that he put on were part of a fringe movement, an alternative to the established events. They of course became very successful and got bigger eventually but that was all about wholefoods and whole foods values.
NP: Wholefoods seems to be experiencing a resurgence. Everyone seems to agree that eating wholefoods makes health sense.
RA: It’s true that pretty much every report you read throws up yet more evidence to support the health benefits of a wholefood diet. But of course the reason there is a whole food trade, as a distinct entity, is because the food industry doesn’t want to hear this message – it’s very inconvenient for them.
“It’s true that pretty much every report you read throws up yet more evidence to support the health benefits of a wholefood diet. But the reason there is a whole food trade, as a distinct entity, is because the food industry doesn’t want to hear this message – it’s very inconvenient for them”
NP: You got into wholesaling quite early. What was the background to that?
RA: It was just a natural progression really. We were in the middle of Norwich, which has a lot of University students. They were people who were up with the ideas of the time. And after a while they spread out across the county – and gradually wholefoods stores started opening up across Norfolk and East Anglia. Those stores tended to gravitate towards us – being a local wholesaler. We wholesale to about 250 outlets but they’re not all shops.
It constantly evolves and now we supply to some quite big institutions – like the prison service or Norwich Football Club. All down to Delia! At one stage we were probably a bit too alternative but now we’re up to speed on all the bureaucracy, all the audits and things you have to do. That means we can supply big organisations like the prison service
NP: As well as being a champion of vegetarianism and organic methods, you campaigned on GM very early on and you founded the influential Genetic Food Alert. What fired you up about GM?
RA: I first encountered the GM issue after receiving a fax, completely out of the blue, from the Natural Law Party. In the wholefood trade you do come into contact with some cranky stuff. This seemed incredibly off the wall but it was also deeply disturbing. As soon as I started to do a bit of research into it I realised it was a really serious issue. So I got involved with Greenpeace. And I spoke with the team at Rainbow and I said I need some time off to deal with this, so I worked part time at Rainbow and devoted the rest of my time on GM.
And what was great was that there was a fantastic feeling of unity amongst the whole foods trade – with a couple of notable exceptions, which did create some real challenges a the time. But we got a lot of support from Community, Infinity, Real Foods, Essential, Queenswood – all those people. At Rainbow we de-delisted about 40% of our best selling lines. We were so committed to it. We just said we’re not going to sell GM stuff whatever happens. It was TVP that was affected. I was personally really fired up about it and I still am. We washed our list completely. Fortunately we got the support of our customers because commercially it was a very tricky thing to be doing.
“At Rainbow we de-delisted about 40% of our best selling lines. We were so committed to it. We just said we’re not going to sell GM stuff whatever happen”
NP: Do you think the trade is engaged enough on the GM issue today?
RA: The problem with the GM issue is that the vested interests are so enormous that however many victories the anti-GM lobby achieves, it pops back onto the agenda. As a trade I think we’ve done really well actually. Practically every wholesaler has got a sound GM policy. The issue is very live again at the moment but what we’re hearing is the same old chestnut about GM being needed to feed the world and ease world poverty. But there isn’t a single NGO working in the field of poverty that thinks GM is the solution. It’s only the agri industry that thinks it’s a solution
If the pro-GM forces get their way and force a law change in Europe that allowed the supermarkets to sell GM food, well, it wouldn’t give me too much joy that we provided an alternative. By that stage we’d be just left picking up the pieces. That’s the big fight now.
NP: Tell me about Rainbow Wholefoods now, 37 years on
RA: When a shop has been round for a long time, like Rainbow or Infinity, there is a strong sense of that shop being genuinely part of the community. Doing more than simply selling things. We might not be dripping in money but we’ve probably got a bit more disposable income than most of us would have as individuals. So we’ve got involved funding lots of projects, and helping people over the years. It’s just not like a normal shop – and we are not alone in that. It’s probably true of most long-standing wholefood shops.
NP: What do you think is the biggest impact the natural and organic trade has made over that period?
RA: I think there has been a genuine change for better Food. Now you can go into just about any garage and find an organic something or other. And even in deepest rural Norfolk, where you might not always be able to buy something organic, you could find something without artificial colours and preservatives. I think that’s down to the wholefood and organic pioneers. I know the commercial world hasn’t buckled, and there hasn’t been a great wave of spiritual enlightenment as many people maybe hoped, but the change to food has really made a difference.
NP: And what about the future – the biggest opportunities, and challenges?
“The biggest challenge and opportunity for the future as I see it is the Web and everything that goes with it. The way people buy things is changing”
The biggest challenge and opportunity for the future as I see it is the Web and everything that goes with it. The way people buy things is changing. All of the good things that have happened in the past had to do with the way retailers communicated with their customers. And that is going to have to change. It would be deeply unattractive to never to meet another human being, and spend my life staring at a screen instead. But there could be opportunities in the digital world to make communication better in different ways.
If I was 25 today I wouldn’t be thinking about any of these issues, I’d just do it! I’m sure there were a similar set of reservations and difficulties back when I was setting out – I was just too headstrong to think about it. I think the challenge is to keep good standards, to make sure that we cherish the really good companies like Clearspring – they are really precious.
NP: Are you optimistic about the future for the world you were so passionate about changing?
RA: Yes I am. I put that down to the current generation of younger people. I’ve got a daughter aged 25 and seeing how her friends go about the things they do, and care about, does make me optimistic. It’s great to see a new generation of wholefood supporters getting fired up and wanting to work together – like Ruth (Strange) with the new Wholefood Shop Action Network.
I’m not especially interested in the UK PLC flourishing commercially. But I’d love to see the country making its communal wealth available to make things better for all of us.
NP: What’s next for Richard Austin and Rainbow Wholefoods?
RA: Well I’ve got three businesses – the warehouse, the shop and Kingfisher. I can’t take on any more business, I’m at capacity! But my aspirations aren’t commercial anyway. If the businesses we do have continue to do as well as they are doing, I’ll be perfectly happy. I would like to run a faster marathon if I could, that would give me a lot of pleasure but it’s unlikely to happen. I’d like Norwich to avoid relegation but that’s not likely to happen.
In truth, I don’t feel the need to move myself from where I am. I think I’m very lucky. I’m fine where I am really.
Pictures: Top – Being presented with the James Henry Cook Award in February by Ray Hill. Lower – Winning News Natural Living Product at this year’s Natural & Organic Awards