Rachel Garcia spends her days surrounded by neatly labeled acrylic boxes and glass jars full of grains, pasta, spices, beans and other food staples. It’s not some sort of dream pantry. It’s Dry Goods Refillery, her 200-square-foot shop located inside the General Store Cooperative in Maplewood, where the former fashion buyer has taken her passion for reducing waste to the community.
The idea to open a package-free food market came to Garcia when, a few years ago, the Morristown native and her husband Daniel, a director at a business consulting firm, took stock of the amount of waste they were producing as a family. From water bottles to plastic baggies to pantry staples gone stale, they wanted to change their lifestyle and set a greener example for their two young sons, Tyler and Ellis.
They started small, toting reusable coffee cups and swapping paper towels for cloth napkins. But low-waste grocery shopping at supermarkets and big-box stores proved to be a challenge, with plastic-wrapped vegetables and cardboard containers galore.
A different way of shopping, Garcia knew, was possible. From the fresh pasta shops she had frequented while living in Argentina to the spice and farmers’ markets she had wandered through on trips to places like Japan and Italy, Garcia had long admired other cultures’ shopping habits. “They were so much simpler and less about convenience.” She wondered, why couldn’t we take our own containers to fill up on dinner or refill spice bottles here?
In February, just six months after putting pen to paper for the idea for a place where shoppers could do just that, the Garcias opened up Dry Goods Refillery, a package-free food market.
The community, Garcia explains, quickly embraced the concept of bringing their own containers. To fill up on organic lentils, pastas, nuts and honey, locals brought everything from vintage metal tins, to a Portuguese honey pot, to regular old empty peanut butter jars and plastic takeout containers (cotton bags and jars are available to purchase, too). It may have helped that the co-op, a community of other local makers and independent businesses, was already home to Good Bottle Refill Co., a similar concept for household cleaners and beauty products.
Also helpful, Garcia decided to list the shop’s offerings online, allowing people to come in with a refill game plan. Plus, the list of organic beans and legumes, pastas, oils and syrup, baking supplies and more, she says, were priced competitively with supermarkets, and come from businesses the couple has hand-picked.
Supporting these like-minded vendors is key, says Garcia, who quickly decided it wouldn’t be enough to offer flour, olive oil and oats package-free to shoppers if they still came from suppliers who use heaps of packaging. Instead, she searched for wholesalers and small food businesses—such as Polit Farms for organic brown rice, Pete’s Sweets in upstate New York for maple syrup and Frontier Co-op for spices and teas—who would be “willing to sell 25 pounds of pasta or beans in one paper bag” and even some who use hybrid vehicles. (Any plastic packaging that’s unavoidable gets sent to Terracycle, a New Jersey-based company that collects and gives new life to hard-to-recycle materials.)
These close vendor relationships have proved to be essential during the coronavirus pandemic. Food shopping and dining, of course, have changed completely, with many restaurants closing and big-box stores experiencing shortages. But Garcia says they’ve been able to stay stocked on yeast, flour, pasta and more, as well as add boxes of fresh produce to their offerings, without raising their prices. They’ve quickly created new relationships, linking up with restaurant wholesalers and other distributors who have lost many outlets for their goods with so many eateries closed. The weaknesses and fragility of the food supply chain, Garcia says, have been exposed during this crisis, but “we’re doing our small, small part to redirect the bottlenecks.”
The pandemic also required a quick pivot in their business model. In March, as the seriousness of the pandemic sank in, Dry Goods took a 10-day break to turn its website to an e-commerce platform and figure out the logistics of a safe pick-up system. Currently, they are accepting online orders only and packing up food in recyclable paper bags, recyclable tape and glass jars for once-a-week curbside pickup. Though “it’s not the bring-your-own-container model we started out to do,” Garcia says she’s proud Dry Goods is still able to offer a low-waste option for food shopping to the community—especially as the use of online shopping and takeout orders sheathed in plastic soar in the name of safety and distancing.
Garcia is busier than ever now that she’s keeping up with demand for orders from loyal shoppers and new customers alike, plus caring for her two children (like many working parents and business owners). But she’s buoyed by support from the community, which she says is “not just talk when it comes to supporting small businesses.” Or when it comes to supporting neighbors: Dry Goods shoppers have taken advantage of the option to add a donation to MEND, a network of local food pantries, to their online grocery orders. “The response has been really amazing,” she says.
When Garcia started Dry Goods Refillery, she hoped to revive a “throwback concept,” creating a place that harked back to a simpler lifestyle and allowed people to lessen their impact on the planet. Now, during this crisis, she’s noticed others looking backwards for comfort and out of necessity, baking bread, planting gardens and making foods from scratch. People are “starting to evaluate what they truly need and what they want,” she says, “and part of the cycle of reducing waste is reducing consumption.” Despite it being a dark and scary time, “I hope what sticks around are some of these habits.”
Garcia herself has also made some changes, such as starting to get dairy delivered to her porch by a milkman—in reusable glass bottles, of course.
Dry Goods Refillery, 1875 Springfield Avenue, Maplewood, 973-250-6160.Click here to leave a comment