These Garden City grocers hope for a zero-waste ‘revolution’ in a burned-out hookah bar

Lea Rainey and Zach Yunker were married Sept. 15. For their honeymoon, they’re trying to launch a type of business they say has never existed in the northwestern United States.

By the end of this year, Yunker and Rainey hope to open Roots Zero Waste Market, selling food without the packaging material and plastic shopping bags most grocery stores use. They have rented a building at 3308 W. Chinden Blvd. in Garden City, a former Veterans of Foreign Wars post and, more recently, Ali Baba Hookah Bar, which burned in 2015.

The idea is to emphasize the “reduce” part of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto. New programs around Boise allow recovery of much of the packaging material most stores use. Environmentally, though, it’s better not to use that material at all.

Even green meccas like Portland and Seattle have no zero-waste markets, Rainey said. The closest example in the region is a zero-waste wholesale operation in Utah, she said.

“I feel like we’re pioneers,” Rainey said. “I hope that we’re going to be part of something that’s revolutionizing the whole country.”

Rainey’s winding path

Growing up in McCall and playing in nature, Rainey cultivated a passion for the environment.

Her career path, then, is a bit surprising. She spent 20 years in tech, 14 of them in a high-stress job managing big accounts for some of Hewlett-Packard’s most important clients.

Yunker is a veteran of Idaho’s hospitality and brewing industries. He managed Sockeye Grill and Brewery for 12 years and was at Payette Brewing for two years.

Over the years, Rainey said, she and Yunker talked about opening their own restaurant.

“But I really wanted a larger social mission that I was going to attach myself to long-term,” she said.

In September 2017, Rainey quit her job. She didn’t know what she was going to do. She traveled for a while. She took a job managing Cafe Shakespeare at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s amphitheater east of Eckert Road in the Barber Valley neighborhood.

She had seen zero-waste markets in Switzerland, Germany and Ireland. In February, Rainey said, she and Yunker decided to start their own.

They wanted a location far from other grocery stores. That led them to the former hookah bar on Chinden. After five months of negotiating, Rainey said, they signed a lease in August.

roots market 2.JPG
Lea Rainey was elated when the sign for Roots Zero Waste Market arrived in late August. The idea for the store “came from my own concerns around the environment and how hard it was for me to shop without finding a ton of plastic packaging in my face,” Rainey said. Sven Berg

The business model

After a brief snag over the number of trees they need to plant at the store, Rainey and Yunker got Garden City’s go-ahead this month to renovate the building and open Roots Zero Waste Market. They’re required to plant at least seven trees and as many as 60 shrubs — a stipulation that stems from the city’s decade-old effort to “bring the garden back to Garden City,” said Development Services Director Jenah Thornborrow.

The store will sell grocery staples like fruits, vegetables, oil, flour, grains, beans, eggs and local dairy items. Customers can bring their own containers and fill them. They would weigh the empty containers. The cashier would subtract that number from the weight of the full container to make sure customers are charged only for the groceries they buy.

The store also plans to sell reusable containers, such as glass bottles and muslin bags, Rainey said.

Rainey and Yunker wouldn’t buy goods that come in packaging like single-use plastic sheeting. As much as possible, they’ll buy products in reusable containers like buckets, drums or burlap bags. They’ll buy some bulk goods in paper bags that they’ll compost.

“It’s a process. It’s a journey for everybody,” Rainey said. “We don’t expect to change consumer thoughts and shopping habits immediately. But we do want to make it more present in everybody’s mind.”

Rainey and Yunker go all in

Rainey said she and Yunker have budgeted $250,000 to get Roots open and pay for the first six months of operations. Renovation of the building was the biggest expense. Three investors have put up money, and a 14-day donation drive from late May to early June netted $5,000 in $10 donations. The owners are looking for equity partners, Rainey said. Other than that, she said, they’re self-funded.

“We cashed out our 401(k)s,” she said.

In addition to the store, Rainey and Yunker plan a cafe with a kitchen in the same building. The cafe will sell standard deli fare like salads, sandwiches and cheeses with vegan, vegetarian and meat dishes, she said. It will have a coffee bar and sell beer, wine and cider.

The market also will include space for meetings or events, Rainey said.

0924 zero waste 03
Roots will have a grocery store and cafe with its own kitchen. The store’s concept is based on a European model that co-owner Lea Rainey discovered when she was traveling the world for Hewlett-Packard Co. Katherine Jones

Is this just for rich people?

Roots is in an area that’s undergoing big changes.

Developers are buying up old buildings in a triangle bordered by the Boise River, Chinden Boulevard and Veterans Memorial Parkway, and either remodeling them for businesses or tearing them down to make way for new buildings. One of the driving forces of this evolution is Hannah Ball, a developer who owns the Roots building.

Rainey expects customers to assume that Roots will be expensive because it will specialize in organic foods and have a green business model. It doesn’t have to be that way, she said. By working with a variety of vendors from as far away as Australia, she said, Roots can find products that are reasonably priced.

“We can absolutely beat a lot of prices in town,” she said. “We won’t beat WinCo.”

They will try to keep prices as low as $3.50 for a gallon of locally produced milk, Rainey said. In the cafe, sandwiches with a side will cost $3.50 to $10.95. Regional beer, wine and cider will will be available by the ounce — 35 to 60 cents — or $5 a pint for most beers, $5 to $6 for cider and $7 for a glass of wine.

Customers can save money by buying only as much as they need, Rainey said. A person baking a cake could buy a few cups of flour instead of a five-pound bag, or a single stick of butter instead of one-pound package.

Yunker said those customers can push the grocery-and-packaging revolution Rainey is hoping for, encouraging a market for low- or zero-waste products all along the supply chain.

“Consumers can change the way manufacturing is done,” he said.

How did recycling get so complicated?

You can learn more about Boise’s orange-bag program and get answers to other recycling and zero-waste questions at “Reduce, Reuse, Rethink: Understanding our new recycling reality,” at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 26, at Payette Brewing Co., 733 South Pioneer St., Boise.

It’s a free event put on by the Idaho Statesman, the city of Boise and Payette Brewing. Experts will answer your questions. There will be games and prizes, and you can learn more about Zero Waste Boise and other organizations.