Rainbow Wholefoods is in the process of rebuilding its store after it was destroyed by fire.
The Norwich store, one of the UK’s longest established wholefood stores, went up in flames in April, which founder, Richard Austin, said was believed to have been started by a faulty compressor motor in a freezer, which took hold quickly, destroying everything in the listed former fire station stables with the exception of two fire extinguishers, which survived, proudly displaying their green symbol, indicating that they are still suitable for use in the event of fire.
Richard, who started Rainbow in 1976, told Health Food Business: “I was on a short walking holiday in Wales with my partner, Annie, who I met when she came to work at the shop the best part of 40 years ago. We were staying with some old friends, Andrew and Rhiannon Jedwell (the founders of Jedwell Foods and well known Meridian Foods brand) and had spent a very peaceful day visiting the Llangollen aqueduct. Around 9pm, a call came through to their remote Welsh cottage from my daughter to let me know that there was a fire at the shop and that the fire brigade were on their way.”
It took just under an hour for firefighters to break into the building due to fire shutters that had been fitted at the fire brigade’s request, and when they had done so, the fire was brought under control around 30 minutes before it would have engulfed adjoining buildings in an old part of the city. Richard added that the fire had burned at around 900oC, practically everything was completely blackened and there were light fittings melted down into strips hanging from the ceilings.
“There are 11 of us who work at the store and for a couple of days, we were in complete shock. I started the project in 1976 and it has been a labour of many people’s love since that time. To see everything ruined was a devastating experience. Meeting with experts inside the shop over the following days, wearing hard hats and breathing masks, I learned that it would take months, rather than weeks to refurbish the premises. This was a couple of days after the fire and a group of us walked, somewhat shell shocked, around the centre of Norwich looking for a suitable empty shop to open up again on a temporary basis.
“About a hundred yards away, and in the centre of the Norwich Lanes, was what had been an old record shop, used and loved by many of our team. We decided that this was the site to popup into and asked the relevant estate agents if we could rent the property on a temporary basis. Although there was a large sign up outside the premises announcing that it was to let, we were told that the place had been let.
“During this time, we were sustained by the kindness of our neighbouring traders, who provided us with open-ended complementary tea and cakes and places to leave our possessions and tables to work from and friendly support. Our friends/ customers were no less generous, keeping up constant messages, offers of help and good wishes online. Suppliers too were very, very good to us and I’m not sure if we would have managed to make it through without all of this help.”
The team decided to re-approach the agents the following day, who explained that circumstances had changed again and the place was now free to be rented.
Richard added: “By this time, we had been closed for a month and were desperate to get moving. We had spent time planning so on the sixth day after signing, we re-opened our shop to the public. During this time, we had painted a dingy empty room, fitted shelving, tills, computers, counters and fridges and memorably brought in 12 pallets of stock and set it out on our shelves. The process took all of us doing the best that we could and then a little more but we got there. We have been open three weeks and the public have located us and let us know how grateful they are to see us back up and running. The shop looks great but, just now, those at the centre of the re-open project look a little tired and jaded. As the days roll on, we are getting our strength back and have a chance to reflect on the extraordinary couple of months that we have been through.”