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Green Zebra Aims to Become the C-Store of the Future

CEO eyes 100 stores by 2025

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Lisa Sedlar, founder and CEO of Green Zebra Grocery, is creating a more curated grocery experience by pulling from different retail concepts with a vision of changing the way people shop for food. The Portland, Ore.-based retailer has three stores, with another set to open shortly, and Sedlar’s long-term goal is to open 100 stores on the West Coast by 2025.  

Sedlar graduated from Kendall College in Chicago with a degree in culinary arts, then went on to become purchasing director for Whole Foods, followed next as CEO of New Seasons Market, before embarking on Green Zebra, which is a hybrid corner grocery inspired by a market from her grandparent’s era and a modern day convenience store for urban neighborhoods where people shop daily and mostly walk to the store.

The typical customer spends on average $10 and buys 2-3 items per visit to Green Zebra, which offers discounts to customers that walk or bike to the store. The industry average for c-stores, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), is around $6 per transaction, which often includes sales of cigarettes and tobacco. Sedlar estimates that her customers spend the same amount in Green Zebra (which does not sell tobacco products) as they would in a traditional supermarket on an annualized basis. “It turns out that if you put a salad bar in a convenience-store format, it becomes your No. 1 seller in no time flat because people want healthier options,” Sedlar shared.

Guided by a mission to redefine what it means to be a more convenient store, Sedlar says c-stores “are usually filled with cigarettes and sugary drinks and things that are not healthy. We are all about offering our eaters choices that they want that help further their healthy lifestyle. So instead of the sugary drinks, we do kombucha, and even taken it one step further and developed a kombucha ‘slurpee.’”

The company’s three existing stores generate about $12 million in revenue, and Sedlar says margins are “superhealthy and are best in class” at 40%, exceeding the typical margin, which, according to Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for NACS, is 34% for c-stores that do not sell gasoline. Green Zebra today has over 100 employees, most of which are full-time—a rarity for the industry. Lenard also said a major difference between Green Zebra and other c-stores is the transparency with the employees; Sedlar holds quarterly meetings with all the employees and opens up the books to show them all the financials in order to empower them to have a greater stake in the company.

“Everyone knows how the business works,” says Lenard, noting that there is “something cool going on there. Green Zebra is the future; it’s a c-store that’s part grocery, part bar, part restaurant and most importantly, part community center.”

On a recent visit with his two daughters, his youngest pointed out how the “E” and the “Z” in the store’s outdoor signs are in green, while the rest of the name is in white. Lenard says that's the most important element to a convenience store: being “easy to shop. You can have all kinds of cool and hip foods inside, but if it’s not ‘EZ’ people will not shop there.”

Green Zebra Grocery is soon heading to Seattle with a plan to open four to five stores there, and then move south into California. It’s also launching Micro Green Zebra stores that are 400 square feet and will be located in office buildings with at least 500 employees and where they also have a street side entrance for the public. It will operate on the honor system, where customers will pay through their mobile devices. Each micro store costs less than $10,000 to build and has no employees. Sedlar, who says she’s been inundated with companies requesting one as an “amenity” for their employees, says she sees the opportunity for micro stores in hundreds of office buildings.

While Green Zebra uses a third party for delivery, Sedlar wants to develop a proprietary form of delivery, as she feels that the opportunity that is being missed is connecting the Green Zebra brand door to door. One option, she says, is robotic deliveries.

Sedlar says now is the ideal time to expand. And though she feels others are catching on to her idea, the difference is they’re either a conventional retailer with a few natural products scatted around, or they’re natural retailer but “kind of precious," meaning they’re not for an everyday visit, which is what Green Zebra strives to be.

This story first appeared in CSP sister publicationWinsight Grocery Business.

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