Is it a convenience store? Is it a supermarket? Customers may ask these questions when they first visit Green Zebra Grocery in Portland, Ore., but they may not be able to answer—even after shopping the entire store.
Green Zebra, which opened in October, was designed to be both of these things, and neither.
“People are surprised when they come in and see this is not a typical convenience store,” says founder and CEO Lisa Sedlar. Formerly president and CEO of New Seasons Market in Portland, Sedlar set up this store with a New Seasons colleague, Shannon Hiller-Webb, co-founder and marketing director.
“We get to redefine what it means to be convenient,” Sedlar says. “We’re at the nexus of convenience and healthy.”
The goal was to be that small store shoppers can walk to. Prices were also set to fall between convenience and grocery stores. “The small-format store is the anchor of a neighborhood,” Sedlar says.
And she believes we’ll see more of this. It’s already coming, as 7-Eleven adds more fresh foods and convenience stores start to explore what healthy and fresh mean to their customers. “It’s a good thing,” says Sedlar. “All boats rise with the tide. It’s about having more access to healthy foods.”
Keeping It Simple
Healthy is one of the tenets of Green Zebra’s business. The others are freshness, convenience, local and a limited choice that Sedlar describes as good, better and best options. The offerings are kept to a minimum for two reasons: space, and to limit the decisions customers—whom she calls “eaters”—have to make.
Green Zebra Grocery is 5,600 square feet, half of which is devoted to fresh foods. There are about 32 linear feet for produce, with as much as possible coming from local farmers; a cheese bar; a bulk section; a deli; and a hot bar manned by a professional chef whose focus is health and convenience, leading to items such as a healthier mac and cheese that has less fat and more vegetables. In fact, the salad bar and hot food bar are, respectively, No. 1 and No. 2 in terms of sales, Sedlar says.
Head into the center store section of Green Zebra and you’ll be surprised again. The aisles are narrow; even here, there’s a strong emphasis on healthy, with products such as kale chips and edamame snacks on the shelves.
“That’s what we need if we’re really going to change how people are eating,” says Sedlar. “Our core shopper is buying healthy snacks like crazy.”
On the store’s back wall is a section with four beer taps, which shoppers can fill into growlers bearing Green Zebra’s name—so the store is marketed in people’s homes, and at social gatherings post-purchase. All beers are local and some are exclusives, available nowhere else but at the breweries themselves. Sedlar recently expanded this section to include 32 linear feet of 22-ounce beers.
“Beer and wine are trip drivers for us,” she says, “and we’re trying to create exclusivity for the beer connoisseurs so they don’t have to go to the breweries.”
Under the beer taps are four featuring kombucha, which is also filled into growlers “and sells like crazy.”
It’s no accident that Green Zebra Grocery’s sales are at about 85% of Sedlar and Hiller-Webb’s original projections. (They expect to break even this spring.) Before opening the store, the two of them spent more than seven months volunteering for local meetings and participating in nonprofit work in the neighborhood to understand their future eaters and to belong to the community.
“That’s just the right thing to do,” says Sedlar. “If you’re going to say you’re a neighborhood store, you’d better put your whole body where your mouth is. It breeds goodwill, and we get to connect with our eaters.”
Becoming involved in the local community like this is helpful for something else: getting the word out. As a startup, Green Zebra doesn’t exactly have much of a budget for advertising, so being part of the community is essential, as is social media. In fact, in just four months, the store has amassed almost 5,000 Facebook followers, and Green Zebra does a lot of marketing, chatting with followers and discounting on the site.
The store is also simply a place people want to be. Sampling occurs every day, with huge events every Saturdays in the store’s plaza—under heat lamps and tents if it’s raining. (This is the Pacific Northwest, after all.)
Adding to the vibe of the stores are the employees, who are carefully selected to fit the store’s mission: to be a fun place to shop, work and be.
First and foremost, Sedlar looks for friendly people: “You can train for the skills. We want also people who want to be in service to others.” A passion for food and beverage is also important, she says, but that’s not something she trains for; those are simply the people looking for jobs in the store.
The store may have a small footprint, but Sedlar and Hiller-Webb have big plans for Green Zebra. They anticipate opening their second store this fall, also in Portland, and their short-term goal is 20 stores by 2020, up and down the I-5 corridor. But in the long term, “I’d love to have 100 or more stores,” Sedlar says.
Meet Lisa Sedlar
After graduating from Kendall College in Chicago, Lisa Sedlar worked with chefs such as Charlie Trotter and Julia Child. After a nine-year stint with Whole Foods, she ended up as president and CEO of New Seasons Market in Portland, where she remained until 2012 when she left to launch Green Zebra.
What’s your favorite thing about Green Zebra?
We took out the old 8-foot popcorn ceiling and exposed the original design: beautiful wood trusses with monitor skylights. It adds a ton of character to the store. I also love the whimsical nature of our zebra.
What do you expect from the food/c-store business over the next five years?
Everybody’s getting into healthier foods and fresh-prepared foods, even 7-Eleven. My hope is that more of the junk gets pushed out and more of the good foods get pushed in as a result of Green Zebra.
Are c-stores and grocery merging?
Yes, convenience stores are becoming a destination and more than just a fill-in for a coffee.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
Worrying about breaking even and getting to that more quickly. But if you’re taking care of your customers and your staff, you’re going to get there.
What’s the most rewarding thing?
I’ve had many customers express such appreciation for having this store in their neighborhood that they literally cry. I’ve also gotten comment cards that say our staff is fun and funny. I love that our staff can engage customers that way. I believe so much in having fun at work because it makes it more fun for the customers.
Who’s your hero?
Brian Rohter, one of the founders of New Seasons Market. The No. 1 thing he taught me was leaders don’t always have to be right. The best thing is to ask questions of a number of people because the business outcome will be stronger.