Ten years ago, Lisa Sedlar spied opportunity in the horrific dining habits of Boulder’s college students. “Kids would run to the mini-mart, and come out with a Snickers and a Gatorade,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if they could get a salad, or some fruit?’ And I was thinking about doing it myself.”
A job with New Seasons lured the marketing pro to Portland. By 2010 she was the fast-growing premium grocery chain’s CEO. But something nagged at her: “I still had a burning desire to do this kind of store,” she says of the small-scale convenience model. So Sedlar parted ways with New Seasons last December to launch Green Zebra Grocery, slated to debut in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood on October 1.
A natural-foods veteran running mini-marts might sound like a sitcom concept, but Sedlar sees it as the future of grocery. Green Zebra is designed to drag the American convenience store out of its Cheetos-and-cigarettes doldrums, creating a respectable quick stop for foodies and working families alike—and potentially filling a gaping hole in so-called urban “food deserts.” (Forty percent of Portlanders live more than a mile from a grocer.)
“If you look at convenience being way on the left, and natural or organic foods being on the right, there’s no one in the middle,” the 47-year-old says.
Green Zebra will cram a wide range of fresh meat and produce into 5,600 square feet. That means no upscale esoterica—“no dragonfruit,” Sedlar says—and that milk, onions, and salmon can be paid for and out the door in under five minutes. Smaller stores can also court smaller suppliers. “Say a small company is making pesto,” she says. “We’ll try it. And we won’t require them to scale up to supply us as we grow. We’ll just get other pestos for stores in other markets.”
To give the idea juice, Sedlar called on John Jay, a longtime Wieden & Kennedy creative maestro who recently set up GX, his own office within the ad agency. GX collaborated on Green Zebra’s development, including a green-stripe motif and proprietary font. “He’s not bringing the traditional grocery store branding,” Sedlar says. The debut location features communal seating and “KENTON” in outsize green letters.
The prototype store also showcases the market gap Green Zebra hopes to fill. A nearby rival, the Triple Crown Market, mainly features pallets of light beer. With Green Zebra’s added options, Sedlar’s vision jibes with urbanist planners’ concept of a “20-minute neighborhood,” a village-scale urban community.
Thanks to $3 million in start-up capital, Green Zebra will venture to Southeast in 2014, with stores slated for Divison and Woodstock. Three other Portland locations will follow, with Seattle close behind. And then? “We’ll know over time,” Sedlar says. “We’re pioneering something new.”
This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Portland Monthly.