Green Zebra - A Chain to Watch

February 24, 2017 by Victor

The food retail landscape is a crowded one that's seen ambitious ventures come and go like Tesco's Fresh and Easy. With that said, Green Zebra Grocery is a chain to watch. They opened their first store in the historic district of Kenton, North Portland in 2013. Their third store opened last week on a University campus in downtown Portland, Oregon. So, what is their business model? And why is the chain so different and garnering alot of attention?  

Lisa Sedlar 

When Lisa Sedlar created Green Zebra it was a bold move. Lisa, former CEO of New Seasons and one of my favorite people in the progressive food scene, wanted to change the paradigm in convenience retailing.  One that could support her vision of increasing access to good food in communities not well served by supermarkets by offering local, organic and healthy options.

Green Zebra opened its first store in 2013 along a busy corridor of Lombard Street in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood.  At 5,600 sq ft, it was bigger than a typical 7Eleven (2,500 – 4,000 sq ft) and roughly one sixth the size of an average grocery store. I admit I quickly became a fan because it was convenient - six blocks from my son’s K-8 school; and it introduced me to Happy Mountain Kombucha Coconut Oolong.  Fellow parents or ‘eaters’ as Lisa likes to call customers, flocked to the store too. Comments on crowd sourced review sites like Yelp were more than positive.

Green Zebra opened its third store this month on the Portland State University Campus. The soft opening was Feb 4 and grand opening Feb 14.  So. How has the new store been received by the community? 

 Portland State University (PSU) Campus Store

The store is a 4,800 sq ft street level space of a PSU parking garage. It’s in a great location. The striped Zebra and green background logo is easy to spot among the rows of grey homogenous college buildings. There is also little local competition in this downtown Southwest Portland district. Safeway is 6 blocks east. 7-Eleven is a mile north.  Whole Foods is a 10-minute trip by streetcar. The store is the smallest of their three stores and yet that is what is most appealing to me.   They have great options and it is easy to get in and out quickly.

Green Zebra have had to edit and refine their model at every location.  At PSU, they have had to curate their product assortment to meet the needs of 28,000 students, 6,400 PSU employees and neighbors. There are everday staples next to local and organic options in every aisle. The store lives up to its mantra of ‘healthy convenience’ with 44 bulk bins; a produce section that offers local, organic and seasonal items; a large organic salad bar, and fresh sandwich options. You can choose from made to order cold sandwiches or ready-to-go hot sandwiches at the mini Bunk Bar (Bunk is Portland’s answer to an artisan hot sandwich chain), referred to by staff as the ‘Bunklet’. When I visited at lunchtime, the Bunklet was slammed with customers.

There are also plenty of beverage options but you won’t find a slurpee anywhere. There is a ‘Boldy Brewed’ bar serving made to order coffee, cold brews and teas from notable vendors like Stumptown, Equal Exchange and Jasmine Pearl Tea Company plus 20 linear feet of regional beers, all Oregon craft brews; and wines under $20 a bottle. A point of difference and a source of pride among the employees are the 10 taps on the far wall. Among the local brews and Kombucha is Smith Tea’s Nitro Chai on tap. To help maximize tap sales and profitability, Green Zebra incorporated a digital menu that shows real-time display keg levels and criteria such as style and location. The menu is driven by a powerful back-end system that integrates with Point of Sale, website and social media. 

For the cost per portion conscious, there are some unique family sized items like 4lb tubs of Nancy’s organic yogurt and 48oz bottles of GT Kombucha. Plus there are thoughtfully sourced local brands like Black Heart Bagels and Throwback Jones Salsa that are hard to find in other local chains.  30% of the company’s products are locally sourced.

Also encouraging is Green Zebra places as much emphasis on access as it does on convenience. For example, students with an Oregon Trail (state food benefits) card get 10% off produce at the store and SNAP participants are entitled to 10% off.

 Future For Green Zebra

It’s tough to start a new food retail model (remember Tesco’s Fresh & Easy?). Opening a new store, any store, is as much a result of dogged persistence as it is about navigating planning regulations, having a clear brand identity, gaining support from trade and residential associations and raising capital. Yet Green Zebra are a savvy operator, disrupting the C-store model, building a loyal consumer base one ‘eater’ at a time, growing in a sustainable way and securing private equity for expansion.  They have an ambitious goal: 20 stores by 2020.

It took Lisa three years to open her second store, a new build, in the Lloyd district in April 2016 and ten months to open the third.  A fourth is set to open in late 2017. Green Zebra is not a cookie cutter operation. Yet. But the ability of the company to refine and adapt the model for different neighborhoods with success is emerging as an important value of the company.

What I also like about Green Zebra is they defy typical retail store classifications. Some have described the chain as Whole Foods meets 7Eleven. They could be described as a ‘C-store plus’ with a stronger range, more local and fresh foods and sharper pricing but even that classification does the company a gross injustice. It doesn’t fit conveniently into a box. Green Zebra are Green Zebra and they can leave it to others to determine how they are classified.

From what I observe and I shop the store, talk to staff and know a lot of the vendors, Green Zebra run a well oiled operation (see pictures here). The staff are informed, friendly and engaging; the company lives up to its food, fun and community values; pricing is competitive on key items; and they continue to look for ways to increase community access to local, high quality, convenient food through their Zebra cash and other programs.   

I like the store, format and range.  I like the name Green Zebra. It makes me smile. And they listen. I wish them every success and I don’t plan to stop shopping there anytime soon.