Green Zebra is the anti-7-Eleven.

The healthy corner-store chain, which is known for grab-and-go salads and kombucha slurpees on tap, is based in Portland, Oregon, and now has three outlets. It's also a rising star in the convenience store market, which in 2018 accounted for $138 billion in U.S. sales, according to research firm Nielsen. However, the company's founder says its good food aspirations extend far beyond dominating the local-foods-obsessed Pacific Northwest.

"In the future, I hope that every urban neighborhood has a Green Zebra," says founder and CEO Lisa Sedlar. "Oftentimes, a neighborhood only has a traditional convenience store and there's no quality food to be had."

Six-year-old Green Zebra--named after an heirloom tomato that was bred in the Northwest--has a noble mission: make healthy food convenient and accessible for all. Sedlar came up with the concept--an inspired hybrid of Whole Foods and 7-Eleven--when she lived in Boulder and worked as a sales and marketing executive at a pharmacy and wellness company. From her office, which abutted the University of Colorado campus, she'd watch dumbfounded as college students returned from bike rides in the Rockies only to grab junk food at the local mini-mart.

She wondered why no one was making healthy snacks convenient to access, but she kept that thought in the back of her mind because in 2005 she was recruited to be the president of Portland-based grocery store chain New Seasons.

Then, in 2013, she made her move--opening her first Green Zebra in the North Portland neighborhood of Kenton. Since then, two others shops have opened: one in the Lloyd District and one at Portland State University. (A fourth opens in Southeast Portland in mid-2019.) 

As at 7-Eleven, snacks are within reach but instead of sugary slurpees and hot dogs, you'll find superfoods like broccoli salad with kale, dried cranberries, cabbage, walnuts, chia seeds and ground turmeric, and chimichurri freekeh, an ancient grain that topples even quinoa in the protein and fiber categories. It's all made from scratch with local ingredients, of course. Each 5,000-square-foot store is also stocked with organic produce, a curated beer and wine selection, and regionally-sourced meats, milk, and cheeses.

Naturally, costs are higher at Green Zebra than at other corner-store chains, but Sedlar is attempting to tame them. The company partners with local farmers and brands to try to keep prices affordable--and it offers a 10 percent discount to SNAP recipients, 10 percent off for seniors every Tuesday, and 10 percent off for students every Wednesday. Ideally, the goal is to open in "food deserts," which are neighborhoods that are short on grocery stores. 

Adam Haber, an avid startup investor based in East Hills, New York, came across Green Zebra on equity crowdfunding platform CircleUp. He met with Sedlar and admired her zeal for healthy food and walkable communities; then he visited the Kenton store as a mystery shopper. "The employees are engaging and believe in the mission. People really love working there," he says. "I couldn't find the chink in their armor." He has invested in the company twice. "I wish there were a Green Zebra in my town," he says. 

Maybe, someday soon, there will be. Sedlar is amidst a Series B funding round to raise $10 million, and is planning to open three stores outside Oregon next year, starting in Seattle. Eventually, she hopes to expand to the East Coast.

While it will take many years before Green Zebra can reach 7-Eleven's level of market domination, with more than 9,000 stores, that's all right with Sedlar. Like the Green Zebra tomato, Sedlar's chain is OK with growing organically.

Published on: Jan 18, 2019