Last year, Lisa Sedlar and Shannon Hiller-Webb left the popular Portland natural grocer New Seasons together to start their own company. Their goal: to create a convenience store that stocked fresh, healthy food, rather than the usual hot dogs and soda fountain— the first store of its kind in town.
Since then, the co-founders have totally remodeled an old Safeway building, met with hundreds of local vendors, and done intensive market studies. And on October 8, the much-anticipated Green Zebra Grocery's first location opened in the Kenton neighborhood in North Portland. "The response has been overwhelming," Hiller-Webb said. "We've been packed every hour of every day."
The building may have once belonged to Safeway, but this grocery store looks nothing like one, particularly because it is a mere 5,600 square feet. Imagine if you took a regular grocery store, kept everything along the perimeter (that is to say: the fresh foods), and shrank the aisle section down to just two or three. That's what you'll find inside the Green Zebra Grocery. And a big chunk of the aisle space is their wine section, which only features bottles at $20 or less.
A colorful salad bar and the tidy open kitchen behind it greet shoppers as they walk in. Around the outside edge of the shop, the health food/convenience store hybrid has a full deli, an enviable cheese selection, and a fresh meat and seafood counter. And true to the store's convenience ethos, the ready-to-eat section is full of fun salads, sandwiches, soups, and wraps, like a chicken salad with figs and blue cheese. The meals are prepared daily in-house and the menus will change seasonally, said Hiller-Webb.
"Time is a premium. The workforce is squeezed to give as much time as they can," Hiller-Webb said. "[At Green Zebra Grocery], you can get great food and you can get it pretty fast, and then you can get home to the things you really value in life."
The produce section features a little of everything, beyond just apples and bananas. Instead of large bins, there are just a few of each item on the shelf. This is the strategy throughout the store; if a person were shopping to make a special occasion dinner, they could probably find everything they needed. They just might have only one or two options for a specific type of product.
"As we say, we only have room for the good stuff," Hiller-Webb said. Though selections are smaller, the store is full of little nods to the crunchy Portland way of life. The back wall features a tap station where you can buy a growler of any of the four beers, three kombuchas, or Stumptown cold brew on tap.
Talking about the store's role in the Kenton neighborhood, she repeated the word "service" over and over again. In the inaugural store, service means a covered bike shelter, a vending machine for bike parts, and the company beginning an advocacy program for safer crosswalks and bike lanes. The store also has fruit trees in their "backyard," available for gleaning around harvest time (as in, for free). A fresh herb garden (also free) will join the trees come spring.
"We go into a community in advance of opening and find out what they really need," she said. "We listen, we learn. It will be a different experience in every neighborhood." More of those experiences are already on the way—locations in the Richmond and Woodstock neighborhoods are set to open in 2014.
About the Author: Rebekah Hubbard is a food writer and photographer living in Portland, Oregon. Check out her blog, PDXfoodlove, follow her on twitter at @rebekahahubbard or find her on Facebook at the PDXfoodlove fan page.