business news in context, analysis with attitude

Green Zebra, the Portland, Oregon, "healthy convenience store" that began operations a decade ago, announced this morning that it will wind down operations and close all three of its units at the end of the month.

“We have been holding on by a thread since the pandemic started and have been in austerity mode since then,” said Lisa Sedlar, Green Zebra's Founder and CEO. “We experienced 9 straight quarters of increases to our cost of goods, packaging, fuel, insurance, taxes, freight charges and well, pretty much everything. Combine that with supply chain and staffing shortages and razor thin grocery margins, we just couldn’t overcome all the obstacles. We definitely gave it our all and fought the good fight. We are thankful for the opportunity to have been in service to our community.”

Green Zebra's mission from day one has been to "redefine what it means to be a convenience store in America. Instead of selling cigarettes, lottery tickets and jumbo-sized sugary drinks like most convenience stores, Green Zebra offered customers made-from-scratch grab-and-go meals, a full service coffee bar, kombucha Zlurpees, locally sourced meat, produce and groceries along with the best local beer selection in Oregon. In addition Green Zebra supported its staff with fair wage jobs, increasing their internal minimum wage seven times in their 10 year history and offering affordable health insurance for all staff and their dependents."

Sedlar said that as she winds down the business, "We will pay all of our team members in full, including their accrued vacation hours."  She said that she is "personally reaching out to other local grocery leaders and encouraging them to hire our team members," who she described as "knowledgeable grocery professionals who provide the highest level of service."

KC's View:

I've always been a big fan of Lisa Sedlar and Green Zebra, and have waxed rhapsodic about it here, especially during the summers when I was teaching marketing at Portland State University.  The Green Zebra on PSU's campus was just blocks from the apartment I'd rent during the summer months, and it was a go-to for a number of items.  (My favorite was the tuna melt, served with Mama Lil's Peppers.  My mouth waters just thinking about it.)

Some pics from Green Zebra's halcyon days:

Give Lisa enormous credit.  Coming out of roles at both Whole Foods and New Seasons Markets (where she was CEO for seven years), she tried something different, to tap into what she saw as an unexplored niche.  I admire people like that. We all should.

Green Zebra hardly is the only business facing difficult decisions at this particular economic juncture.  To be fair, few of the past 10 years probably have been easy for Lisa.  It is hard enough to grow any business, but at the precise time she needed a serious capital infusion, the pandemic kicked in and made it almost impossible.  She also was extraordinarily transparent about it all;  a couple of years ago she was on "Wahl Street," a sort-of documentary on HBO Max about actor Mark Wahlberg's entrepreneurial efforts.  Lisa's pitch to Wahlberg appeared to be going well and he seemed on the verge of investing in Green Zebra when the pandemic hit, the world collapsed, and Lisa was left utterly exposed.  She eventually had to close one store permanently, close the PSU store temporarily, and opened another store in a new location.  But traction, especially over the past few years, has been hard to come by.

And, she was doing it all in downtown Portland, Oregon. It breaks my heart to say it, but it is a city that has grown inhospitable to many businesses, a city desperately in need of reinvention and yet seemingly utterly resistant to it.

One of the things I really admire about Lisa is her insistence, though it all, that Green Zebra had to be a values-based business.  That meant championing the local food economy, as well as partnering with dozens of nonprofits in the interest of giving back. She's both really smart and has an enormous heart, and while I'm sure she's spending time trying to sort through the experience and figure out why she was unable to keep the company afloat, she should find some solace in the notion that Green Zebra was a noble effort that moved the needle on what convenience food retailing can be.  The company may be winding down operations, but I suspect the core value proposition is one that will find new life in an other time and place.

It is just like Lisa that in the announcement she says, "People often ask me if shopping local makes a difference and my answer is a resounding YES! Now more than ever small businesses need our support."

Still fighting the good fight.