Earlier this month, Lisa Sedlar was prepping for a trip to visit her family in Toledo, Ohio. At the same time, the Michigan native was also in the midst of doing some heavy research and development on two of the latest products that will likely be added the lineup at her Green Zebra Grocery stores: a pineapple ginger lime kombucha slushy and a frozen libation made with rosé wine called — what else? — a frosé.
“Those are some of the fun things we’re doing right now,” said Sedlar, who launched the Green Zebra Grocery company in 2012 as a health-conscious, natural convenience store. “We are redefining that it means to be a convenience store in America.”
The fun part of Sedlar’s job is, naturally, only part of what’s on her plate these days. The former New Seasons’ president, who’d earlier worked her way up the ranks at Whole Foods, has also launched an ambitious Series B funding round that looks to raise $10 million by the end of this year. The round will fund Green Zebra’s future growth, which Sedlar envisions to include more stores in Portland neighborhoods, followed by Seattle and then other West Coast markets until hundreds of Green Zebras dot the landscape.
That might seem an ambitious goal, especially considering that it’s taken Green Zebra more than five years to get to three Portland stores. But Sedlar is not daunted. She’s made some tweaks to the model and is confident that the time is right for Green Zebra.
“I think it’s the perfect time to be on this run” she said. “Who wants to go to a big, giant grocery store and wait in line for a half an hour? We are the anchor amenity to the 20-minute neighborhood. People want to shop like that, so it’ the perfect time.”
We spoke at length recently with Sedlar about the genesis of the Green Zebra concept.
A lot of people know you and Green Zebra, but what’s your origin story? I grew up in Michigan, in a real Polish community outside of Detroit. For some reason or another after high school, I thought I’d be a large animal vet. So I went to the University of Arizona to study large animal husbandry, but I realized pretty quickly that having your arm up the back end of an animal on a regular basis wasn’t what I had planned on. At the time, I was working at a resort, and I was the salad bar girl. It was the best salad bar ever, and I took a lot of pride in it. There was an Austrian chef there who said one day that I should be a chef.
Was that how you got introduced to the food scene? Pretty much. I dropped out of college and went to culinary school in Chicago, and I cooked for seven or eight years. I worked with some incredible chefs, including Julia Child, who was the most generous person in the world. Then I got really into natural foods and the idea that food could be very simple and not overly prepared. It was almost dirt to table.
When did you first get the idea for Green Zebra? I was in Boulder, Colo., working for Pharmaca (a natural health and beauty company), and when I was living there, I was blown away by how healthy people are. You get to Boulder and everybody is trying to set a personal best at lunchtime. But I noticed that people, after doing these athletic feats, on the way back to the office they’d stop at a convenience store and come out with a Slurpee and a Snickers. It was antithetical to what they were trying to do. I thought it would be so cool if that little store had healthy options. That’s where the idea came from.
You left New Seasons just as Endeavour Capital had taken a stake. Were you leading that charge or did it have anything to do with why you left? I was not leading the charge. I would say the three founders were. My motivation when I left was solely to do Green Zebra. I left (New Seasons) at the end of 2012, and then 10 months later I opened my first Green Zebra. There was zero downtime.
Your initial plan with Green Zebra was to grow pretty aggressively, but it didn’t really unfold that way. After the first one opened, it was over a year until we opened the second one. I had signed three leases almost simultaneously. I thought, no problem, I can do this. That’s just how I approach life in general. I can climb this mountain. But I’ve learned that everything takes longer, costs more and is harder than you think, so you should raise money to fund your failures because there’s going to be failures on the way.
How difficult will this fund-raise be? It’s a big growth round for us. It will be super fun, but it can also be a super hardcore grind, for lack of a better term. It can really grind you down and make you question yourself. You have to convince people to invest in bricks and mortar. We are bricks and mortar, but we’re more than that. We’ll have the micro stores (small Green Zebra outposts inside office buildings and coworking spaces), healthy vending options, food innovations, technology and all that. The thing that is so challenging (about fund-raising) is that it takes so much time away from all the other aspects of the business. I hate being away from the day-to-day running of the business, but I’m lucky I have such a great team and I can look away and not worry too much.
With all you’ve got going on with Green Zebra, do you have any free time? I try. I have a 21-year-old daughter who is going to U of O. She’s home for the summer, so we hang out as much as we can — or as much as she lets me. We actually love playing badminton. We’re both super competitive. It’s so much fun to just go out there and go crazy on that thing.
Title: Founder and CEO, Green Zebra Grocery
Business: Healthy neighborhood convenience stores.
Education: Kendal College, Associate of Arts and Sciences, Culinary Arts, 1991
Volunteer: Member of the advisory board for Harper’s Playground
Stores: Three Green Zebras in Portland with a fourth set to open next year
Employees: Approximately 100
Revenue: On track for $12M this year