Green Zebra's Lisa Sedlar Talks COVID-19 Panic Buying, Protecting Workers and ‘Mind-Blowing’ Experiences

WGB's March Endcap guest shares top-of-mind concerns as the coronavirus chaos continues
Lisa Sedlar
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Editor's note: We have updated our original March Endcap interview with Lisa Sedlar, founder and CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Green Zebra Market, with up-to-date observations and insights on how her stores and teams are holding up in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meg Major: Thank you for taking the time to chat in the middle of what I know is a very busy time for you, Lisa. The COVID-19 outbreak has certainly thrown a massive curveball at all retailers right now. What strikes you as being among the most significant things that you’ve had to come to terms with over the past few weeks?

Lisa Sedlar: The main thing has been the panic buying that has put such an enormous strain on our distribution system and manufacturers; it will be months before we fully catch up. In addition, panic buying and stockpiling is just not equitable because the people who are the most vulnerable in our community will suffer the most because they shop on a meal-to-meal basis and do not have the resources to shop and stockpile because they live paycheck to paycheck. The idea of stockpiling really disproportionately affects those who are at the greatest risk.

I am also concerned that there is not a specific set of guidelines for grocers to follow, which is kind of surprising given that we are often referred to as “essential service providers.” While we all support taking care of healthcare workers’ needs first, of course, it’s been alarming that with grocers’ status as essential service providers, not one person has reached out to me or any of my other grocery leader friends to say, “How can we help protect your staff and your customers?” Thousands and thousands of people come in and out of our stores every day and we are making it up the best we can as we go.

What changes would you most like to see right now?
We are closely following all of the latest precautions and preventative measures but we don’t have masks and we no longer have hand sanitizer. We also need sanitizing wipes, because while we are of course also sanitizing with what we do have, we have almost nothing left, so it’s really important that grocers get these protective supplies immediately. 

Speaking firsthand on what’s been going on here in Portland, it’s just been too little communication so a more direct stream of consistent information is also a top priority.

I also believe our staff should have masks, which I know first and foremost must be directed to healthcare providers, but I really think grocery workers need masks. We actually have a staff member’s spouse who is making them for us because she’s now working from home and she's a little bit bored and asked if it would help if she made masks for us. And I was like, “Yes, please!” Although they’re not the masks that the hospitals are using, I would argue that we're being exposed at a very high level also and that our teams need those safety masks.

Has there been a drop-off in panic buying in your area?
It’s interesting because I overheard two customers talking to each other in one of our stores the other day and the one person commented about how “people aren’t being jerks here and are buying a reasonable number of things.” Beyond asking people to limit purchases of high-demand products, we’ve put signs up throughout the store that ask customers to please consider their neighbors when purchasing products because we want to have enough for everyone.

What are some of the changes that you have made to address your associates’ and customers’ needs?
As a business owner, I’ve been feeling extremely protective of my staff and equally of our customers that are coming in to shop and wanting both to be as safe and healthy as possible. We have a COVID-19 response team in place and communicate many times a day about what’s happening and what steps we need to take to protect the health of each other and our customers.

Some of the things we are doing to respond to this health crisis include a change in hours of operation from 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; extending our senior, student and SNAP discounts to seven days a week to help support those in our community who need it the most; and no longer offering a salad bar, hot bar and soup. We are packaging more salads and entrees and soup for grab and go.

Last weekend [March 21], we began offering free grab-and-go soup to K-12 students who are part of the subsidized school lunch program. We have also removed all seating in our stores, discontinued all product samples and now individually wrap all pastries.

How are you and your teams holding up?
Something one of our staff members told me the other day sums it up perfectly: “Sometimes I’m really good and feel buoyed by being around each other at Green Zebra, where we’re able to able to talk with and support one another through this difficult time. Other times, I’m utterly terrified about going to work.”

So there’s some of that happening every day, all day, and we’re trying our best to provide updates such that everybody can share what their fears are and their concerns, and being able to address those in real time. We have made it very easy for staff to adjust their schedules as they need to and we’re also hiring temporary floaters to help cover those reduced staff hours. These positions are available to those who are able to work at any of our stores and who are available to work a variety of shifts/hours.

So I feel like it’s a win in both ways. We’re able to hire new people who aren’t currently working and we're able to meet the needs of our current staff who need a little bit of a break.

Do you anticipate that the temporary floaters that you're hiring will be able to be retained, or do you expect them to move on when a semblance of normalcy returns?
I think they will be retained here at Green Zebra for two reasons. One is because there have been many existing staff members that have had to quit because of being in a high-risk category themselves, or being responsible to care for someone who is in a high-risk category. So I think there will be rotating in of the old and the new. But I do think many of the new roles we’ve filled will evolve into permanent jobs for Green Zebra, because we needed the extra help anyway. And the other reason is that we're fast-tracking and the rollout of our online shopping and pickup, so we will also need to fill these positions for the long run as well.

But even though we’re calling them temp positions because we’re not positive what’s going to happen, we are looking to add these jobs on a permanent basis. We in the grocery industry have an opportunity to hire positions that I think will probably turn into permanent positions because of all of the food purchasing moving toward delivery and curbside pickup, so I think those jobs will be around for a while.

Beyond the obvious, is there anything that has come as a huge shock, either positive or negative, from what you were expecting to see initially vs. what actually transpired?
What first comes to mind is that every single day brings a new thing that I didn’t expect in my wildest dreams. So, today, it’s a shelter-in-place order. But three weeks ago, I never thought that people would be sheltering in place and would not be able to go out and that’s just mind-blowing to me. But each day brings something else that’s new and that feels completely unexpected, surprising and super intense.

However, something positive that’s coming from all of this is that businesses are getting really good at pivoting and being creative and being very thoughtful and focused on the human component of protecting one another and being safe together. I’ve never, ever been more proud to be in the grocery business and to work with my staff members who are so dedicated to serving each other. It’s just amazing to see.

Something else that’s been amazing is how all grocers are supporting one another and the people in our communities. And I really believe that the grocery industry right now cares more about serving our neighbors than about being in competition with each other. I’m not worried about stealing a trip from the store across the street—I’m worried about keeping our customers and our staff members safe.

Thank you to you and your staff for all that you’re doing to take care of your communities, Lisa. We’re with you all the way.
And thank you and your team for the long hours you’re obviously spending putting out all the information to keep us up to date and help us learn from one another’s best practices. It’s very useful and very much appreciated.

Motivation for the Journey

WGB’s original March Endcap interview with Sedlar, which was conducted several weeks before COVID-19 impacted the U.S., continues below.

Your vision—to change the way people think about and shop for food on the go—springs from a more curated selection that borrows pages from other retail concepts’ playbooks. What has motivated you along your journey?
It really comes down to a desire to redefine what it means to be a convenience store in America. I think about Green Zebra as a mashup between a Whole Foods and a 7-Eleven—a small-format store that offers healthy food and the best possible shopping experience that makes your life more convenient because everybody wants to eat better but not everybody has time to. And oftentimes, a neighborhood only has a convenience store within proximity to where someone lives. So, if the neighborhood only has a traditional convenience store, you can imagine that healthy food choices are extraordinarily limited. We’re trying to flip it and say, “Healthy food is for everyone—not just people in certain ZIP codes.” Hopefully there will be a Green Zebra on every corner just like there is a 7-Eleven, and people can choose to eat healthier and [choose] better food at our stores instead.

After earning a degree in culinary arts, you went on to become a purchasing director for Whole Foods Market, followed next as CEO of New Seasons before founding Green Zebra. What was the primary impetus for your setting out on your own?
It felt like the market timing was perfect for healthy convenience stores. We were coming out of the recession and the big stores were going small. That’s when Target came out with its city stores, and when Walmart was experimenting heavily with its Neighborhood Market format. It was also a time when we saw people returning to urban centers, but there weren’t services to provide to people who were returning to cities, so it just seemed like the right time to do it. And it certainly has been a work in progress, and we’ve learned so much from store one to store four. And we’ll continue to keep learning and evolving and iterating as we go.

Please discuss the evolution and your expansion plans, including Micro Green Zebra stores.
We’ve been really leaning deeper into convenience and what that means for our customers and for us, and we’ve determined that it means less sugar and more plant-based products, a better coffee program and quicker service as well, including more grab-and-go. About a year or so ago, I invented the kombucha Zlurpee, which has a much lower sugar content, with roughly 13 grams of sugar per serving compared to 30 grams or more in traditional slushies. There’s no artificial colors or artificial flavor, and the kombucha actually helps your gut. We offer four flavors in our new store, and we’re excited about that. We’re doing a slushie cold brew with oat milk, and we really upped our drip coffee game. Being based in the coffee mecca of Portland, drip coffee is the ultimate convenience. Also, as opposed to waiting for a latte, I thought about how to make that quicker too. And so we have partnered with a company, Franke, for a self-service latte machine that makes a really a good cup of coffee. It’s not as good as a barista pulled cup of coffee, but it’s definitely sufficient for the latte grab and go customer that has to get on the bus.

As far as growth goes, we want to have 100 stores on the West Coast, including our micro stores, which are about 400 square feet in office buildings, hospitals and campuses. After spending a lot of time visiting my dad in the hospital over the last year, I learned that the food at hospitals is really bad. It’s traditional vending machines with sodas and candy, so I really would love to get a Green Zebra into hospitals so that visitors, and maybe even patients, can eat better.

You were chosen as one of our 2019 Grocery Game Changers. Who or what do you see as being game changing right now?
I think the idea of healthy convenience is going to continue in many different forms because everybody wants to be healthy. Plant-based is not just a passing fad; it’s here to stay and it is going to change systemically. In fact, the signage in the produce department in our new store reminds shoppers to “eat mostly plants.” For me, the plant-based movement isn’t an either/or proposition—it’s a “yes, and.” So, eat as many plants as you can, but don’t give up Oregon Blue Cheese.

You were quoted as saying, “It turns out that if you put a salad bar in a convenience store format, it becomes your No. 1 seller in no time flat because people want healthier options.” Aside from the essentials, what are your favorite fresh salad ingredients?
I love spinach and arugula but we also have some local ingredients on our salad bar too. Depending on the season, the greens are local, the roasted onions are local, the roasted sweet potatoes are local. To me, eating seasonally and locally is the best way to eat, and so, we’re trying to up our salad bar and make sure that everyone has an opportunity to do just that.

I was so impressed when learning that you hold quarterly meetings with company employees, during which you open up the books to share the financials in order to empower them to have a greater stake in the company. Please elaborate.
Practicing open-book financials, for me, is a no-brainer, because the more staff have information about the work they do every day, the more they understand how their work impacts the company, the customers and the community. And I’ve found that rather than staff feeling bored by a financial presentation, they’re really engaged and they ask awesome questions around trends, and how much do things cost and so on. It does take more time to practice open-book financials. However, the time is such a great investment because of the results that you get. Our margins are among the highest—if not the highest—in convenience and grocery, hovering close to 40%, while at the same time being very competitively priced. Because our staff are really attuned to the information, they make better decisions and it affects the bottom line positively too.

What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from one of your biggest mistakes and/or unplanned experiences?
I’ve learned to always have a Plan A and a Plan B, because if a Plan A doesn’t work, you can cry in your soup for a minute then switch gears to Plan B. If you work for a large company, for example, like Whole Foods, there’s a pretty big safety net for financial endeavors. But in a small company like Green Zebra, every penny matters, until, of course, we get to a larger size. But even then, we’re always going to want to pay attention to the details and the pennies. We’ve taught everybody to operate in that way in the company as well. We ask ourselves: What’s the downside of doing this? And we then identify and plan for the worst parade of horribles that might come true, and how we will deal with it. And we ask those questions before the parade of horrible happens.

Lightning Round

What superpower would you most like to have?
This is going to sound very Pollyanna, but I would like to unite people. To me, that would be a wonderful superpower, and I think food has the potential to unite people because almost all of our incredible experiences in life have to do with sitting at a table with your family and friends over a wonderful meal.

What is something that you believe is true that others might disagree with you about?
That Amazon is going to win at everything. I don’t think they’re ever going to quite get the food thing down because they’re missing the experience. As a tech company, they understand how to select the bestselling items, but they don't know how to create a category that has coherence overall, or excitement, or just an experience when you go in their stores. Some people disagree with me because they think Amazon is going to win at everything, but I don’t think they’re winning at food and I don’t think they’re going to.

Do you believe in fate?
I don’t believe in fate, but I believe in prayer and I believe in Jesus Christ. I pray a lot, and I love my church, and am on fire for the message of practicing radical love for all. And when you live in Portland, Ore., that’s not a super-popular message, so I try not to jam it down anybody’s throat.

What’s your least favorite business jargon term right now?
“Let’s unpack it.”

What do you envision would be the best thing you could tell us a year from now?
That the world is a more united place.

What was your dream job as a kid?
I wanted to be a large animal veterinarian, which is funny because I grew up in Detroit. What? How did I get that idea?

How would you describe yourself in one word?

What is an interesting thing about yourself that you seldom share but are not ashamed of?
I’m a horrible dancer. I dance like Elaine from “Seinfeld.” I am the worst dancer ever!


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