What do you get when you add the convenience and accessibility of a 7-Eleven to the quality standards and customer service of a natural products store? An entirely different retail model that's coming soon to the Portland area thanks to the vision of natural products retail pioneer Lisa Sedlar.
Earlier this month, Sedlar made the tough decision to leave her post as the president and CEO of the thriving natural foods chain New Seasons Market to strike out on her own. In the next 18 to 24 months she plans to launch a chain of natural convenience stores which will offer healthier food choices in densely populated, largely underserved neighborhoods.
Who will the model attract and is this community ready for it?
Natural Foods Merchandiser: Why is now the time to launch this business?
Lisa Sedlar: I don't think people want to drive as far. I'm really big on this idea of the 20-minute neighborhood where you can walk or ride your bike for most services within 20 minutes. Things are moving this way. Office Depot, for example, just announced that they're moving from 25,000 to 7,000 square-foot stores.
I think one big reason for this is that it costs a lot more to operate a big store in terms of your environmental footprint. Smaller stores also make the shopping experience more convenient and more focused. You're not going to buy your office furniture there, but rather day-to-day stuff.
That's similar to my model. My stores are designed for the everyday experience. You stop in and get your cup of coffee and bagel in the morning, you're back for the salad bar for lunch and then your beef and side dishes from the deli for dinner.
NFM: What items will you carry?
LS: The stores will be heavily dependent on customers who love grab-and-go. We'll have a large deli with lots of offerings and a smaller meat counter with standbys like ground beef and strip steak. The grocery aisles will be on a slightly smaller scale and with top sellers in every category.
We'll carry more healthy than unhealthy options, but I'm not trying to be the food police so we'll also sell Coke and things like that. The focus is food, so it's not going to be a full-sized store shrunken down. I won't have a supplement or HABA departments aside from a few convenience options like toothpaste and aspirin. Every section will be carefully edited so the items you really want are there.
NFM: You were a strong advocate for local sourcing at New Seasons. How will you bring local products to these smaller stores?
LS: I'm planning local food fairs with both packaged foods as well as produce so I can bring more products from new companies, local growers and up-and-coming farmers into my stores. I strongly support new farmers and plan to work with them in particular to bring more local product into my stores than you'd find in larger markets. In the first few years of farming, produce often doesn’t look just right and big stores refuse it. I'll be happy to take it.
Anything we can do to encourage local farming will make a difference in the next 10 to 15 years. The average age of farmers in Oregon is 60 years old. While that's not really old, the biggest issue is that farm land is going to change hands. If we don’t have outlets for the agricultural products being grown, that farmland is going to go away. I’m really dedicated to making sure we develop, enhance and preserve our regional farmland. Plus, eaters really identify with foods that are coming from their growing region.
NFM: Why are you ready to take this project on?
LS: The idea has been percolating for a long time. I figured if I didn't do it now, someone else was going to. I feel so passionately about bringing more food equity to neighborhoods in and around Portland and helping people eat better. I just couldn’t wait anymore. Things at New Seasons are great. The company is in a really good position and is very financially successful. There's a good pipeline of people ready to move up so it just felt like the right time.
NFM: Will you grow beyond Portland?
LS: Yes, I hope to. I hope the model is successful enough that I can bring it to other areas. I think Seattle has a lot of neighborhoods that could benefit from having a healthy neighborhood store like this.
NFM: How are you getting funding?
LS: I’m in the process now of raising my first round of financing. I can't say specifically who the other funders are in addition to New Seasons but I have two others. I'm also raising family and friends money.
NFM: Is there a store that you look to as a model for this concept?
LS: There's a really great store in San Francisco called Bi-Rite. The guy who runs it is Sam Mogannam. Sam and I have been collaborating for a couple years. He's come to New Seasons and I've been to his store before. I think he just has a fantastic model. His store is a little bit smaller than mine with only 3,000 square feet, but it's familiar. It's a one-store operation that's heavily dependent on local, and it's a neighborhood destination.