An Interview with Washington’s Green Grocer
Zeke and Lisa Zechiel are the owners of Washington’s Green Grocer, the District of Columbia’s premier source for local and organic food that’s delivered straight to your doorstep. Garden Collage spoke with Zeke Zechiel about his passion for supporting the local and organic food movement, as well as how he carefully vets each new product.
GC: You and your wife have been running Washington’s Green Grocer for two decades. Can you tell me about why you started the business? Do you have a personal connection to the food industry?
ZZ: Lisa had the idea for the business when we lived in Dupont Circle in 1994. Our local Safeway was just not meeting our needs for fresh produce, and we knew from our restaurant experience that better produce was available, so she thought, “Let’s give the local grocer business a try”. We both had the vision to bring high-quality, local produce to our community as a way to make it healthier and support farmers in our region.
Lisa is a chef and worked in a few of the best restaurants and hotels in the DC area (including the Ritz Carlton), and I owned a few grungy nightclubs and cafes–think motor cycles and black leather jackets… before DC lost some of its edge. We have always been foodies, and that love of food combined with the business experience made the grocer endeavor feel really comfortable for us.
GC: How does your business support local growers and suppliers?
ZZ: We’ve been invoice 001 for a lot of people. We’re always on the lookout for anyone making something new, local, and high quality. If we buy a product, we visit the farm it comes from and make a video to share with our customers.
We’re always on the lookout for anyone making something new, local, and high quality. If we buy a product, we visit the farm it comes from and make a video to share with our customers.[addtoany]
We’re really active on social media, so if a product is in our online catalog it can get some good exposure. We believe in our products, be they produce, dairy, meat, baked or packaged goods. If there’s not demand for the product, we don’t keep buying it though. If it’s something our customers want, we’ll stick with the product for decades.
GC: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a small grocery business, especially in light of the growing competition from other food delivery services?
ZZ: I think the biggest challenge is educating folks. The food space has become very competitive, with lots of large corporations jumping on the local and organic “bandwagon” to start businesses like ours, because they see a moneymaking opportunity. We started our business out of a love of food, and because we saw a need. We have always placed a premium on sourcing from only the best and most ethically responsible farms, and paying those farms fairly for their product. People want to know where their food comes from, and that they can trust the people from whom they get their food. There are a lot of other companies who “talk the talk”, but people who really do their homework want to work with a local company that “walks the walk.”
GC: I know WGG cares about the environment. Can you explain how the company limits its environmental footprint when you’re delivering food across the entire D.C. metropolitan area?
ZZ: The most unique way we limit our footprint is the way we manage our fleet of delivery vans. All of our drivers own their own vehicle. We pay them for the use of that van, which is beneficial in a number of ways. First, it keeps us from using all the resources that go into producing and maintaining 12-14 extra vehicles. Also, our employees simply drive home at the end of the day, since they don’t have to come back to the warehouse and pick up their personal vehicle. Driving less decreases the impact on the environment. It also allows us to essentially pay for our employees’ cars, which they can use off hours for their own needs.
GC: How do you strike a balance between offering local and organic food, since it can’t always be both? Is there more demand for one over the other?
ZZ: The best scenario is both local and organic, and during the local growing season, you really can have that on your table. During the winter months, it’s more difficult to get local items of course, but we still are able to offer a 100% local box, most of which is organic, all year long. The demand between organic and local seems about evenly split, but again, for much of the year, we can offer both.
GC: So, what’s your local and organic box look like in the winter? Can it get bland?
ZZ: I really don’t think it’s boring–it’s really just a different way of eating. It’ll have a lot of root crops like beets, potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. Our growing season is pretty long in this area, so we can still harvest some foods up to November. After that, we can tap into foods that store well in the winter like apples. And fortunately, we have some hydroponic growing operations in the area, so we can offer different lettuces in the winter. But yes, cooking with root crops definitely requires a little creativity.
GC: What edge do you have over farmers markets? Are they meant to be an alternative or supplement to your service?
ZZ: The biggest advantage is the convenience of home delivery. Almost all of the regular vendors at the farm markets are folks we buy from as well, so you can get the same produce–exact same–but have it delivered to your door each week. In my experience, most people aren’t doing all their shopping at the weekly market, especially since they’d need a wheelbarrow to get it all home. So, we can help provide the bulk of the food you need for the week. But, we completely support farmers markets. Anything that’s good for the local food system and watershed is good with us too.
GC: Are there limits to how big you want to grow the business? You’ve gone from a few hundred customers to around 5,000 in the last 20 years. What are your next steps?
ZZ: I think if we got so big that we couldn’t deliver the quality or customer service that folks have come to rely on, that would be where we’d stop. We haven’t reached that point, and we are very careful about making sure that we can retain the intimate relationship with our customers.
Our next steps will be to continue to respond to our customers’ requests for additional services, particularly meal kits and prepared foods. With that in mind, my wife and I don’t want cooking to become a lost art. The meal kits, which give you all the ingredients you need to cook an entrée and side dishes, are good for when people need a fast, nutritious meal, but we hope that’s not happening every day of the week. Cooking and experimenting with food is an important part of our culture; it’s not just an assembling of ingredients.
GC: Are there certain seasonal foods you still get excited for when you get them in stock for the first time each year? What foods are trending in your boxes?
ZZ: The local ones folks seem to get most excited about are things like asparagus, rhubarb, garlic scapes, heirloom tomatoes, English peas, peaches, and nectarines. Kale’s been a part of our box for years, but there’s definitely more demand for it now. It’s like all the sudden there was this kale explosion! Collard greens are hip now too, as are fermented products like kombucha and ‘kraut. They’ve really made the pickle trend fade.