Stuck between state legalization and federal prohibition, cannabis businesses have historically been forced to be cash-only operations. Even for those with stable banking relationships, the decision by all major credit card and debit card companies to veto card transactions for this federally illegal substance put legitimate, transparent, cashless purchases out of reach. But recent events have caused businesses to find new solutions.
In an unprecedented move for the cannabis industry, Hawaii announced in September 2017 that the state’s newly opened medical marijuana dispensaries would be cashless by Oct. 1, 2017. The state adopted CanPay, a mobile debit app that provides cashless payment solutions for the cannabis industry, as the only state-approved alternative to cash transactions in Hawaii’s medical dispensaries. Despite some initial confusion about whether dispensaries could still accept cash (they can) and if offering the state-sanctioned cashless option was mandatory (not yet), the announcement garnered lots of attention within the U.S. cannabis industry.
Helen Cho, director of integrated strategy at Honolulu-based Aloha Green Apothecary, feels that CanPay provides patients who are uncomfortable carrying cash with an important, state-approved alternative. Roughly 10 percent of the dispensary’s transactions are through CanPay, and that’s with clientele predominately aged 55 years or older. “They like to stick by the rules; they like to do things that are legal. It was important that they had an option that they knew was sanctioned by the state,” Cho says.
Cash-only transactions don’t only affect how businesses operate, they also affect customers’ and patients’ convenience in making purchases. As the industry becomes increasingly competitive, the consumer experience is becoming increasingly important as well. Cannabis consumers are seeking the same ease and frictionless experience they enjoy when purchasing any other legal product.
Tim Cullen, CEO of Colorado Harvest Company, views traditional payment methods as a right for the industry and strives to provide them at the company’s three Colorado dispensaries. Each store accepts cash (there are ATMs on site) and the CanPay app as payment options. “I want people to have an alternative to carrying cash with them,” Cullen says. “In today’s society and economy, it’s actually quite rare that someone pays for something in cash outside of shopping in a dispensary.”
Arizona-based Nature’s Medicines implemented a digital payment option offered through Hypur, an Arizona-based payment solutions provider. Nature’s Medicines Marketing Director Nathalie Porter says the Hypur system “has shown to be very convenient for a lot of our patients, and it also helps cut out a lot of those [patients’] bank fees.”
Making Cashless Happen
Your success and ease in adopting cashless payments will depend largely on your choice of service providers. Information about CanPay and Hypur is offered here, not as endorsements, but as examples of companies willing to speak openly and on the record about their services, whose customers (contacted independently) were also willing to speak about their experiences with those services.
For both CanPay and Hypur, dispensaries must have a banking relationship with a cannabis-compliant financial institution operating within their respective member networks to ensure cannabis-related transactions can be fully transparent at every step. Depending on your situation, these companies may be able to help you connect with a cannabis-compliant bank or credit union that can help you offer cashless payment options or help your compliant banking partner participate.
CanPay, which operates only in the cannabis sector, is available in 10 states and approximately 100 dispensaries as of March 2018, with more states being added soon. Hypur, which works in several industries, is available for cannabis businesses in seven states. Tyler Beuerlein, Hypur’s vice president of business development, expects those numbers to grow dramatically this year. Both companies have launched operations in California, where Beuerlein reports multiple financial institutions are entering the cannabis market now that a finite regulatory system has been established.
For CanPay, the focus remains on its mobile debit app and providing that service extremely well. “Our primary service is enabling dispensaries to accept electronic payments from their customers in a transparent way,” Dustin Eide, CanPay’s CEO, explains. In contrast, Hypur offers its cashless payment service plus a portfolio of compliance-related technologies—such as Hypur Comply, a “transaction monitoring and electronic reporting system designed for highly regulated markets,” as explained on the company’s website—to help financial institutions ensure participating businesses are compliant.
What the Future Holds
As the industry grows, options for cashless payment services will undoubtedly grow, too. With nearly a decade in business—and several service providers behind him—Cullen offers dispensary owners some sound advice: Vet cashless payment providers carefully, get your bank in on the vetting process and never do anything to jeopardize your bank’s trust.
“That relationship is one of the most important business relationships we have,” Cullen says. “We have been in situations in the last nine years where we did not have a bank account. It sounds like a fun reality TV show, but it’s a nightmare.” While legitimate cashless payment solutions are just one piece of the banking puzzle, they represent one less cause for sleepless nights for dispensary owners.
Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer and former horticulture professional. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Making Community Count
Features - Guest Interview
Berkeley Patients Group’s Etienne Fontan and Lightshade’s Steve Brooks share how they’ve changed the narrative on cannabis in their communities by establishing corporate responsibility plans.
Berkeley Patients Group (BPG) has been around a long time. Think of it this way: If the California medical dispensary was a person, it would be of age to legally obtain a medical card. Opening its doors in 1999, BPG is now in its 19th year of serving the Bay Area, making it the nation’s oldest medical cannabis dispensary.
In those nearly two decades, BPG has become an industry stalwart, if not the model example, for corporate social responsibility (CSR). In addition to providing free medicine and ancillary wellness services to its patients in need, BPG also donates time and money to many local organizations. (Its website lists 18 organizations and notes they are “just a few” of the ones it contributes to.) Giving on such a grandiose scale has allowed the dispensary to become a community pillar and garner overwhelming resident support.
As the cannabis industry continues to weave itself into the fabric of American society, many dispensary owners recognize CSR and philanthropic efforts as the industry’s conduit to mainstream acceptance and legitimacy. Here, Steve Brooks, CEO of Denver-based Lightshade (a vertically integrated cannabis company), talks with BPG’s co-owner and vice president, Etienne Fontan, about recent changes to Berkeley’s cannabis regulations, BPG’s commitment to CSR (and why it takes it so seriously), ways dispensaries can get involved in their communities and more.
Steve Brooks: How are things going out there in California so far?
Etienne Fontan: Going good, [but] not without its own set of challenges. We just passed in our city council [the declaration of] Berkeley [as] a “sanctuary city” for cannabis, as well as lowering the city tax from 10 percent to 5 percent to make [the city of Berkeley] more competitive. [Editor’s note: As a “sanctuary city,” Berkeley prohibits its “agencies and employees from using city resources to assist in enforcing federal marijuana laws or providing information on legal cannabis activities,” as explained by the Los Angeles Times.]
The taxes impact us on different levels. A 10-percent city tax in Berkeley affects every line in the supply chain. It's a 10-percent tax for the grower, 10-percent tax for the wholesaler, 10-percent tax for testing, then a 10-percent tax at the retail level. So, it turned out to be a 40-percent tax in Berkeley. … They're also looking at removing the tax regarding laboratories, because they see that as a useless place to add tax into the supply chain.
We're dealing with the challenges of the newer California regulations. We're operating currently under the emergency regulations and not the permanent regulations. So, constantly being active is one of those realities that have led [Berkeley] to be leaders in the industry, as well as around the Bay Area, because what our city council did will be reflected in other cities across California.
[BPG] learned early and often that lobbying and working locally is key to your long-term survival. If you don't have city council love or respect, that can lead to constables or sheriffs who don't like you, and then that leads to you getting busted.
Brooks: In Colorado, we've got an excise tax on production. And that is 15 percent of whatever the market price is, and the state sets that price. So, you have that tax, but that's only on cultivation. There's processors and labs. They don't pay that tax unless they're cultivating, which labs, obviously, aren't. But then on the [recreational] side, we pay an additional 10-percent tax at the time of sale for the state and then an additional 5 percent to the City of Denver, where we mostly operate.
Fontan: And your taxation at 5 percent is how we arrived at that, so we thank you.
Brooks: Why did BPG decide to make giving back to the community a priority?
Fontan: For the simple fact that it's our patients. Our patients are and have been our community.
All of our struggling points as providers [have been] to get people [educated], and going through the various challenges that are inherent when we are [working in a newly regulated market]. …
So, it's imperative that our community be made aware, because we have dealt—for 18 years—with a whole slew of patients. They've been educated about what these products are, their rights and the laws; whereas we're now dealing with a public at large that doesn't even understand the taxes that they have voted for, much less what their rights are. So, we have to always be educators. At the point of sale, you're educating as well as informing the clientele. …
Brooks: We definitely have our challenges here in Colorado. But Oregon's got supply issues. That's not good either.
Fontan: No. But Oregon also [dragged] its feet and really didn't take it as serious as Colorado did. I mean, let's be honest, Colorado was really the adult in the room … initially. So, [Colorado] implemented and took things properly in a direction that it needed to.
So, we were very heartened when California decided to follow Colorado because as one of the largest economies in the world, we realized the repercussions that we were going to have. We love what you have done there in Colorado, but we're not mimicking exactly what's there. We have learned to listen from other states where they have had successes and failures, because we are neophytes in this regulation world. Whereas you're five years ahead of it.
We were given these rules literally less than 30 days before we had to open our doors under this new permitted system. We've had to build the airplane as we're flying. And we're used to that here in California.
Brooks: How did BPG choose an area of focus for its CSR?
Fontan: The majority of the initial creators of Berkeley Patients Group were activists. I'm a Gulf War veteran, so, for myself, I got involved after the Gulf War in '92 with Cannabis Action Network out here in California. I was very fortunate to do rallies in 47 states … so I had a lot of experience going around the country.
One of the things that I learned is that you have to listen nationally but act locally. We were big supporters initially of Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), Marijuana Majority, Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Americans for Safe Access was created out of Berkeley Patients Group—out of our frustration of watching our dear friend, Ed Rosenthal, get arrested and have to go to trial.
We realized that we still had a national effort, and you have to fund those types of efforts.
Locally, we looked across the street. We have the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness, and they needed a playground. So, we were happy to donate a playground. Then we looked at things like the Women's Cancer Resource Center, Berkeley Food and Housing Project, and Lighthouse Community Public Schools.
You … listen to your community. It involved going … to city meetings, going to local neighborhood meetings. What's important to the community? For us, it became things like the To Celebrate Life Breast Cancer Foundation, Berkeley Youth Alternatives. We have multiple transgender employees, so we also realized the social implications, so we make sure to give to things like the local Transgender Law Center.
We want to support healthy projects that are around locally. You can also look at things as simple as your library. Local libraries are losing their money, and they could use simple things like books. Those are easy things to start off with.
But then we look at the reality of those that are incarcerated. So, we support things like legal services for prisoners with children. We also support simple things like Toys for Tots at our Berkeley Police Department.
When they're raffling off something like a dinner at the firehouse, support that, contribute to it. Win it so that you and your staff can then go to that fire department and educate them and talk to them, because now you have their full ear, so you have a great chance to influence.
Brooks: Our focus has been mostly on veterans and poverty. We fund several food banks here in Colorado. And there's a few veteran's groups that we work with, too. Right now, we have eight retail locations here in Colorado, and our focus has been trying to find something within the community that each store services locally, just at that store, that can have direct impact on the citizens.
We've been working with a group locally here that helps find those opportunities. Then once we do, we work with them on a granular basis to figure out what their needs are and then try to help. Sometimes it's not just about the money. There’s other things they need that we could help them with, whether it's a food drive or they just want hand-warmers or toys.
Fontan: Our founder, Jim McClellan, passed away … due to AIDS, so we never forget our grassroots and that resolve of giving back to the community.
Now, even with the changes that are coming in California, we still are going to give back to our communities. We still donate cannabis to our patients. It's just now, they have to have the state card, as opposed to certain other registration requirements.
Brooks: How are your employees involved in CSR efforts?
Fontan: Actively listen to your employees. Your employees are one of your most important resources. When we have transgender employees, they educate us on the transgender needs as well as the legal realities. It made us aware of these organizations that were out there that needed legal help and support.
People tend to spend their money where they feel their money is socially going somewhere. So, when we had our original Berkeley Patients Group location, we had space to allow things like yoga and on-site consumption, [and] we would have people come in and assist with learning disabilities. We had people that would teach reading or knitting. And when [patients] gather in your area, they will also actively tell you about what they do and support. So, it's also important to actively listen to your constituency.
Brooks: What have been some of your favorite challenges?
Fontan: When Berkeley Patients Group was evicted by the federal government [in 2012], the City of Berkeley enjoined our case. If we had not been respectful of our community or our city council and our mayor, and working with them for years, we would have never arrived at that point or had that type of luxury.
But that didn't come without five years of blood, sweat, tears and frustration. And even though we're past that, they came after us again [in 2013] for [our current] location. So even though you may think the government has left you alone, you still sometimes may have to rely on your community for the ultimate support, and that's the biggest challenge.
Brooks: With things where they are currently in California, do you see industry CSR efforts changing? Do you think anything's going to evolve?
Fontan: One of the things we did early on was join our chamber of commerce in our city. Go to your chamber of commerce meetings. And now as a pillar of the community, start sponsoring those meetings and those gatherings.
You will find, when you go to these events, how much support you have in your community. And once your community is there, they're going to engage you and tell you what is needed in the community, and it's your job to actively listen. We're going to see that in California because all these businesses that have had to act underground now are pillars of their communities. Now they can be the philanthropists because they're taxed and regulated and respected. They're no longer those things that are told to hide in the shadows.
Brooks: In Denver, now it is required to have a community engagement plan. Is there anything required in California or Berkeley?
Fontan: Well, [in] Berkeley … 2 percent of your profits must go toward the community. … Berkeley was proactive early. Whereas, the state of California does not have that currently.
In Emeryville, with our new permit, there is an actual program there for a certain foundation of the arts [and] … a certain amount of volunteer time is expected of [us]. … I think that other communities are going to see what Emeryville is doing and the benefits to its community. I could see other municipalities definitely mimicking that.
Brooks: We try to impact on a local level exactly where our stores are operating currently and finding ways to intertwine and get involved in those communities.
Hopefully, California will do the same thing. It's nice if it grows organically from the industry itself rather than having a state or municipality requiring it. I think as we give back more and more, these communities will be more accepting and more willing to listen to the cannabis community.
We've found the more we get involved with the community, the more they understand what we're doing, and the less they're scared of the industry. It opens up the dialogue with these communities. It's just been amazing for us. We absolutely really enjoy doing it, and we want to do it.
Fontan: Giving back feels good. It absolutely feels good when you can affect change. But people need to realize [that] you need to budget for monthly giving and also quarterly giving so that you can realize what donations and organizations mean the most to you. There's immediate places that you can look around your community that need money right now. It's up to you to engage them and find ways to communicate to them your willingness to help.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.
Departments - Launchpad
Green Point Wellness entered the competitive Maryland market armed with research and plans for providing patients with exemplary care.
The odds were most certainly against them. By the time Tony and Laura Toskov applied for a dispensary license in late 2017, some 800-plus applications had been submitted in Maryland—yet only 102 pre-approved licenses had been issued, according to the husband-and-wife duo. They had spent about $70,000 on the application process, and Tony admits, the lack of state licenses being issued “really made us question ourselves. We thought, ‘Did we do the right thing? And would we even have the opportunity to be awarded a license?’” But on Feb. 12, Green Point Wellness opened its Linthicum Heights’ doors, the 26th dispensary in the state to launch since Maryland rolled out its medical marijuana program Dec. 1, 2017.
“Like the opening of any business, there is always a mix of many emotions that come into play—excitement, nervousness, so on,” Tony says. “When we finally opened Green Point Wellness, on top of it all was the overwhelming feeling of being proud—proud of what we had built, what we’re about to accomplish and how many people we’re going to help.”
The team found an ideal location for Green Point Wellness at 823A Elkridge Landing Rd., despite strict zoning laws in Anne Arundel County that stipulate where a dispensary can set down roots. “It took us almost eight months to find our location, and at first, we weren’t even sure it was a good location,” Tony recalls, citing congestion concerns. But the duo’s reticence was quickly disproved. The dispensary’s location is a stone’s throw from the Baltimore–Washington International Airport, Tony says, and the buzzing area has helped them with promotions and marketing, Laura adds. Plus, with 4,000 square feet of dispensing area (2,000 of which is currently in use), Green Point Wellness has plenty of space to display its products—a mix of more than 40 SKUs of flowers, concentrates, topicals, transdermal patches and tinctures.
From Design to Reality
To draft the design plans for Green Point Wellness, the Toskovs visited hundreds of dispensaries throughout Colorado and Nevada, taking copious notes on what seemed to work and what didn’t. The pair was impressed with Las Vegas-based The Grove’s modern design, and they admired Denver-based LivWell’s privacy protocols. Armed with that research, Tony says, “We knew that we wanted our dispensary to have a modern look with a sophisticated-yet-comfortable atmosphere.”
When it came to protecting patients’ privacy, Laura says, “We realized we didn't want to have more than four customers in the medical room at once,” so they built a private medical room where dispensary agents (budtenders) work with patients one-on-one.
Despite its emphasis on privacy, Green Point Wellness was still designed to catch your eye: Expansive windows and a bright green sign, which play into its modern feel, draw in patients. Once inside, patients see ceramic floors that resemble soft gray wood panels, tan walls and six flat-screen TVs, and “the medical room itself makes you feel like a VIP,” Laura says. “We had our custom cabinets made like you'd see in a high-end jewelry store. We lifted those cabinets 14 inches off the floor to make it easier to see the products without looking down at them.”
She continues, “We wanted our customers to come in and immediately feel at ease.” After all, “the majority of people have never been in a medical dispensary,” she says. “They had no idea what to expect, and we wanted to set the standard with a place where our 70-year-old parents felt comfortable, but still modern enough that our friends wanted to come.”
Our approach is less pamphlets and signs and more customer service. That goes back to our commitment to VIP treatment. You’re going to build a relationship with us.” Laura Toskov, co-owner, Green Point Wellness, with her husband and co-owner, Tony Toskov
A Tech-Friendly Dispensary
While Green Point Wellness wants to be inclusive of all patients, the Toskovs were cognizant enough to know they needed to appeal to a younger generation—one that is tech-obsessed. Inside the dispensary, the flat-screen TVs display the dispensary’s daily menu and specials, Laura says. They also created an app where patients can find the same information and much more.
“Having our own app makes us stand out,” Laura says. “There are great apps out there to help you find a local dispensary and products, but we created our own so we could have all of the information in one place. Everyone is always on their cell phone, so why not give them this convenience at their fingertips?” The app is free to download, Laura adds. In addition to listing product offerings, the app helps potential patients become approved to use medical marijuana, she says, by taking them step-by-step through the application process.
What you won’t find in the dispensary or on its app, however, are product pictures. (The state doesn’t allow them.) “Even though Maryland has strict laws about displaying cannabis, we didn't see that as an obstacle,” says Laura. “We looked at that as an opportunity for our staff to be more knowledgeable about the product and how it can help.”
So—sans pictures—Green Point Wellness “created cards that include details about the THC and CBD content levels” of its products, Laura says, adding that “our approach is less pamphlets and signs and more customer service. That goes back to our commitment to VIP treatment. You're going to build a relationship with us—and having someone explain the products and benefits makes you more comfortable than handing you a piece of paper.”
Committed to Customer Service
Green Point Wellness’ 14 “dispensary agents,” as they’re called, go through rigorous training mandated by the state, so that they can provide patients with one-on-one attention. That training includes courses on the pharmacology and the therapeutic and adverse effects of medical cannabis. They learn the dosage forms of medical cannabis and their pharmacodynamic impact, and how to recognize symptoms of substance abuse. The dispensary agents are also well-versed in federal cannabis laws.
The Toskovs insist their dispensary agents provide the best customer service by giving patients congenial attention, and many of the pointers they picked up on were taught to them during their out-of-state research. “We were both impressed that the out-of-state dispensaries were so welcoming and forthcoming with their experiences,” Laura says of their travels to Colorado and Nevada stores. “No one ever hesitated to take us through their process of opening and running a cannabis dispensary. We were curious about the types of customers they had and how they trained their staff,” and Green Point Wellness works to emulate that same level of friendly service.
In terms of Green Point Wellness’ foot traffic and patient product preferences, the Toskovs report an average of about 70 to 135 customers a day, seven days a week, Laura says, adding, “We were surprised to see the patches and topicals be so popular. We were also surprised to see how popular the vapes have been.”
A Background That Boosted Business
Years ago, opening a cannabis dispensary wasn’t on the minds of Laura and Tony, they both admit. But when they decided to launch Green Point Wellness, it all made sense: “We have both been in the customer service industry from the start,” Laura says.
Tony started as a limo driver, then eventually opened his own limo company. It survived successfully for 28 years. He also opened a nightclub and restaurant business. Laura worked as a salesperson in a health club and as a membership director at a golf course before joining Tony in the hospitality industry. By the time Maryland approved the use of medical marijuana, Laura says, “It felt like a natural progression for us.”
“Having a background [in customer service] has definitely been helpful with this venture,” Tony says. “Although the product may be different, it all comes down to our knowledge of the product and having great customer service.” And, as Laura points out, it’s easier to offer excellent service when you are doing it in a place you love. “Our community and the state we live in are very close to our heart,” she says. “This is where we both grew up and have built a life together. … Our customers are our family, friends and neighbors. Helping the people we care most about is what drives us, and we have created this dream right in our backyard.”
Enter the Green Room
Departments - Great Ideas
Denver’s Seed & Smith gives customers a behind-the-scenes, educational tour about how the company grows and manufactures products.
If you have spent time in a cultivation facility, you are familiar with the typical list of people you might encounter: the master growers, the extraction specialists, the chefs, the packagers.
When Truman Bradley enters his cultivation facility, though, he might see six 80-year-old members of a local bridge club, a family of four or two best friends in town for a long weekend.
These people aren’t working in Bradley’s grow, nor are they wandering unsupervised through restricted areas. They are there to peek behind the curtain of a legal marijuana grow and learn how cannabis is grown. It’s all part of the Seed & Smith customer experience, an experience Bradley has worked tirelessly to develop.
Seed & Smith is a Denver- based, vertically integrated medical and recreational dispensary. Its 21,000-square-foot facility houses the company’sgrow, dispensary, extraction lab and packaging department. Having all under one roof allows Seed & Smith a unique opportunity: It can give anyone over 21 an interactive, “brewery-style” tour of its full-service cannabis facility, providing an exclusive look at and understanding of how cannabis businesses operate.
Location, Location, Location
Bradley’s dream was always to offer a consumer-facing tour—a “Napa-style experience”—as he says. So when searching for a location, he needed a place zoned for retail and cultivation. That process “took years off my life in stress,” Bradley says. “Denver was like [the board game] Settlers of Catan; there were only a few spots on the board left.”
He found the perfect location near the Denver-Aurora border: an old forklift-manufacturing facility with 21-foot ceilings that would “allow the plants to expand and to breathe and to be grown the right way.” Roughly halfway between Denver International Airport and downtown, the dispensary and its tour have become a hot tourist attraction, while also sustaining a robust local clientele, despite its mostly industrial surroundings, Bradley says.
Seed & Smith prides itself on two things: transparency and producing high-quality craft cannabis. The tour helps with both by keeping the company accountable, says Bradley. “We are on display four days a week, and so it’s really important that we do take the extra time and take that extra focus to make sure that we’re rock solid … and that carries all the way through to the retail side.”
Groups meet in the dispensary’s lobby before Director of Customer Experience Samantha Schafer, or another manager, leads the group around the building and into the tour’s first stop: the vegetative room.
Inside the Veg Room
A goal of the tour is to “show customers the entire life cycle of a cannabis plant … from seed to sale,” Bradley says. That education begins in the veg room. Customers watch a short video that details the differences between seeds and clones, and the cultivation process from vegetation to packaging. After the video, two black curtains are raised, and customers can peer into a large, fully stocked veg room. Note that tour-goers never actually enter any of the rooms. “We touch on the fact that if you were able to walk into the grow room, that would potentially bring contaminants into the grow room,” Schafer says.
Instead, Seed & Smith has a pallet of its soil on display as well as an example of its planting pots. “We allow you to put your hands in our coco-soil blend, so you can kind of feel what [it’s] like. … You can read the ingredients. We talk about … why it is important to grow cannabis a certain way,” Schafer says.
The Bloom Room
At the next stop, the bloom room, samples of recently harvested and cured flower are displayed in magnified, perforated jars. Guests are asked to smell each and identify whether they smell citrus, cheese, diesel or berry. Once the scent is identified, they can then flip over a card to learn more about the strain. Three large windows are color corrected to make the room’s lighting appear normal so people can take selfies in front of the plants. One window remains without color correction to show “the incredible orange-light that the plants are existing in,” Schafer says.
Customers aren’t the only people visiting. According to Bradley, the tour’s success has led to members of regulatory agencies coming through to train new staff. He says the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recently toured. “The tour allows us to work with regulators and have transparent dialogues regarding safety, compliance and operating procedures to assist these agencies in making informed regulatory decisions.” Bradley explains.
The “harvest hall” is where tour participants see the extraction lab and packaging room. Upon entering, guests can gaze through a window as technicians create slabs of shatter, distill pure THC and isolate terpenes. Inside the packaging department, workers are seen meticulously weighing flower, and guests can hold a 1-pound bag of vacuum-sealed bud and take pictures.
Next stop is the “Smelfie Station.” While discussing extraction, tour guides touch heavily on terpenes. The guide sprays isolated terpenes onto cards for guests to smell. Schafer says the idea came from perfume stores. “It’s familiar to people, so it immediately takes away the stigma, and it educates people about terpenes.”
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Bradley and Schafer get to see how much their guests retained when the tour ends at the dispensary.
“When people shop, they often say, ‘I want your highest-testing strain,’ but when they come for a tour and they learn about the effect terpenes can have in your body, and the aromatherapy qualities of the terpenes, they go into the shop [and] start asking different questions like, ‘What is your freshest product?’ rather than ‘What’s your highest-testing strain,’” Schafer says.
She estimates 95 percent of tour-goers visit the dispensary, and about 85 percent purchase something.
“We’ve always believed that if people could see how their cannabis is grown and extracted that frankly they would make different purchasing decisions,” Bradley says. “That’s why we’ve set up the tour the way that we have.”
Scott Guthrie is senior editor of Cannabis Dispensary.
Q&A with Great Northern Cannabis’ Aaron Morse and Anita Bradbury
Departments - Fast Take
From their über-customer-focused store design to unique business challenges in The Last Frontier, these Anchorage, Alaska-dispensary shareholders tell all in this candid interview.
Named one of Leafly’s “Hottest New Dispensaries That Opened in 2017,” Great Northern Cannabis boasts a modern, yet earthy vibe via its high ceilings decked with dark wooden beams; suspended, modern light fixtures; and custom wood and glass displays. Combined with its no-pressure customer service, the atmosphere attracts patrons to its central downtown Anchorage, Alaska, location across from the city’s Visitor Information Center—and keeps them coming back.
In this fast-paced interview, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, Aaron Morse, and the dispensary’s manager, Anita Bradbury (both shareholders), share details behind their store’s inviting interior, chartering a plane to transport product and their expansion plans.
Brian MacIver: You have a great-looking store. How did you go about designing it?
Anita Bradbury: Great Northern’s initial shareholders had a vision for an upscale store—top of the line, with an inviting ambiance, where customers are immersed in an elite shopping experience.
The architect worked with us to create the high ceilings that draw the eye up and out and create a spacious feeling. You want to be able to breathe when you step into a store. You don’t want to feel like you have to run out or be pressured in any way. Many of our customers have told us they love our atmosphere, and we love that they can feel calm, unhurried and welcome.
We have four separate display cases—one for concentrates, the second and third offering sativa and indica, and the final case focusing on edibles and specialty items. Wall-mounted screens display a menu to guide customers who are interested in a quick overview and then below are the actual display cases where you can view the products.
Our budtenders are trained not to hover. If you have a question, the budtenders just kind of watch and see when a good time is to come in and help out.
MacIver: What goes into training the Great Northern Cannabis staff and the budtenders, especially?
Bradbury: A lot of the training is done on the job as well as during their personal time because they’re just so interested. Our staff ... want to be the best at what they’re doing.
As a recreational dispensary, we are careful to tailor the language not to be perceived as medical advice. We do a lot of targeted training with our budtenders on how to answer health-related questions without being on the medical advisory side of things—because we’re not doctors. Since no one in Alaska is licensed to sell medically, it is key to present information from a recreational perspective.
Part of our objective is to encourage education in our consumers and, to that end, we provide detailed test results for our products and make sure that our staff is aware of what those test results mean. When customers ask, budtenders can open the book and explain with confidence what the terpene profiles look like and how they relate to certain strains. So when a customer asks a question or shares a specific need, our budtenders can recommend an appropriate strain. But again, they have to state that it’s recreational—compliance is key, and we have made a significant investment to train our budtenders on state regulations, what the do’s and the don’ts are.
MacIver: According to a report by Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, 86 percent of Alaskan communities are not connected by road. How does that affect how you source products?
Aaron Morse: Our transportation challenges are really hard. We’re in a unique situation because we frequently have to rely on air and marine transportation—rather than the road system—to move product. And federal involvement in those sectors complicates things. The TSA [Transportation Security Administration] has a policy where they allow cannabis to fly, and I think the airlines, as long as they don’t know about it, say it’s OK. But cannabis needs to be taken carry-on. [Editor’s note: For more information on this unique Alaskan allowance, read “High-Risk Flyers” in the June 2017 issue of Cannabis Business Times here: bit.ly/high-risk-flyers.]
As a result of the state’s rules on transporting cannabis products by air, if you’re trying to transport a liquid like our “Bare Spray” [a cannabis-based lubricant], that doesn’t work because the TSA has special rules around liquids. So, we actually had to charter an aircraft to bring Bare Spray up from Juneau. The round-trip flight to pick up the product and deliver it to Anchorage was almost $7,000.
MacIver: You are a vertically integrated business. What challenges come with that model?
“You want to be able to breathe when you step into a store. You don’t want to feel like you have to run out. ...” Anita Bradbury, dispensary manager, Great Northern Cannabis
Morse: Our costs to produce our own flower, because we’re vertically integrated, are lower than our costs to acquire third-party flower. We’ve been in this odd juxtaposition, which has somewhat chaffed our in-house growers—because we’re arguably producing some of the finest cannabis in the state, but sometimes we’re also selling it at lower prices than third-party cannabis. … Sometimes our growers get frustrated and are feeling like, “Wait a minute. Our product’s better, but cheaper?!”
MacIver: Looking forward, what are some things you’re excited about for your business?
Bradbury: I’m excited about seeing a full year of data. The tourist season will be here soon, and we’ll have numbers that include not only our local market, but also the visitors from ‘Outside.’ That should give us some good data to gauge our strategy.
Morse: We are expanding to a second retail presence. We’re hopeful that can be open this summer, and we’re considering other expansions, too, possibly into manufacturing or additional cultivation space. We want to be a major player in the state’s industry. That’s the goal. Has been from the beginning.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.
Brian MacIver is the associate editor of Cannabis Dispensary.
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