After his wife, Cham, suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2005, Travis MacKenzie began growing medical cannabis on a small farm in Eugene, Ore., to help assuage her painful migraines. He came to love the plant, and Cham felt healed by its properties. Before long, the couple partnered with fellow grower and friend James Orpeza and went into business under the vertically integrated TJ’s brands. TJ’s Organic Provisions dispensary opened in Eugene in 2015, followed by TJ’s on Willamette in 2017. Up next: A new TJ’s dispensary in Portland, due to open in early 2019.
Cannabis Dispensary spoke with MacKenzie about what it takes to stand out in Oregon’s crowded marketplace and how he and his team share their story with consumers seeking something different.
Eric Sandy: What were you and your team looking for in planning an expansion into Portland?
Travis MacKenzie: Understanding that Oregon is not an extremely populated state and the Portland metro area is where most of the people are—we really wanted to be in that market. That market was a place that would help us build our brand and give our Portland fans an opportunity to experience a TJ’s store. People can get TJ’s products at a number of different dispensaries, but we decided to have a different experience in [each of] our stores for folks to come in and see what we’re all about.
Sandy: How did TJ’s initially find a way to stand out among the competition?
MacKenzie: When House Bill 3460 passed [in 2013], allowing legal medical dispensaries in a regulated system and an outlet for medical growers to be able to legally sell their cannabis to consumers in the state, we started our brand-building. We started out as medical growers. When we were growing medically, not a lot of people were recognizing the farms. It was retail-driven, so the consumer was coached initially to look at dispensaries to see who had the best cannabis or the best products for whatever ailed them. We felt like it was important to let people know who was growing the medicine they were consuming.
We started to be one of the first farms to approach dispensaries and say, “We would like our name on this jar. We would like to tell you our story, and you can relay that story to your customers, and then your customers can make a more informed choice, and a choice that maybe they identify with our story or with our farming practices.” When Measure 91 passed [in 2014], and we had a legal recreational market, we were able to have more brand recognition than the new start-up farms.
Sandy: How do you engage consumers directly and share that story?
MacKenzie: When a customer goes into a dispensary, I would say more than half of the sales are budtender-driven. If the budtender recommends something, most of the time the consumer is going to buy that. The way that we like to connect with budtenders is: First, we make sure that when a store starts carrying our product, we get samples to those budtenders so that they can see the quality of the product—how it makes them feel, and all of those other measurables when it comes to just being a cannabis connoisseur.
We let [budtenders] know of our nonprofit organization that we support, the Forrest Initiative, which is something we started back in the medical days before recreational cannabis was legal. We started making and providing, for free, CBD oils and THCA oils to children with pharmaceutically resistant, intractable epilepsy. That program expanded to basically any minor dependents that needed cannabis therapy for whatever ailment or reason. We have over 140 families in our program right now.
We’re always reaching and trying to normalize our business as much as possible. For example, in Eugene recently, the Chamber of Commerce had a business-to-business event. Members of the chamber came out, set up booths and everybody networked and interfaced. We were the only cannabis company there. We’re not really a business-to-business situation; the only purpose was to normalize [cannabis], to get people to understand it.
Sandy: Do you see that normalization as a responsibility of a dispensary owner?
MacKenzie: I do. Public perception is the beginning of everything. We absolutely want to be out in front of everybody and to say that cannabis is a healthy choice for people to either recreate or medicate. Truthfully, from our perspective, recreational cannabis is medical cannabis. Generally, if somebody feels 100-percent OK, they’re not looking for anything to alter that mood or feeling. It’s when people are a little anxious or tired or not tired enough. There are all these things that people—even if it’s just to unwind—use cannabis as a therapy. [Dispensaries] shouldn’t feel any embarrassment or any reservation about participating in community events.
Sandy: How did you develop the look and feel of your first Eugene store, and what were some of your goals?
MacKenzie: When we first started building that store, we didn’t have a lot of money to invest, and the building was pretty run down. We had to put some investment into the bones of the place to get it to be habitable. Then we basically completely gutted the entire interior. The design, as far as how the rooms are spaced and how the flow is, was regulated by [the Oregon Health Authority] at the time.
As far as the décor and the reclaimed lumber, we wanted a natural, comfortable place. We went with a more subdued look, as far as our color palette goes, to make it inviting for everyone. We tried to reuse and recycle as much material as possible and make the building as green as possible. We did enlist the help of a professional designer to help us achieve that look. The outside of the building was our design with the corrugated metal on the sides and the planters in the front to make it look homey. The design specs on the inside all came from [the design firm] Potency.
Sandy: How do you track purchase trends, and have you found any unexpected trends over the years?
MacKenzie: We had a good idea of where the market was going to go, and we had two examples in Washington and Colorado. Oregon had slightly different rules, so we could anticipate it not following the exact trajectory as those two states, but it was going to be similar. Under House Bill 3460, [Oregon’s] flower was overwhelmingly the top seller. What we could see in Colorado and Washington was that it didn’t take long for concentrates, extracts, edibles, those other kinds of products and cannabinoid products [to have] a rapid increase in market share over the course of the first two years. We felt like that was probably going to happen here. We can see from sales data that flower sales are not necessarily declining, but not increasing as much or at the rate that sales for edibles and extracts have been.
Sandy: What goes into strain selection and the idea of appending each name with—for example, “TJ’s Durban Poison” as opposed to “Durban Poison”?
MacKenzie: Cannabis is not like corn and other agricultural crops where you have this uniformity across that particular cultivar.
What we have in the cannabis space is, although we have the same names across these strains, we have a lot of different phenotypes within that family. When we decided to put our name at the beginning of each strain, it was to let people know that what they’re buying is the TJ’s cut of that strain. I’ve seen a lot of different Durban Poison plants, and I haven’t ever seen a Durban Poison plant exactly like ours.
There’s commonality among all these different cultivars. There’s a similar smell. There’s a similar effect, but they’re not quite the same, and that can be due to genetic differences in the seed or in the cuttings, but it can also be epigenetic shift. If I grow different than you, and you and I get a cutting from the same plant, after a couple of years, they’re not necessarily going to be exactly the same anymore.
Sandy: Have customers responded to that, and have you found brand affinity to be a major underpinning of the company?
MacKenzie: Yeah, with particular strains. For example, our Durban Poison is a wildly popular cut. As we’ve scaled up from a medical operation to a recreational operation, we’ve managed to keep some consistency from batch to batch with our flowers. Certainly, people respond to many of our strains just because it is the TJ’s cut. But more so than having the name on the jar, it’s the overall impression of the company that drives people to our products.
Sandy: Could you describe the process of collaborating earlier this year with Claim 52 Brewing Company, and what you and the team learned from working with a brewer?
MacKenzie: We looked at a couple of things when we were deciding what we were going to collaborate on. That included [deciding on] a marketable name. We didn’t want to make a beer out of Green Crack, for example.
We wanted to find a name that was going to be appealing as a collaboration and find an interesting aroma profile, a terpenoid profile that we could match with hops. Cannabis and hops are cousins. There are a lot of different smells and flavors that you can get out of hops, just like with cannabis. We assembled smell and flavor profiles from the hops based on smelling the cannabis, and that’s how that collaboration started. (Editor’s note: The partnership led to a hazy IPA based on TJ’s Durban Poison, called Durban Poison IPA, and a Berliner Weisse based on TJ’s Mountain Berry Kush, called Mountain Berry Kush Sour. Both were available in spring 2018 at Claim 52 Brewing Company.)
Sandy: What’s next for TJ’s in Oregon?
MacKenzie: A continuing goal of ours is to find the best way to connect with our customers to ensure that we’re going to continue to have customers in a time when there are dispensaries literally selling $28 ounces. So, our goals are—aside from fiduciary responsibility and making sure that we’re doing things in a way that allows us to continue to operate—keeping an eye out for emerging markets in other states and seeing if our brand and our model translate well to other areas where we maybe didn’t have the advantage of being a well-placed, well-known medical farm to begin with.
Ultimately, what we would hope for is that federal deregulation and an opening of state lines. That’s always on our minds.
The one drawback to Oregon is its population, and that’s what a lot of us here in Oregon love—the fact that there’s not a lot of people—but we have literally thousands of acres of prime cannabis-growing country. There are not enough people to smoke it all, and so that interstate commerce piece would be huge for Oregon as a state—not just for the operators that work in the cannabis space in the state. All the citizens of Oregon would benefit from Oregon being able to sell all its cannabis inventory at a good price. And that increases jobs and increases tax revenues. It increases building development, all kinds of stuff. It would be a huge win for the state if we could export.