A Terra-rific Start

Departments - Launchpad

How TerraVida Holistic Centers opened three dispensaries in just three months to serve Pennsylvania’s new medical cannabis market.

June 19, 2018

Co-Owner Chris Visco in front of TerraVida’s Abington location
All Photos © Joe Skodzinski

Consider what can be accomplished in just 92 days.

In its 92-day orbit, Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, traveled nearly 44 million miles, circling the globe once every 0.067 days. And while traveling 44 million miles in 92 days apparently isn’t impossible, opening three cannabis retail locations in that same time frame (in a brand-new medical cannabis market) certainly seems like it could be for the average business owner.

It was not impossible, however, for Chris Visco and Adina Birnbaum, co-owners of TerraVida Holistic Centers in Pennsylvania.

On Feb. 17, TerraVida opened its Sellersville location. Fast-forward to April 26, and patients were welcomed into the company’s Abington dispensary (its primary center). And on May 20, Visco and Birnbaum snipped the ceremonious red ribbon in front of their Malvern store. (All three municipalities are in far eastern side of the state.)

When the Russian satellite Sputnik blasted off Oct. 4, 1957, however, it wasn’t as if a few scientists showed up that morning, slapped it together and threw it into orbit. The launch was the culmination of hard work and planning—the same type of preparation that went into TerraVida’s grand openings.

Raising More Than Money

The story of TerraVida (which translates to “EarthLife”) officially begins June 28, 2017, when the dispensary was awarded its licenses. “One of the most difficult processes I’ve ever been through is applying for the license, winning the license, getting financial backers,” Visco says.

Finding the right investors was difficult for two reasons. First, “No one thought Pennsylvania would be a great market,” Visco says, citing concerns that many doctors and patients wouldn’t register for the medical marijuana program in the conservative state. “A lot of investors were very skeptical about getting involved,” she recalls.

Second, Visco and Birnbaum were adamant that they retained control of the company because they witnessed “the amount of outside money coming into our state,” Visco says. She is a life-long Pennsylvanian—born and raised in Conshohocken in Montgomery Country, the same county as TerraVida’s Abington dispensary—and she is committed to helping her community. (She and Birnbaum once saved a 14-business farmer’s market from closing.) “We know the landscape of our neighborhood and Pennsylvania residents, and we just felt that it was important to have a Pennsylvania-based company also be involved in the process to really provide the best patient care,” Visco says.

The co-owners also wanted to remain a woman-owned business. TerraVida is currently a Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC)-certified company—the only dispensary in the state with such honors, according to Visco. To keep that certification, Visco and Birnbaum must remain the primary owners.

“We didn’t want someone to come in and take control. … We were looking for an investor who would understand our vision and stand aside and allow us to create our vision,” Visco says. In September, they partnered with an investor who they say shared their dream of providing a holistic, comfortable environment where patients would feel at ease. Now, they just had to build it.

Left to right: Patient Care Specialists Carolyn Condello, Tim Nugent, Chris Loschiavo, Adam Prowell

Expect the Unexpected

Visco and Birnbaum envisioned a “spa-like” environment, peppered with mellow colors, natural wood and stone, and even an indoor waterfall. “It was important for us to assure the community that our locations would be beautiful,” Visco says. “We wanted [an environment where] when patients came in, they would immediately feel relaxed.”

Converting their first location, Sellersville, into that patient utopia was anything but relaxing, though. “Construction takes longer than you expect. Things pop up that you don’t anticipate,” Visco says. And when those things pop up, they often come with hefty price tags.

For instance, Sellersville’s foundation was cracked and had to be repaired at an additional cost. The weight of the safes required installation of a sub-floor, “which was not something we anticipated,” Visco adds. There was a staircase in the middle of the dispensary that “cut off the whole building,” she explains, so they had it knocked down and relocated. And the entryway waterfall? “That ended up costing us about $14,000 to $15,000,” Visco recalls—$10,000 more than she had planned.

But through patience and perseverance, Visco and Birnbaum eventually saw their dispensary vision become a reality. But they still needed a staff.

“We know the landscape of our neighborhood and Pennsylvania residents, and we just felt that it was important to have a Pennsylvania-based company also be involved in the process to really provide the best patient care.” Chris Visco, co-owner, TerraVida Holistic Centers

Mr. Right

For TerraVida, the hiring process was difficult because it was tough to find appropriate employees with cannabis experience in a state with such a new program, Visco says. So TerraVida took its search national and hired from the top down. “The first person we hired was our director of operations, Josh Reiss,” Visco says.

Reiss, a native Pennsylvanian, arrived at TerraVida by way of Colorado where he had been managing medical dispensaries. Visco says that because of “his experience treating patients for as long as he did, he had a great understanding of the different types of cannabis, what worked for different patients.” Reiss developed educational materials for each of Pennsylvania’s 17 qualifying conditions, implemented a training program and assisted Visco with hiring.

“It was a long process finding the right people,” Visco says, “making sure that we had compassionate, patient-focused employees who would always make our patients feel like they are the most important thing.” To entice those types of employees, Visco offers competitive incentives. No TerraVida employee earns less than $15 an hour, and the company provides healthcare benefits and 401(k) contributions to all full-time employees.

Today, TerraVida has 35 employees—a mix of pharmacists (required by Pennsylvania law), budtenders, receptionists and security guards—between its three locations, and it needs every one of them. Especially considering the number of patients each location sees.

Assistant Supervisor of Dispensary Operations Ryan Goodchild (left) and Patient Care Coordinator Karen Palmer

Patient Experience

Combining a knowledgeable, compassionate staff with a premium retail environment, TerraVida has seen more patients than any medical cannabis company in the state, Visco claims. “I was just doing the numbers, and we have seen over 5,500 patients in the last 12 weeks,” she says, estimating that the company now serves 100 patients daily.

Those patients are an equal split between male and female and are, on average, 68 years old, says Visco; however, she adds, “we have patients in their 90s, and we have children.” Regardless of who walks through the door, TerraVida is quick to make them comfortable. “They feel like family. When they’re in pain, we cry with them. When they’re upset, we hug them,” Visco says. But, TerraVida provides more than just an open ear and shoulder to cry on.

Each location has a self-service refreshment bar where patients can indulge in coffee, cucumber water and cookies. Board games are strewn about, says Visco, so “our patients can interact and build relationships and share stories with each other.”

Because the company’s patient population is predominantly older and many have not used cannabis products before, compassion and education are key. “We spend a lot of time with [patients] really explaining what the benefits are of the individual types of cannabis, and how to use the products and get past their anxiety of trying something new.”

"Each location has a self-service refreshment bar where patients can indulge in coffee, cucumber water and cookies. Board games are strewn about, says Visco, so “our patients can interact and build relationships and share stories with each other.”

TerraVida’s pharmacists and sales associates are available via phone in case a patient incurs problems at home. “A lot of what we sell in terms of medicine can be a little bit complicated for older patients. If they have chosen to vape, the batteries are not always that easy to use with the five clicks on and three clicks to find the proper temperature setting. So, they’ll call, and we’ll walk them through that process,” Visco says.

There’s no telling what product an employee might receive a call about, considering the dispensary has roughly 80 SKUs and sells a variety of items such as concentrates, oils, vape cartridges, tinctures, capsules, lotions, transdermal patches and Rick Simpson Oil (RSO). Top-selling products, according to Visco, are vape cartridges, capsules and RSO. “We sell a lot of RSO because we have many cancer patients, and a lot of our chronic pain patients find that RSO really works for their overall pain management.”

Patients won’t find flower at TerraVida, at least not currently. Until recently, Pennsylvania law prohibited dispensaries from selling flower; in April, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine accepted a recommendation for the state to allow flower sales.

“It makes the program more accessible,” Visco says, adding “Medical marijuana … is not inexpensive. It’s not covered by healthcare, so that really out-prices a lot of our patients.” Flower will be a less expensive alternative for them, she says. The company plans to have flower in-stock by summer’s end and is already coordinating with licensed producers.

Onward and Upward

Much like Sputnik, when TerraVida began its mission, its future was unclear—crashing and burning was a real possibility, but so was succeeding in unknown territory. Sputnik expanded the universe for millions, and while TerraVida hasn’t reached those numbers yet, its early success has opened new worlds and possibilities for thousands of sick Pennsylvania residents. And Visco doesn’t plan on stopping. The company submitted a new round of applications May 17 to open more locations in its home state and is looking to expand its model into other states, albeit cautiously. “We wouldn’t want to grow too quickly to where our patient care would suffer,” Visco says. “We’re being very strategic and methodical”—as if they were launching a satellite.

Scott Guthrie is senior editor of Cannabis Dispensary.