Miller Avenue shoots west out of downtown and ducks under the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks before winding into a scenic residential neighborhood that wraps snugly around a baseball field and the lush greens of West Park. Beneath the rail line, a colorful mural greets drivers and pedestrians: WELCOME TO WATER HILL.
The team at Bloom City Club, a medical cannabis dispensary located next to the railroad overpass, helped pay for the supplies to make that mural happen in 2016. Between local arts projects and community events, co-founder Allison Ireton and the dispensary staff stay involved with the cultural efforts of Ann Arbor’s Water Hill neighborhood.
“Anytime somebody in the neighborhood asks us to do something, we basically say, ‘yes,’” she says.
This is the fundamental promise of the business: to play an active role in uplifting the community. The way Bloom City Club sees it, this is how a low-key medical cannabis market is going to become a statewide industry: It all comes back to the importance of establishing local roots.
The shop itself is a neat 960 square feet of retail space, tucked in among tall, leafy trees. The building’s woodsy charm comes from a fresh face-lift on a mid-century auto garage. A blue, two-story house next door serves double-duty as a break room and office space.
“You won’t see any pot leaf symbols outside of the store, which is why Bloom City Club is often confused with a floral boutique,” co-owner Patrick Kinney says. He and Craig Terrell bought the company toward the end of 2017, as the state’s medical cannabis regulatory overhaul was settling into place. (In 2016, lawmakers enacted a sweeping set of retail regulations to bring dispensaries into a more structured licensing regime.) Ireton and the original all-female management team stayed on to shepherd the original, altruistic vision of Bloom City Club into a new era of Michigan medical cannabis.
“It’s really appealing from the outside,” Kinney says. “That kind of sets the stage—you know, that curb appeal—but once you're inside, people are really comfortable [and] at ease with the whole experience.”
Inside the remodeled space, patients are greeted with a warm sitting room draped in ocher tones. Nicely worn metal shelves and elegant wood tables display product samples and an array of non-cannabis wares: rolling papers, glass pipes, bottled water.
“We love brands like Tom’s of Maine and Whole Foods, so we wanted to [reflect those brands’ approach and] offer high-quality, organic, clean medicine,” Kinney says. “We wanted to create a space that felt accessible and safe to first time—or first-time-in-a-long-time—cannabis patients. Our goal was to normalize the cannabis buying experience, so that a customer didn’t feel like they were doing something illegal or controversial. To achieve that effect, we used tried-and-true customer service principles like the ones our manager brought with her from her experience [working] at the Ritz Carlton.”
Those principles include attire and tone: Budtenders at Bloom City Club blend dressy and casual attire, and the conversations in the shop echo the sort of rapport one might build with a concierge at a charming hotel in the city. The dispensary was born in Michigan’s gray market, with no real business model template to follow. The structure of what a dispensary could be was theirs to create. By taking cues from the hospitality industry, the business became just that—a brand that sought out an engaged clientele looking for reputable products and results—patients seeking a discreet vape product to combat insomnia or a topical that might ease the pain of arthritic wrists.
“Prior to it being a licensed provisioning center, it was one of the only women-owned dispensaries in Michigan, and when we acquired the business in late 2017 when the state licensing system was established, we continued to have a women-led management team,” Kinney says.
By attending to the shop with a bespoke, feminine touch, Bloom City Club’s community involvement and attentive customer service could be seen for what it is: a sense of altruism baked into a budding business.
Building the Club
Bloom City Club officially opened in January 2018, when a new slate of medical cannabis regulations went into effect in Michigan. Before that, the business’s history stretches back to 2015.
Ireton co-founded the business with Dori Edwards, who had been learning how to develop a retail enterprise in Michigan’s medical cannabis industry for a few years. Edwards previously owned and operated Ganja Mama’s Treecity Health Collective in Ann Arbor. “When Michigan legalized medical marijuana [in 2008], I took it upon myself to advocate for our civil right to have a choice for our own bodies,” she told a local newspaper in 2017, reflecting on the path that led her to open Bloom City Club in 2015, when she met Ireton.
While Edwards was leaning into the early days of medical cannabis in Michigan, Ireton was coming out of law school, landing work with a Detroit-based firm. She started her own legal practice in Ann Arbor in 2013 and met Edwards while working with Business Networking International. Her legal background complemented Edwards’ interest in progressive advocacy, and the two founded Bloom City Club to further express their own expertise in a new American business landscape.
Now, the company holds a legal provisioning center license.
Kinney and Terrell offered the business acumen, the third leg of the foundation required to build a long-lasting private enterprise in a marketplace that’s got nowhere to go but up.
The company locked down local and state licensing and brought the business model it had developed in the gray market into the burgeoning new landscape of medical cannabis in Michigan.
Listen First, Sell Second
“We cater to patients and customers who place a high value on knowing they are getting the best product for their condition, because someone spent a lot of time listening to them,” Kinney says.
This is important: The Bloom team learned early on that competition is the natural state of things in the cannabis market; patients and customers can go anywhere for products. But the relationship that a business builds with its patient base is the intangible bottom line that drives successful cannabis endeavors.
“One of the things that we absolutely do at Bloom is engage the customer in a conversation,” Ireton says. “You know, ‘What brings you in today? What have you tried before? What are you medicating for?’ We really get to learn a little bit about the patient and develop a rapport with them first.”
The hospitality-type approach to Bloom City Club’s patient engagement set it apart in the gray-market days, and it’s what it hopes will distinguish the business from others in the coming Michigan adult-use marketplace. Patients—and, eventually, customers of all stripes—come to licensed dispensaries with varying degrees of knowledge and experience with the plant. The key, from a retailer’s perspective, is to establish a baseline.
Mass media has left a lasting image of what “weed” is. Smoky, powerfully pungent. And that can be the case, indeed, when you’re enjoying a pre-roll with friends. But Ireton says that the budtender staff often meets with newer patients who’ve got that deer-in-headlights look, men and women overwhelmed by the sheer variety and customization of the cannabis experience in 2019.
“You know, people thought their only option was something that was going to really stink up the house and smell,” Ireton says. “When you tell people they can just take a capsule, they're like, ‘Oh, I had no idea that was something that you could do.’” She references the trial-and-error process that so many patients work through, experimenting with products in vain. In the absence of any clear-cut research for the interested medical cannabis patient, a lot of the education needs to be proactive and come from the dispensary staff.
Targeting potential patients through marketing is also key, and the business tailors much of its promotional efforts to women.
“Everyone knows a lot of buying decisions, specifically around medical issues, are generally made by the woman in the family,” Kinney says.
And Ireton follows up: “Women in their late 40s, early 50s, who shop here—they come in and they're like, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea that this is what the dispensary would be like.’ Everybody expects it to look more like somebody's basement or Cheech & Chong. … If a woman feels comfortable shopping in a location, generally men will as well; whereas, if you kind of target men, specifically, it's probably going to be not as women-friendly.”
That’s the calculation that Bloom has bet on, and so far, it’s been successful.
“A lot of guys shop at Bloom,” Ireton says, “because we have very knowledgeable, engaging sales staff, and they like to talk cannabis. But we don't turn off the Baby Boomer and the middle-aged Gen-X female population that definitely doesn't want to go into a store where there's some [staffer] who doesn't really know what they're talking about, just trying to sell joints.”
Connecting Community and Cannabis
With Ireton and Edwards and a growing team guiding Bloom City Club into a new frontier of medical cannabis, the business placed itself right in the middle of a real network phenomenon.
Ann Arbor, a college town of about 121,800, is a particularly progressive bastion in Michigan. The city, as such, was ripe for a medical cannabis business community in the year leading up to full-scale regulation.
In 2010, Edwards co-founded the Ann Arbor Cannabis Guild, which was created to foster collaboration among the early businesses in the city’s medical cannabis market, like Ganja Mama’s Treecity Health Collective. The early cannabis advocacy work that Edwards helped pioneer was a local foundation for the medical cannabis dispensaries now operating in Ann Arbor.
“That group engaged pretty heavily with the local government and other community leaders to normalize the whole business,” Kinney says, “so we weren’t viewed as outcasts.”
Ireton agrees, adding that a tenet of the guild’s community engagement comes in the form of fundraisers and partnerships—classic methods for integrating a common cause through various organizations. Bloom City Club has gone on to host fundraisers for Safe House, a local domestic violence shelter, which roots the business in that supportive space in the city. The company has also raised cash donations for Make-A-Wish Michigan (through a manager’s participation in the 100-mile Wish-A-Ride bicycle event) and the Magic Heart Foundation.
Even closer to home on Miller Avenue, the dispensary lends its name and financial support to sponsorships of local arts and music festivals and neighborhood art projects—like the Water Hill mural. These sorts of things Ireton calls “deep local sponsorships.”
Having local and state licenses is a legitimizing force, a record that makes official Bloom’s place in Ann Arbor. As such, the opportunities to engage the local community are even greater. At the same time, the need to present a professional approach to cannabis became paramount.
“When the time came to operate in the licensed market, we found that traditional business models needed to be applied to achieve success,” Ireton says. “For example, it is a lot easier to educate an empathetic and skilled salesperson about the benefits of cannabis, than it is to train someone to be an empathetic listener who can connect with a patient.”
There are pros, of course, to working in a licensed and regulated cannabis retail space. The supply chain becomes more regimented, more sharply defined for businesses finding their place in a state like Michigan.
But there are growing pains, too. “The new regulated system gives us the protection we lacked in the past, but it has cut us off from some of the really good growers and processors that can’t afford or have chosen not to enter the licensed market,” Ireton says.
The mood in Michigan in 2019, however, is one of eager anticipation, of forward-thinking aspirations. The state is preparing its rules for the forthcoming adult-use market, even as it continues to issue medical cannabis licenses. Bloom, with its early-adopter status in Ann Arbor, is keeping its eyes fixed on the horizon.
“Being one of the first fully licensed provisioning centers in Michigan, we are very well positioned to grow in this new market,” Kinney says. “Obtaining that license early in the process has allowed us to remain open during this transitional period when many other provisioning centers were forced to close. This has been reassuring to our original customers as well as to a lot of new customers who have had to find a new place to shop as the businesses they used to frequent have been closed or have been open sporadically as they go through the licensing process.”
There were 13 medical cannabis dispensaries operating in Ann Arbor’s gray market, according to Ireton. At least nine licensed provisioning centers are open now, and the city has capped its retail licenses at 28.
The next stop for many Michigan cannabis businesses is vertical integration, and the Bloom City Club team is already at work on plans. The company’s cultivation facility is in progress, and its processing center is up and running with six employees.
Kinney says he’s hoping to see Bloom City Club expand to an additional five stores by the end of the year.
To accomplish this and other goals, Bloom’s management team makes sure that all employees are on the same page. If communication with patients is one key to success, then internal communication is another.
“One thing we're very diligent about is holding [mandatory] weekly employee ‘huddles,’” Ireton says. “We use this time as a chance to share information about the industry, any new rules that the state may have issued, new products that we may have acquired since the last meeting, and quick refreshers on everything from salesmanship to merchandising.”
All budtenders at Bloom City Club get their start at the front desk. “This allows them the opportunity to get to know our regular customers, learn our point-of-sale system, familiarize themselves with our products, and integrate into the team without the pressure of having to answer potentially difficult sales questions,” she says.
Kinney compliments the benefits of the sales-team training: “[Patient] trust means everything to us.”
Bloom’s cannabis consultant—Julie Barron, a licensed medical counselor with Blue Sage Health Counseling—consults with medical patients. “Usually, [patients] have very dire diagnoses—terminal or close to being terminal diagnosis for cancer,” Ireton says. “[The cannabis consultant] speaks on a regular basis with medical practitioners at the University of Michigan who are willing to listen and are curious. And, believe me, it has changed so much in the past two years. Before, they wouldn’t talk to you. Now, they’re reaching out and asking for information [about medical cannabis research]. That’s been really nice.”
This is the ongoing game of settling into a regulated space in Michigan and in Ann Arbor. The expectations of medical cannabis businesses are quickly changing, especially in a state that has been familiar with cannabis sales, in a broad, quasi-legal sense for more than 10 years. Now, the script is evolving.
“We are still curious to see what the effects of all the competition are going to be,” Ireton says, pointing to the other provisioning centers that have been identified to open in Ann Arbor, as the state continues its slog through the formal licensing process. There are a lot of unknowns in Michigan these days. “We’re not the cheapest dispensary in town, and you know, for sure, every now and then we get a complaint about that, but we're also not the most expensive by far,” she continues. “We just try to provide as much value as we can.”
For example, based on Bloom’s menu, aggregated via Leafly, one gram of Durban Star is $18; a one-gram Cannalicious cartridge of OG Kush is $50.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to compete,” she says. “When you look at the outside operators that are coming into the space, certainly it’s better to have local connections. I think people in Ann Arbor do care about doing business with locally owned businesses rather than the larger out-of-state operators. But we still don't know what that's going to look like yet.”
“We’re not resting on our laurels, by any means,” Kinney says.