On the way to The Bakeréé’s Georgetown location in Seattle, customers will pass maybe a dozen other cannabis dispensaries. They could stop at those other shops, sure, but the allure of a preferred dispensary is similar to the magnetism of a beloved bakery: No other cookie will do.
This is the fundamental consumer dynamic of The Bakeréé. Purchasing cannabis products is often an engaging experience, after all, on several personal levels. Sights, sounds and smells mingle in the shop, and customers who’ve found what they’re looking for will tend to return, eager to recreate the wonder of that first visit.
For co-founder Alex Shreeve, 27, that was the vision that brought him to open the business in 2011 with his mother, Anna. (Editor’s note: Anna Shreeve is a member of the Cannabis Dispensary editorial advisory board. She was not interviewed for this story.) The two combined their skill-sets: Alex holds a deep passion for cannabis, and Anna brings experience from her work with startups and media.
Alex had previously played tennis competitively at academies in northern California and Florida. It was in the Golden State at age 18 that he picked up a medical marijuana card and found a new source of enthusiasm. Not long after, he returned home and convinced his family to start a business.
While starting out as a medical cannabis retailer in a small flea market in Seattle, Alex and Anna helped a woman select an excellent cultivar for her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. “It didn’t help every PTSD patient, but for her it really helped,” Shreeve recounts. “And I saw my mom’s eyes light up. Right then and there—it was probably our fifth day after starting the business—she just got addicted to what this plant is all about. Now, she’s so knowledgeable and so helpful that it’s incredible. Her knowledge is way past mine.”
The notion that the cannabis marketplace was fertile ground for education is the cornerstone of how The Bakeréé built its reputation in Seattle and landed two adult-use storefronts (in Georgetown and Aurora).
“The Bakeréé is all about experience,” Shreeve says. “Because of the knowledge we’ve been given for years, we’re held to a really high standard, and we refuse to not be able to give our customers that satisfaction of information and education.”
And, as the years rolled on, the business built its small, dedicated team in much the same way it built a loyal customer base. Madison Hollad, merchandising manager of The Bakeréé, says that she got involved in 2014 as she watched Alex and his mother cultivate a deeper understanding of cannabis with their customers each day.
“There’s no better feeling than helping a customer,” she says, “and actually helping them find what they really want.”
Up and Running
The Bakeréé concept was hatched with help from Jai Chang, known in the industry as Jigga, a cannabis breeder from the Bay Area who’d developed popular cultivars for Cookie Fam. He’s the grower behind GSC (formerly Girl Scout Cookies), Cherry Pie and Gelato.
“He was a huge part of the vision behind our store,” Shreeve says. “He’s just an incredible human, and he had this love for this plant and really got us to understand that the bakery is [a place] in everybody’s life that you go to be happy. And there’s always new stuff, right? So, if you go to a bakery, there’s always fresh new cookies or a fresh new scone or something new that they tried, and it’s family-made and family-run.”
Looking back on the early days, Shreeve says the branding concept was a simple move for the group of avid, like-minded cannabis entrepreneurs on his team: “We felt that cannabis has such an impact on people that if we could make it fun, if we could make it new, if we could always be searching for the new technique or the new strain or the new way to help people, that The Bakeréé was a great name for that.”
Those basic business building blocks translated neatly into the Seattle cannabis space, which was undergoing a bit of an upheaval in the wake of Washington’s adult-use legalization rollout in 2014.
In mid-2016, Washington state regulators and lawmakers enacted the Cannabis Patient Protection Act, which rolled the medical cannabis market into adult-use. (Washington voters legalized medical cannabis in 1998 and adult-use cannabis in 2012, although adult-use sales only began in 2014.) For many businesses, the impact was brutal. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) issued 222 new retail licenses to cover the combined marketplace, displacing the previous generation of more than 1,500 medical cannabis dispensaries.
The implementation of the law essentially zapped the medical cannabis licensing regime and forced businesses to reboot—including The Bakeréé, which shut down on June 30, 2016.
Confronted with a problem, Shreeve educated himself on the new marketplace and found a solution.
The CPC, Seattle’s Center for Palliative Care, was awarded two retail licenses with medical endorsements. Shreeve says he and his team jumped at the chance to partner with the CPC and keep the Bakeréé brand alive, as the CPC focused its business model on the producer/processor licenses it was awarded. “We’ve just been forever thankful for that opportunity,” Shreeve says, but he adds that it wasn’t a turnkey move for the young cannabis retail company. “We had to find ways to communicate to our customers,” he says, under evolving state regulations.
Under the new Cannabis Patient Protection Act auspices, cannabis dispensary employees were no longer allowed to convey cannabis’s medical benefits to patients.
Once the crew was set up, the CPC’s Georgetown location was built out as The Bakeréé. The shop features a sleek, well-lit interior. Local artwork hangs on clean walls, and the staff changes out the pieces every six weeks. Glass display cases showcase the craft cannabis products that the business makes sure get prominent placement among its inventory.
Sourcing high-quality products from small-batch growers is an important tenet in The Bakeréé’s buying model. “We’re looking for these little craft growers that really take the time to care about the plant,” Shreeve says. “It’s just like food. It’s just like wine. It’s just like beer. The people that put the love into it—you can tell.”
For that reason, the menu at The Bakeréé’s two locations (its Aurora location opened in 2018) changes frequently. It’s all of a piece: Craft cannabis products move fast, simply because they’re being brought into the store in smaller batches and they’re touching on specific customer demands.
The Bakeréé team decides together if new products meet the high standards they have set for quality product at every price point, Hollad says.
Loyalty in All Things
For The Bakeréé’s employees to build their cannabis education, they need time and dedication to the cause. Shreeve says that a good 70 percent of his employees have been with the company for the past eight years. “We have very little turnover,” he says. “I think our whole staff is just so invested in what we believe in. It’s truly incredible to just see that power that The Bakeréé has on these people’s lives.” This doesn’t come automatically, though. Shreeve says that a major part of the company’s early days was honing a customer-first attitude.
There was no real blueprint for growing a cannabis business in 2012 as the market was in its infancy. It was an era in which Washington operated as a cash-only medical cannabis market and where trust was the guiding principle of dispensaries’ recruitment best practices. So Shreeve and his mother brought trusted acquaintances with a passion for cannabis into the fold. Once on the team, he drove home the need to place the patient and the customer before all else.
“You really have to care—and care about the customer. It’s not about you,” Shreeve says. “That’s our main thing we say to people: ‘It’s not about you. It’s not about what you like. It’s about asking questions and asking what the customer wants.’”
To that end, The Bakeréé maintains a robust customer loyalty program through Baker Technologies’ customer relationship management (CRM) software. The centerpiece is the dispensary’s express menu, which keeps customers in touch with The Bakeréé’s latest offerings.
If a limited amount of an enticing new product arrives in the store, Hollad says, customers can jump on the express menu and place an order online. The shop will hold that order for 24 hours, and the customer can stop in to pick up.
“That’s how we communicate with customers on when we get new products, and we can send out that mass text message,” Hollad says. “But I will say: We always limit the text messages. We don’t want to bombard people with a million text messages a day.” (Texts go out to customers who’ve opted in to one of three product category options: flower, edibles and concentrates. Customers can opt in to multiple options, too.)
Each time a customer visits The Bakeréé, he or she can earn 20 points. But by ordering products on the express menu and then coming in to pick up the goods, customers can earn one point for every dollar spent on that purchase. A $120 ounce of flower will net a customer 120 points, which gives the customer $5 off a future purchase, Hollad says. She estimates that approximately 4,000 customers have signed up for the program.
To make all of that work in the front of the house move smoothly, it takes that certain level of care and dedication to the educational side of cannabis that Shreeve returns to again and again when he talks about the business.
Customers won’t be informed, the way Shreeve sees it, if the staff isn’t. The key, then, to how The Bakeréé has established its longevity in Seattle’s bustling cannabis scene is its budtenders’ engagement with the products and with the vendors. It’s the shop’s due diligence.
“It starts with the growers,” Shreeve says. “When growers come in, we’re asking for strain profiles, test scores, method of grow, flavor profiles, THC percentages, whatever we can. It’s part of my job to make sure we’re getting all the information from the growers so that we can portray that to our staff.”
Once products are in the store and on shelves, it becomes paramount for budtenders to be able to address a question about a specific cartridge’s flavor or a particular cultivar’s physical effects. The staff keeps the focus on the customers, so any question that they’ve got must be appropriately answered.
To ensure the team is on top of its game, Shreeve says that different staffers will test one another on products’ descriptions and effects. One person will explain the product to a budtender, and then ask another staffer within earshot, “OK, sell me this product,” he says. “So, no, it’s not a handwritten test. It’s more of just [to] keep you on your toes, make sure everybody’s learning. We make sure … everybody’s accountable for being ambitious about learning.”
For a company beset by the shifting tides of Washington cannabis regulations, Shreeve has had a lot of learning to do. The Bakeréé team has grown the business from its flea market medical days to its two locations in Seattle not by checking boxes on Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) compliance forms, but rather by educating themselves on what the market wants from a cannabis dispensary. And that’s a lot of things to a lot of people.
“There’s no one way to do it right,” Shreeve says. “So, … whatever research you do, just find out what’s acceptable and what you believe in, and be able to understand that the dynamics of the marketplace, since it’s so new, are always changing. … You have to be able to adapt, and, as you’re building out your store, it has to be adaptable.”
Between arranging rotating art installations set up by local artists and inviting skaters, painters, musicians and designers in to host fashion shows, The Bakeréé keeps busy by adapting to its community’s creative tendencies. “We are committed to expanding the knowledge and experience of our customers from both a product and culture standpoint,” Shreeve says. “We take great care in having a welcoming environment that is interesting and fun.”
The dispensary’s progress on all fronts shows. In late 2018, the Aurora location opened (on the north side of Seattle). This led to the staff splitting time between the two shops and learning more about the particular needs of two customer bases. “Learning how to be better teachers and to hold everyone accountable is something that we’re really working on,” Shreeve says. “We can’t be everywhere at once, and we have great people in place that can do such a good job that we just have to give them the tools to succeed.”
The Bakeréé elevated one of its Georgetown budtenders to the manager position in Aurora. That’s the same recognition of talent that kept the team intact through upheaval in Washington, and that prepares The Bakeréé’s staff for future developments in the marketplace. The intent of a business model that encourages employee growth, Shreeve points out, is for all that hard work behind the scenes to be evident to customers coming in the front door and eagerly scouting out new products from the region’s cannabis growers and producers.
“When you come in, we’re giving you high-fives, we’re playing fun music, we’re making you dance and making you smile,” Shreeve says. “And I think that’s what we’re all about, and that feeds in to who we are. We care about people. We’re not here to just sell you weed. We take satisfaction in you going home and loving what you get.” And, of course, welcoming loyal customers back again and again.