More Than Medicine: How Curio Wellness is Redefining Its Marketplace

Features - Cover Story

Maryland’s Curio Wellness brings a health-and-wellness approach to pharmaceutical cannabis.

April 22, 2019

“I personally see cannabis as one of the tools available in the vast toolbox. ... Cannabis is not necessarily the best or only tool. Herbs, nutrients, massage, diet and acupuncture are all important.” – Michael Bronfein, CEO, Curio Wellness.
All photos: © Nicole Fallek

At the end of 2018, as the first year of legal medical cannabis sales in Maryland was winding down, cannabis review and search-engine website Leafly awarded Curio Wellness “Best Flower Products” in Maryland. With a menu that runs a broad cultivar spectrum—including CBD-dominant varieties in addition to those higher in THC—this recognition is something that helps promote Curio Wellness’ broader mission: educating patients on how cannabis fits into a health regimen.

As such, CEO Michael Bronfein doesn’t view Curio Wellness as a cannabis company. Rather, “we are a pharma company using cannabis as our active ingredient,” he says.

Leafly isn’t the only group recognizing the Curio’s quality: 63 of the 71 Maryland dispensaries carry the vertically integrated company’s branded products. Customers at Curio Wellness’ own dispensary—located in Timonium, just north of Baltimore—seem to love its products, too: First-year patient numbers were double the company’s initial projections.

From Bronfein’s perspective, Curio Wellness’ dispensary is an essential part of how the company is structured to attain a more pharmaceutical model. Located a half-mile up the road from the company’s state-of-the-art grow and production facility, the retail storefront is where the mission manifests and results happen.

“The dispensary is our research lab,” he says. For example, Curio Wellness’ dispensary manager, Brian Sanderoff, facilitated a preliminary trial with a cannabis-based sleep pill in which more than 100 patients participated. These types of studies help Curio learn “how to create products, as well as how to create profits and programs that help vendors succeed,” Bronfein says.

“I personally see cannabis as one of the tools available in the vast toolbox,” Bronfein says. “We meet people where they are and help them move to a healthier place. Cannabis is not necessarily the best or only tool. Herbs, nutrients, massage, diet and acupuncture are all important.”

And they all have a place at Curio Wellness.

A Curio Wellness patient care adviser.

A Dispensary and More

There is nothing about Curio Wellness’ building that clues passersby into what it contains, despite the 6,000-square-foot facility’s glass front. Wendy Bronfein, co-founder and director of marketing and product development—and Michael’s daughter—says the design plan and windows “put everything front and center. We felt it helped break down a lot of barriers.”

Walking in, visitors might first notice a large classroom that holds about 50 people, as well as a curated herb and supplement section that looks like something out of a high-end spa. Fragrant samples entice customers to take a closer look at the array of neatly organized products in minimalist packaging. One table holds products focused on women’s and men’s health, another focuses on sleep and stress, another on immune support—and a display around the corner is loaded with pet products. “We carry a full line of products under our own brand,” Sanderoff says, “as well as others from nutritional companies that only supply health professionals. Every product we carry is supported by my own clinical experience.” (Editor’s note: Not all states allow medical dispensaries to carry any ancillary products besides cannabis products.)

As customers browse, a humidity diffuser spreads a woodsy scent (developed with a local essential oils expert to create a scent especially for Curio) that helps connect visitors to the space, while a carefully selected music playlist subtly helps set a relaxed mood. (“You won’t hear Bob Marley or the Grateful Dead,” Sanderoff says.)

The colors of the space and the items for sale—including many Curio Wellness-branded products—mostly reflect the black and white of the company’s logo. The classroom holds blazing yellow chairs and a front wall is adorned with a Mondrian-type pattern with a range of muted color blocks.

Aside from a few small fliers, nothing gives away the fact that cannabis is sold on the premises. In fact, some people who visit the facility to see a massage therapist, acupuncturist or aesthetician in one of the four treatment rooms might leave without ever realizing they set foot in a dispensary. These practitioners are selected based on a combination of Sanderoff’s experience in holistic healing as well as practical considerations. The company looked for practitioners who focus on a single patient at a time, not those who float between multiple patients booked at once. That’s partly because there are only four treatment rooms, but more important is the fact that Curio wants practitioners who will provide optimal care to each patient.

Patients with a medical card can head through a set of secure doors to the cannabis dispensing area, another minimalist compact space boasting sleek lines and gold and gray accents, with patient areas spaced well enough apart to allow a degree of privacy. Ceiling fixtures and hanging lights offer plenty of illumination but don’t make patients feel like they’re in a typical retail store.

Curio also offers acupuncture services on-site.

In the dispensary area, patients will find a wide range of products: flower, both Curio Wellness’ award-winning cultivars and offerings from other brands; the company’s signature Kaviar pre-rolls (flower infused with CO2 oil and rolled in kief); a range of beverages, tablets and topicals, Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) cartridges, vape cartridges and distillates; and vaping, smoking and cooking accessories.

Among the products is another 2018 Leafly winner (“Best Topical”) for Maryland’s market, the Dixie Brands Synergy Balm. It’s one of several products that Curio produces and distributes across the state as an affiliate of Dixie Elixirs—a multi-state infused cannabis products maker and distributor.

“[Curio Wellness has] been an excellent partner for Dixie,” says Rebecca Maestas, director of field marketing for Dixie. “I cannot praise them enough. They go above and beyond the regulations and produce excellent products for patients in Maryland. … They are really good stewards of the industry.”

Dixie products sometimes appear among the weekly specials that price-conscious patients will find in Curio Wellness’ dispensary. But what patients won’t find there are budtenders.

The Pharmaceutical Guide

Rather than budtenders, Curio has “patient care advisers,” Sanderoff says. The distinction is that Curio is not just selling “bud.” Rather, he notes, “we are dispensing medicine in specific ways, and all my advisers are trained that way.”

That training focuses a lot on understanding the endocannabinoid system. There is a deep focus on terpenes and how they work, as well as on disease states and the differences in holistic approaches to healing vs. traditional medical models.

Sanderoff has the experience and credentials to handle that training. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in 1984 and went on to work at and own two pharmacies in Baltimore. Dissatisfied with the fact that Western medicine often did not prove helpful—and sometimes carried the risk of terrible side effects—he sold the pharmacies to start an herbal and nutritional counseling practice.

At Curio, Sanderoff recruited pharmacy technicians, largely to make sure that everyone “had a healthy respect and understanding for following rules.” But as time went on, Sanderoff began recruiting advisers who also had experience with using cannabis for personal conditions. “All of my staff members who deal with patients are patients themselves. That’s useful in understanding the medicine as well as in providing empathy to patients who might be having a rough time.”

“All of my staff members who deal with patients are patients themselves. That’s useful in understanding the medicine as well as in providing empathy to patients who might be having a rough time.” Brian Sanderoff, dispensary manager, Curio Wellness

While Sanderoff was not familiar with cannabis when he joined Curio Wellness, his holistic approach allowed him to be open-minded about it. “I believe that just because someone has been using cannabis for years does not mean they’re not using it for medical purposes. I prefer to think of the distinction as guided versus unguided. And we want to help everyone use this medicine in guided way.”

To that end, Sanderoff offers complimentary individual consultations to new patients and maintains a regular schedule of educational classes. At least once a month, a Medical Cannabis 101 class is open to the public. “It’s especially useful for cannabis-naïve patients,” Sanderoff says, “but even long-term users can learn from it.” Each class draws 25 to 40 people, many of them new to Curio Wellness.

Every quarter, Curio hosts a popular (non-infused) cooking class. One recent class saw its 50 seats booked well in advance. A Yoga and Acupuncture class kicked off the New Year—the classroom sometimes is repurposed as a yoga studio—and a Valentine’s Day-related class on Cannabis and Love focused on how certain strains can help with “pain, stress or anxiety that affect performance,” Sanderoff says.

With the company’s overall emphasis on improving health, even its loyalty program provides a means for patients to try a range of its offerings. Dispensary patients get 500 points on their first visits, then a point for every dollar spent. The points can be used for discounts on cannabis products—500 points gets a $10 discount, with double points awarded on Saturdays—as well as on the range of products and services offered elsewhere in the wellness center, including a free 60-minute massage, for example.

Curio also offers discounts on cannabis products to seniors and veterans; plus, patients receive a discount equal to half their age on their birthdays. That offer is particularly helpful to Curio’s patients who are in their 60s and older as they would receive a 30-percent discount or greater.

Brian Sanderoff (left), Wendy Bronfein, Michael Bronfein (right)

Science, Consistency and Reliability

Curio Wellness not only strives to take care of its patients, it takes care of its employees. It made its staff feel like a valued part of the family, even as it grew from 30 to 100 within its first year, by offering a starting wage of $15 an hour—50 percent more than Maryland’s minimum wage and more than double the federal minimum wage—and by promoting from within (18 employees were promoted within the first year).

Curio offers employees medical, vision and dental insurance, a 401(k) program, short-term disability and life insurance. Employees also receive tuition reimbursement, and they have access to training sessions, called “what we have learned” lunches—company-wide meals that offer the chance for all staff to learn about new developments other departments made, such as pragmatic things the growing and processing staff have come across that could be helpful for dispensary staff to know. Curio also offers online access to articles on cannabis science—which is no surprise given Bronfein’s mission of wellness, and it allows his staff to make patient recommendations based on facts, not anecdotal evidence.

This science-based approach ties in to Bronfein’s past connection to the medical field. He has been a key player in several leading health care companies, including Neighborcare, Remedi SeniorCare and Sterling Partners. He grew Neighborcare from a lone drugstore in Baltimore into the second-largest distributor for nursing homes in the country, with more than $1 billion of annual revenue. Bronfein also served as the inaugural chairman of the Senior Care Pharmacy Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that represents long-term care pharmacy groups, and sat on the advisory boards of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and the Harvard Medical School.

Curio’s medicinal roots feed the company to this day: It has a scientific advisory board replete with M.D.s and Ph.D.s. Having that medical expertise was always part of Curio’s plan, Bronfein says. “As far back as 2014 to 2015, when we were doing due diligence, a scientific board was part of that,” he says. “We wanted to make it clear that this was not snake oil.”

A scientific mindset underlies every aspect of Curio Wellness. The processing facility, for instance, is loaded with cutting-edge equipment, including one unit that can extract cannabinoids and separate terpenes. In-house testing equipment allows the company to get instant analysis of new products and batches, even as it waits for third-party testing lab results.

The result of this approach is consistency and reliability. For example, two separate batches of a cultivar recently measured at 26.2-percent THCA and 26.3-percent THCA, respectively.

The company’s interior design matches its black-and-white packaging.

Multi-state and Medical-Research Ambitions

Bronfein keeps revenue numbers close to the vest, but admits, “we are very pleased with market share”—enough to be looking at adding more Maryland dispensaries and launching new ventures in states with fresh cannabis laws.

All new Curio dispensaries will follow the Timonium example and have a pharmacist on staff.

The company is also looking to boost its medicinal research. Already, Curio’s distillate packaging features suggested usage information based on patient research and feedback. Next comes outside clinical testing. Wendy Bronfein says, “Our goal now is to have academic third-party validation,” she says. To that end, “we have been working for more than a year with the medical community,” including the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

Three products are being considered for clinical research: one for pain, one for anxiety and one for sleep. For its sleep trial, Curio found patients at its dispensary and at partner stores who were searching for help with insomnia. Participants were sold the tablets at minimal cost. Data was collected by giving them a protocol on how to take the medicine and report back.

Bronfein sees this research as crucial to Curio Wellness’ mission. “We want studies published, whatever the outcome,” Bronfein says. “Legislators are in favor of it, the folks at the University of Maryland are in favor [of studies]. We just need to deal with [state-level] bureaucracy. Maryland has the opportunity to become a world-class leader in this area.”

Thom Lieb is a longtime journalist who specializes in health and fitness topics. His work has appeared in OutsideBicyclingPittsburgh Magazine and many other publications. He is also a professor in the Mass Communication department at Towson University in Maryland. One of his major areas of interest is personal and organizational branding, especially as it applies to the emerging cannabis industry.