Q&A with The Novel Tree’s Chris McAboy

Departments - Fast Take

The company's co-founder sits down to talk about a craft-cannabis-focused business plan, customer growth and product selection.

November 13, 2017

Co-founders Chris and Allie McAboy. The couple launched The Novel Tree together in November 2014.
Photos by Jake Gravbrot

Washington’s cannabis market is very retailer friendly: There are approximately three producer-processors for every retailer in the state. This has allowed The Novel Tree, a recreational and medical dispensary, to carve out a niche as a high-quality craft cannabis retailer in Bellevue. Chris McAboy, the company’s co-founder (along with his wife Allie), president and chief visionary officer, talks with Cannabis Dispensary’s Brian MacIver about the challenges and benefits of working with craft growers, how he selects products and how Washington’s customer base has evolved since the state’s I-502 program (legalizing recreational marijuana) rolled out in July 2014.

Brian MacIver: You work with mostly craft-cannabis growers. How does that affect your business model?

Chris McAboy: [It] basically makes everything more difficult from the business side. It means it’s a less consistent supply, generally, so we work with a higher number of farms, which is more time consuming for our purchasing program.

It’s also a bigger challenge for our budtenders to learn about the different farms and products because we try to have new genetics and strains all the time. ... We have pre-shift [strain reviews] every day with our budtenders to be sure they are up to date, and we are constantly quizzing them on the farms we work with to make sure everybody has a good grasp on what they’re selling.

MacIver: You’re putting a lot more effort into sourcing your product. Why go to such lengths?

McAboy: For the integrity of our company: It’s what we stand for. We do believe that our customers are that much more loyal to us. Not every cannabis consumer values that, but we feel that the ones that do really value it.

In doing so, it’s a little bit more expensive [buying] from a small grow, so we’re not always hitting the same margins as our competitors that might have something at that same price point. But really, we’re trying to stay true to that high-quality, small-grow customer base . … We think that creates a greater chance at a longer lifespan for the business.

MacIver: How do you choose what producers you work with?

McAboy: We started early on with a formal screening process that was basically just a questionnaire. That’s our first step to screening: Is this company transparent with us, could we trust doing business with them …, which is usually fairly apparent from the first meeting in how they conduct themselves and represent their company.

Inside The Novel Tree, where the aesthetic reflects the company's craft-cannabis focus.

We’re looking really for the highest-quality products. …. We do a sampling program where we make sure the product checked out [for] one of our senior budtenders or management team who is really familiar with product quality, and we basically grade it based on criteria and go from there. If the product is right and the organization seems right, then we’re definitely open to further discussion with them about how we can … get them in our shop.

MacIver: What are some red flags you look out for?

McAboy: An uneducated salesperson that either won’t tell us about their operation, or if they don’t really stand for anything as a company, if they’re just there to make a sale, we can usually tell based on experience. Generally, we have more issues with those types of organizations. It just shows us they have a higher likelihood of being less organized, missing deliveries, not communicating with us, not being transparent with us.

MacIver: How has the Washington consumer evolved over the past few years?

McAboy: They are definitely picky. It’s really a crazy thing that we used to be … excited about any old eighth of flower that you got from your dealer, when that was the only way you could get it. Now, some of these stores, us included, have over 100 options for flower alone.

When we opened in November 2014, we had between 10 and 15 strains. After a year, we were somewhere around 50 on shelves at any given time. We’ve tried to cut back, but I’ve seen it as high as 120 strains.

There’s so much selection that customers know that if they don’t like something, they might not ever buy from that grow again.

Brian MacIver is associate editor of Cannabis Dispensary.