The Big East: Theory Wellness Berkshires
How this six-year-old Berkshires dispensary and cannabis brand reimagined what was possible in the booming industry.
Walking into Theory Wellness, an impeccably styled, high-end East Coast dispensary, I felt the same excitement I’d had the first time I stepped foot into a fabled Beverly Hills luxury retailer back in the day. And I loved it.
Fred Segal is, in essence, a luxury conglomeration of (mostly) one-of-a-kind boutiques that all live within the chic walls of its only-in-LA retail campus; think of it as a couture farmers market, but instead of $8 heirloom tomatoes you’re surrounded by $400 T-shirts, $1200 boots and $700 sunglasses. It’s an intoxicating, surreal shopping trek for retail rookies, to be sure, but once you experience this particular elevated gauntlet of sticker shock privilege, you find yourself wanting more. So. Much. More.
Upon entering the buzzy dispensary for the first time (after waiting in line and going through the required ID verification process), it took me all the way back to those heady days so many years ago in LA. Theory Wellness — at least its super busy Great Barrington, MA location in the bucolic Berkshires region — would fit right in at my favorite luxe retailer as it touts its many best-in-class cannabis offerings. Theory Wellness isn’t what most of our mothers think of when they imagine a marijuana dispensary: It’s clean, smartly designed, expertly managed, and, ultimately, a first-rate shopping experience. It’s ready for primetime. Even the staff at the registers are cannabis experts not unlike the Apple Store’s Genius Bar squad. Very cool.
I met up with the company’s young and affable Marketing VP, Thomas Winstanley, to help guide me through the excellent maze that is Theory Wellness and we talked and talked as we watched the crowded dispensary operate without a hitch. It was, to say the least, impressive, and all I kept thinking about was how much money they must be making right now. Winstanley, a proud millennial, was apparently determined to single-handedly dispel all perceived negative stereotypes associated with his generation merely by being whip smart and displaying a contagious indefatigable energy. It was, again, impressive, but it was also incredibly on-brand, as Theory Wellness’ co-founders are a pair of millennialpreneurs, CEO Brandon Pollock and Chief Strategy Officer Nick Friedman. If these guys met, say, two decades ago, one could imagine these BFFs launching a competitor search engine to Google to take on that giant’s own dynamic duo co-founders.
Pollock smiled when I brought up the search engine’s co-founders; he didn’t disagree. “Yeah, it could’ve been, yes!” Pollock said, laughing. “Even though we weren’t first to market in Massachusetts for a medical dispensary [Theory was 12th], we’ve been really fortunate with our team who really embody the spirit of doing cannabis right and carry out the company’s mantra of focusing on our customers first.”
To hear the independently owned, vertically integrated, small-batch, craft cannabis company’s marketing/public relations/social media/customer relations expert, Winstanley, merrily recount the earliest days of Theory Wellness — a whopping six years ago — you’d think cell phones and the internet weren’t around yet. But, as he insisted, time moves extraordinarily fast in the cannabis industry; so, half a decade in dispensary years feels like a veritable lifetime.
Look, to buy into what Theory’s selling isn’t difficult, and undeniably evident with my own eyes. This is a world-class cannabis company that prioritizes details and a positive customer experience, precisely as Pollock and Friedman conceived it to be. So, no, it’s not complicated, perhaps, but exceedingly difficult to pull off consistently. That’s what moves Theory Wellness from being simply good to decidedly great — and maybe even legendary.
“Theory began as a medical cannabis brand in Massachusetts following the roll-out of the state program,” Winstanley said. “Patients and wellness have always been at the heart of our business and where our company originates from. We produce more than 70 products that we sell at our stores, both to patients and recreational customers. Each product is specifically designed, tested and packaged to provide a customer with a premium experience with cannabis — whether it’s to help you sleep at night, relieve a sore muscle, or simply to have a good time.”
OK, but what makes Theory Wellness different, or better, than the more than 100 dispensaries currently operating in Massachusetts alone? “We’re independently owned and operated, unlike many competitors who are venture capital and/or private equity-backed or publicly traded,” Winstanley said. “This allows us to move quickly, pivot when we need to, and not wade through layers of bureaucracy.”
Also, according to Winstanley, many of the giant players in the industry — including MedMen and Aurora Cannabis — are posting losses. Theory Wellness numbers show that it’s growing and scaling at unprecedented rates showcasing the power of a hungry company. The secret, according to the Theory, is that they operate more like a start-up than traditional brands. The formula is working like a charm.
Theory Wellness has been financially solid from the start. In 2018, the company posted revenue of more than $10M and employed 50 people. Just a year later, Theory made some $55M in revenue, employed 100 team members and claimed more than 200,000 unique customers. Winstanley says the company gave — via the 3% sales tax for the municipality — Great Barrington more than $3M in new revenue to a town that’s home to less than 6000 people.
In 2020, the brand made $80M in revenue. Winstanley confidently states that number would’ve been north of $100M if they didn’t have to shut down for two months due to COVID-19 restrictions. The company also tripled its workforce to 300 and became a multistate operator (MSO) by opening two retail locations in Maine as well as a cultivation and production facility. A multi-state operator helps a brand expand nationally while carefully remaining within federal laws limiting interstate commerce.
In any industry or in any occupation there are detractors for those at the top — not everyone wishes you well — and Theory’s no exception.
“There are a lot of players in cannabis right now, and you can see the beginnings of the war for licenses that occurred out in the western U.S. and the consolidation of the independently owned dispensary,” Winstanley said. “It’s still too soon to say which competitors are coming to the surface on the East Coast as legalization is really starting to take root and open up the playing field.”
But, today, another unexpected competitor is upsetting the apple cart for many cannabis operators: the illicit cannabis market. Winstanley says that legal cannabis sales haven’t proliferated to the extent that a significant market share has been consumed from the black market. “The products are cheaper, untested, and you don’t need licenses or IDs to purchase.”
But, after years of vacationing and enjoying the Berkshires region of Massachusetts, particularly its chic epicenter, the picture-postcard slice of Americana that is the town of Great Barrington, I wanted to know how this unlikely, scenic, low-key destination suddenly became widely regarded as the Humboldt County of the East Coast.
Northern California’s Humboldt County, of course, is universally known as the mecca for West Coast cannabis and now, in a matter of a few short years, Great Barrington has emerged as the title holder on the other side of the country. But how?
“The whole cannabis dispensary industry in Great Barrington is crazy, it’s become this whole thing, like a cannabis-centric area in the East Coast,” Pollock said. “My business partner Nick grew up in Great Barrington, and when we launched our medical company we realized that Berkshire County, which has about 130,000 residents, didn’t have a single cannabis dispensary because existing operators were focused on more high-density population centers. People were driving an hour-and-a-half each way just to get their medicine. There was a huge need here, so we opened our dispensary soon thereafter.”
While currently enjoying such a rosy financial picture, I wondered in what areas, specifically, Pollock believed Theory could improve, if at all. “Everything! Our ethos is ‘the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know anything’ and we’re always trying to improve every touchpoint with customers, every touchpoint in our production — every aspect of our organization needs improvement, particularly the two biggest issues facing the industry as a whole today: social justice and social equity and the environment.”
And Theory Wellness isn’t just talking the talk here: They decided to launch an unprecedented social equity program in Massachusetts and opened applications and interviews with economic empowerment candidates to apply for a sponsorship that included $100,000 in debt-free financing, $150,000 in wholesale consignment of products, and access to the brand’s legal, finances, insurance, and marketing solutions to help the new companies succeed. Winstanley says the initial recipient of Theory’s program, Legal Greens in Brockton, is the first Black female-owned dispensary on the East Coast. Theory Wellness has had a two-year relationship with Legal Greens that continues to this day.
But it doesn’t stop there. Winstanley emphasized that Theory also looks to ensure they make local impacts across all of the company’s locations, even as they expand. “We’ve supported nearly two dozen non-profits thus far and those range from affordable housing in Great Barrington to a farmers market in Bangor, ME,” he said. “We feel it’s incumbent on us to use our success to demonstrate the positivity around cannabis.”
The company takes an equally serious approach when it comes to tackling our ever-warming planet. “This same approach comes with sustainability practices, too,” Winstanley says. “We have one of the first East Coast outdoor farms to reduce our environmental footprint. Theory uses green energy to power our indoor cultivation and we’re constantly introducing recyclable packaging solutions — we even have hybrid vehicles for our deliveries.”
On the product side, Winstanley was excited to discuss Theory’s small-batch unique genetics. “One of the more exciting elements of cannabis legalization is the breadth of knowledge cannabis consumers are developing,” he said. “We take this seriously in the same way a sommelier considers the terroir of the grapes he’s serving. We work directly with breeders to source genetics to complement our portfolio of flower that we think will find a good home in our indoor or outdoor gardens. The result speaks for itself with 50 percent of our sales coming from flower.”
Five years from now… Winstanley jumped in. “The simple answer is we just don’t know,” he said. “With so many New England states allowing recreational and medical marijuana use in the future, things are changing by the minute and we’re evaluating all possibilities. We find that cannabis time is not unlike dog years, so five years is really, really far away!” [Laughs]
Winstanley makes this next point emphatically. “We also firmly believe that the cannabis industry should be accessible to all,” he says. “The legacy of cannabis from the past generations has been embroiled in turmoil and hardships. It’s time to end that age and bring everyone a seat at the table to have the opportunity to capitalize and prevent it from being a pay-to-play industry. We want this industry open for all entrepreneurs from a diverse set of backgrounds.”
I put it to CEO Pollock a little differently: Why will and won’t Theory Wellness be successful forever? “First, I think we’re pretty good at anticipating the future while having a great team to navigate us once we’re there,” he said, smiling. “We won’t be successful because, hopefully, a bunch of younger, hungrier, more diverse entrepreneurs beat us at our own game.”
Full disclosure: Prior to departing Theory’s still bustling retail floor, I purchased a couple of four-packs of the dispensary’s best-selling, game-changing, cannabis-infused seltzer, Hi5 (pineapple and lemon, if you must know).
But here’s the thing I’ll take away from this sunny day in the gorgeous Berkshires: If I ever see Theory Wellness tucked away in a prime corner inside Fred Segal, I’ll smile to myself at the knowledge that I’d been right all along: quality attracts quality — be it in Great Barrington or even Beverly Hills.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.