The Rise of the Themed Dispensary
Where do you draw the line between gimmick and a unique one-off user experience that would be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate?
In the ultra-competitive world of cannabis retail, operators are looking for new ways to stand out from the pack, and one option some have decided to go with is opening a themed dispensary with a focus on creating an “immersive” and dare-we-say “Instagrammable” experience.
The dispensary model has evolved a lot over the last decade. During the 2000s, when a handful of states only had medical marijuana laws, the user experience for cannabis consumers remained medical-centric in operators’ attempt to keep their doors from getting kicked in by the feds. Then, when Barack Obama became president and the 2013 Cole Memo helped dispensary operators relax, people started to open up a bit — maybe too soon — and the cat was out of the bag. The more regulated the marketplace, the faster this progress toward unique dispensary experiences happened.
Harborside, a dispensary in Oakland and San Jose, California founded in 2006, gave the world its first deep look into how well this new experience-centric kind of dispensary could be done. Then, in the 2010s as adult-use legalization kicked off, a wave of dispensaries modeled themselves after Apple Stores. Today, as the market matures, we’re starting to see more and more dispensaries embrace a whole new level of planned eccentricity.
Even Jay-Z is getting into the themed dispensary hype. As part of his brand strategizing collaboration with California cannabis company Caliva, the company has opened a new New York-themed deli dispensary in Bellflower, California, to the south of Los Angeles. While we’re not totally sure if it will carve the same kind of place in people’s hearts as Katz’s in Manhattan, it’s certainly a new twist on buying pot.
“We wanted to create something that was reminiscent of those early delis you saw from the 1950s,” the store’s manager Joshua Estrada told The Hollywood Reporter when it opened. “I kind of equate it to like if we took that deli from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — it’s that neighborhood vibe. They’ve got the rabbi, right? It’s one of those moments, the neighborhood celebrating those spaces. We wanted to also play on that.”
In the foothills of Northern California’s cannabis country, another new dispensary is making waves. The 3,700-square-foot psychedelic wonderland is called Doobie Nights and opened last month in Santa Rosa, replete with a “Portal of Wonder” sculpture wall that customers walk through and LED lighting designed by internationally renowned artists.
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One of the first patrons of the new shop was glassblower and three-time Emerald Cup judge Chris Hanson.
“It’s unlike any other dispensary I’ve been in,” Hanson told Cannabis Now. “They flipped the bill on the notion a dispensary has to be serious. Yeah, some places have art. This place is art. Often you either get a tiny sterile spot, or a huge warehouse with tons of empty space. This was a great compromise, as far as things not being too crowded or spread out.”
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat said in addition to all the weed and color, the dispensary has “a soundtrack of eclectic tunes, pumped through electrostatic speakers.” Altogether, it makes for “a multi-sensory experience on par with the hallucinogenic boat ride in ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’”
Further to the north, two-year-old Portland dispensary Green Hop bills itself as the world’s first historical hip-hop dispensary. While the dispensary not only educates its visitors on the decades-long ties between cannabis and hip-hop in a new way, it also stands as the last bastion of entrepreneurs of color in a once diverse neighborhood. Willamette Week noted the dispensary is one of the last black-owned lots in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
Other notable themed and immersive dispensaries include Denver’s Smokin Gun Apothecary, a late-night dispensary and anti-prohibition museum, and Oregon’s 70s-themed Electric Lettuce dispensary.
TELL US, if you opened a dispensary, what theme would it have?