With the funding secured, lease signed, and application approved or pending, it’s time to start designing and building the actual retail storefront. But before the die is cast, business owners should remember that these decisions will last, in most cases, for the duration of the store’s lifespan.
A common misconception is that once a store is leased, a sign can be put up and goods can be sold. This is not the case. Even when leasing a building that is believed to be perfect on the inside and out, there are rules to receiving a certificate of occupancy for any business, and even more for a cannabis operation. There’s core inspections, fire inspections, mechanical inspections, police inspections and in some areas, there are even screw inspections to ensure that drywall has been hung with proper spacing.
On average, the time from lease signing to opening runs between eight to 18 months, depending on the size of the project and whether or not a professional designer will be hired.
To design or not design
In the early days of recreational sales, most dispensaries-turned-recreational stores looked and felt more like second-hand record stores than the extravagant cannabis boutiques that are opening today. But those days are over and the need to stand out to draw in customers in is greater than ever.
“We’re not a requirement,” says Megan Stone, an award-winning designer and owner of High Road Design Studio. “We’re a decision people make to better differentiate their business, helping them identify their brand and who they want to be as a business.
Bringing designers as early as possible into the construction and planning of the store means every decision can help build the brand. Jeremy Pelley, the co-founder and creative director at OMFGCO says in order to get the most cohesive identity for the store the designer should be shoulder to shoulder with the architect and general contractor.
“Every decision is a brand decision,” Pelley says.
It’s more expensive and time consuming, but one of the first decisions a store owner has to make is whether to involve a general contractor and design company. Stone says the choice is often between saving some money up front and a store that can market itself.
“You pay to invest in a retail experience and pay to build it properly and it becomes a tangible asset that you can take pictures of and post to Instagram and market in magazines,” Stone says. “Remodeling in this industry is next to impossible because people cannot shut down. A lot of people are not even allowed to shut down and keep their license active.”
Although rare, a dramatic remodel isn’t impossible. Gina D’Amore Bauerle of D’Amore Interiors helped convert Colorado Harvest Company from its original “discount-liquor-store aesthetic” into an award winning recreational store without missing a single day of sales. Her client’s store is located on a strip mall where the retailers purchased the vacant storefront next to them and hired D’Amore Interiors to give the brand a “medical/steampunk” face lift.
“I would say it’s harder to remodel an existing space than it would be to level the whole building and just start over,” Bauerle says.
Those inclined to take a wider approach to planning have the added benefit of developing an entire identity for a brand and business prior to launch. Items such as business cards, websites, merch, signs and props can help market the business before doors open.
Pulling the cord
Designers are not the only ones vying for a seat at the planning table. Nathan Mendal, owner of Your Green Contractor, says there is also money to be saved by including general contractors in the planning phase.
“Architects don’t really understand what things cost and that’s the biggest dilemma to leaving a contractor out,” Mendel says. “They can draw lots and lots of pretty things but if you’re trying to hit a budget then you’ll want to have that same conversation happening at the same time.”
Either with or without the input of a general contractor or a design firm, the next phase is to get the planning done and building permits issued. If a store is being built from the ground up, then a civil engineer, such as Christian Barrett, CEO of The California Cannabis Company, would be the first stop for permits.
“We’ll do the permitting process, whether that’s something really advanced like a conditional use permits, to simple permits, we can do that and all the plans that go along with it,” Barrett says. “A civil engineer, specifically, would just deal with the site itself. Not really the building, but where the building is placed. Once the permits are in place, then that’s where the services would stop.”
Next, the architect would draft the plans and submit them for building permits. Barrett says architects and contractors with a visible history outside the industry generally receive less trouble during the permitting process than younger firms or industry specialists. According to Mendel, permitting can take anywhere from two to 12 weeks.
Once the permits are issued, construction begins. The general contractor oversees the contracted work, while the architect ensures the building codes are not violated.
According to Blake Holton, the director of operations for King Retail Solutions, building code is not always black and white and there is a fair amount of leeway given to the inspector to understand the code and how it applies to the space.
“We have architects for a reason,” says Tim Belvin, a Seattle building inspector and supervisor of inspections in the southern half of the city. “They know the building codes and a good architect can get a lot out of them. But people want to make the place their own, so you get caught between the design and what the building code allows and it’s always interesting to see how that works out.”
Inspect the unexpected
There is little love between the cannabis industry and inspectors. Regardless of reason, the simple mention of the inspection process is often met with laments of delays and costly nitpicking.
“One of the challenges of getting your store open is meeting all of those inspections,” says Brett Roper, the CEO of Medicine Man Technologies. “The most challenging are the ones we call ‘life safety,’ that’s the local fire department and people who generally aren’t very friendly toward cannabis.”
The number of different inspectors arriving on site will vary by the number of regulatory agencies that govern the area. In an isolated area, all the inspections might come from the same inspector, but operators in larger cities should prepare to meet several new faces during the inspection process.
One thing Roper, Mendal, Barrett and even Blevin can agree on is that the inspection process is going to have bumps, but at the end of that road is the certificate of occupancy that will allow a store to open and begin to move product.
“It’s going to be the highest and most brain-damaging part of that final construction phase,” Roper says. “Your homerun is getting that certificate of occupancy.”