When she first arrived in California from Minnesota 10 years ago and began buying medical cannabis to help relieve her anxiety, depression and digestive issues, Megan Stone could not help but notice that visiting dispensaries was “not a positive experience.”
“They were rolling joints when they checked your ID at the counter. Everybody had dreads and everything,” she says of a shop in Lake Forest that she visited in 2008 or so. “It was nasty.”
“But that was where you went,” she says with a shrug.
Stone eventually took a job as a budtender at another dispensary, OCPC, while attending design school. During her time at OCPC, the owner asked her to freshen up the retail space. The budget was small — only about $5,000 — but Stone, who today owns High Road Design Studios, one of the premier cannabis retail design firms in the country, did what she could. She swapped out the commercial-grade carpeting for flooring, painted the walls a rich brown color and bought some new merchandise cases. It wasn’t much, but it made a difference.
“Everybody noticed it. Our patients were calling us ‘the Tiffany’s of dispensaries,’” she says, referencing the famous high-end, New York-based department store. While the comparison sounds like a stretch, it showed how even a small change was a noticeable upgrade over the look of dispensaries at that time.
The impact was immediate. The dispensary’s reputation and customer base began to grow, making Stone wonder why other shops weren’t doing the same thing. At the time, she says, California was in the midst of a frozen yogurt fad with shops using hip design to compete for customers. Most dispensaries, on the other hand, were not even trying.
Buying cannabis at a dispensary “was like the worst experience you could possibly have,” she remembers.
“There was this big disconnect between how cool the product is, how much it means to the people who come in and buy it, and the space.”
The Gentleman and the Cop
It only seems fitting that some of the major events in Stone’s life and career happened on 4/20. The first was in 2013, while she was still general manager at OCPC.
She was already planning to leave the store in June, but Orange County officials had other plans.
“It was mid-afternoon and I will never forget the gentleman and the cop walking into the lobby and the receptionist coming into the showroom and getting me,” she says. “There he was, on the busiest day of the year, giving me a cease-and-desist order that gave us two weeks to shut down the shop.”
Stone called the owner and went about the business of the day. At closing time, she gathered the shop’s employees to tell them about the order and as soon as the words started coming out of her mouth, she burst into tears.
It was the first time she realized how much it meant to her.
Stone had been a cannabis user since college, but at that time she was not planning to make a career in the developing industry.
“I thought I wanted to (design) restaurants and hotels,” she says. “I wanted to do spaces that had a psychological and emotional effect on people for a short segment of time.”
With her experience in the marijuana world and her design credentials, Stone saw a niche. On June 16, 2013, she founded High Road Design Studio with the goal of “elevating the cannabis experience through professional retail design.” She was one of the first — if not the first — to open a design studio aimed specifically at cannabis retail.
And it has paid off. In 2018 the studio celebrated its five-year anniversary, and since opening Stone has worked on more than 50 total contracts and estimates that more than 30 shops have opened with a “High Road stamp on it,” including TruMed and Level Up in Arizona, The Healing Center in California, Park Range Recreational in Colorado, Truelieve in Florida, Salvera in Maryland and Root Cellar in Washington.
‘I design dispensaries’
Stone got her first cannabis retail design gig near the end of that first year, 2013. At an industry convention, she introduced herself to the crowd after one of the presentations.
Erik Briones, the owner of the Minerva Canna Group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, took note.
“I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Megan and I design dispensaries,’” she says. “He flagged me down and said, ‘I never knew there was a person who did this; I need you.’”
Briones’ company was moving into a new, larger space and planned to combine under one roof the dispensary with a grow shop, accessories and clothing store and a wellness space.
“To this day it’s the only cannabis mall I’ve ever done,” Stone says.
Stone designed the new space with natural materials like wood, stone and plants and added varying textures and surfaces to create a beautiful, modern look to appeal to patients from all demographics and backgrounds. She also added some personalized touches such as large images of cannabis, window decorations and custom, glass-top display cases.
In the September 2014 issue of Marijuana Venture, Briones praised the work, including the expensive new display cases, and said other dispensary owners were jealous after seeing the shop.
“The design has improved our business substantially. … Patients have such a better cannabis experience with us than any other producer in the state. We just had our best quarter ever, and we do have the best dispensary,” he said.
Though much of what she did on Minerva has continued through Stone’s work — including reshaping the lobby as an important bit of customer outreach and the use of “bold, punchy moments”
and contrast — the details of each shop are unique to that seller.
And as good as her work looks, Stone is quick to say that she does not try to force something into any particular design simply because it will be pretty or engaging.
“There’s a place for art and a place for design,” she says. “Design should have a usable purpose.”
For example, at Gnome Grown, an Oregon retailer that is one of her favorite designs (see sidebar), Stone says she was “neurotic about details” but only when they were functional, like using old garden tools wrapped in leather with specialty bolts used as door handles.
Telling Her Story
Stone’s second life-changing 4/20 story came this past April. Although she has built a career designing dispensaries for other people, Stone and a partner applied for a retail license in California this year.
And the timing of the call telling them they had been approved could not have been more perfect.
“It was mid-afternoon on April 20, 2018,” she says, beaming. “This has always been a dream of mine.”
But now Stone has to get to work on designing the store, Royal Highness, which is more difficult than one might think, given that she’s risen to prominence for doing just that.
“It’s so hard,” she says.
For Stone, part of the purpose of design is to tell the story of the brand and/or the owner. In the case of Gnome Grown outside Portland, Oregon, for example, the entire brand is driven by the experience and history of one of the company’s founders, who began his cannabis career as a guerilla grower in the Oregon hills. The vertically integrated company today uses organic cultivation practices and focuses on sustainability and stewardship of nature.
In order to tell that story, Stone chose natural materials like hickory and reclaimed Douglas fir, a native Pacific Northwest tree that is a favorite of the owner. Even the color palette of blues, greens and browns was incorporated through many natural means, such as turquoise-patinaed copper, dark brown stone counters, wool patchwork rugs, linens, ceramic penny tiles and interior plants. But at the same time, the design is still very modern, including the use of browns and teals in the plaid detail work (“snowboarder plaid,” as Stone calls it) instead of more traditional woodsy, lumberjack-inspired colors.
She also, of course, included the types of one-of-a-kind elements that are part of the High Road signature, such as the door handles, signs made with inlaid copper, mason jar lids used for displays and the hand-made, oil-rubbed tin cloth upholstery that greets customers at the reception desk.
“They know they have something no one else has because it was drawn and made just for them,” Stone says.
But the problem at Royal Highness is that instead of learning and telling someone else’s story through her work, she has to tell her own. Although Stone says she is good at portraying another person’s story, she often has trouble pulling the important details out of her own. So, when it gets difficult, she focuses on her partner and what they hope to accomplish.
“Taking the ‘me’ out of it made it so much easier for me,” she says.
Even though she is now in the cannabis retail business herself, Stone’s primary focus remains at the Tempe, Arizona-based High Road Design Studio, which has grown to include three full-time employees and a “badass team of subcontractors.” Her goal is still to elevate the design at cannabis retail shops and dispensaries across the country to help break the stigmas associated with marijuana that still hang over the industry from the black market days. She tries to bring a perspective that many owners simply cannot, often because they have no experience in store ownership.
“I just don’t think a lot of people who get into the dispensary world typically come from a retail background,” she says.
Stone hopes that her designs help store owners cut through the growing noise in the industry to bring in new customers and create positive, memorable experiences, instead of the those associated with the dispensaries of the past that she hated visiting when she first arrived in California. She and her team work on full concepts for stores, from choosing the name to designing a logo, creating a brand and then building a store around it.
Stone’s career parallels the industry itself, as it has evolved from seedy, gray-market dispensaries trying not to get noticed into a competitive, billion-dollar retail force fighting for customer dollars by using the latest in retail design techniques.
“Design is your differentiator,” she says. “You’re not trying to install your own plumbing; why would you try to design your own store?”