A look inside three vastly different retail operations that provide their clientele with more than just cannabis
All businesses in competitive markets need to stand out from the crowd. For commercial hubs like Seattle or California’s Bay Area, the novelty of “legal weed” has come and gone for many consumers, leading some retailers to incorporate a higher level of non-cannabis amenities and services into their business models.
Whether it’s to promote healthy living, education or for the purpose of minimizing a marijuana company’s tax obligation, many entrepreneurs across the country have found extra features — such as yoga classes or delivery services — make worthy additions to their businesses.
Elemental Wellness Center
Elemental Cannabis Collective and Wellness Center in San Jose, California has a calendar packed with extracurricular activities in its beautiful, 16,000-square-foot facility. The well-appointed interior assures members if they forgot their yoga mat at home, the dispensary has them covered.
“We have a very active calendar in terms of things that we provide our members,” general manager Steve Peterson says. “We offer things like holistic healing, reiki, massage, yoga. We also run cooking classes and grow classes.”
Elemental Wellness Center opened in 2009 and is one of 16 licensed dispensaries in San Jose, which compete with numerous gray-market retailers in the area.
Peterson describes the center as taking a “consultative approach to cannabis.” The dispensary sees more than 500 members a day, carries more than 400 menu items and has 15 point-of-sale terminals, but the real focus is on the individual experience.
The approach helps the business set itself apart from the unlicensed dispensaries only blocks away and could be a major component to Elemental’s longevity. The design itself is one unique aspect of Elemental, but only one quarter of the vertically integrated location is reserved for retail space. The rest is used for cultivation, classes and a calendar full of events for members.
“That’s one of the advantages that we can provide through this facility,” he says.
While the typical demographic of cannabis buyers is in the 21-34 age range and about two-thirds male, Peterson feels Elemental is “ideally positioned to get the female buyer up to 50% of our member base.”
The company recently held a spa day with massages, hair styling and manicures to raise about $10,000 for breast cancer awareness.
Elemental has also dedicated itself to serving San Jose’s senior community.
“We made a commitment to reach our older patients by providing informational seminars on cannabis at the library, music festivals and local universities,” Peterson says. “We’ll take the whole show out to the library and explain these products. Our last one was on cannabis and your pet.”
Peterson says Elemental recently became the first dispensary in San Jose to be licensed for delivery. Now, seniors interested in trying cannabis aren’t necessarily forced to visit the center’s brick-and-mortar location.
Peterson says the looming shift to recreational sales will not deter the company from its approach to alternative holistic medicine. The center will continue to let members practice tai chi or unroll their yoga mats several times a week.
“Even as we move to the recreational model, people need to understand how to use these products in a safe way,” he says. “The people that studied and started this entity wanted to focus on the medicinal benefits of cannabis. We take that experience very seriously.”
In Seattle, the retail store Vela is located on the same premises as licensed producers and processors, creating a shopping outlet that doubles as a walking tour to give consumers a rare, inside look at how the products are created.
“Part of the whole Vela experience is taking out the intimidation factor,” operations manager Erin Green says.
“There are basically four different licensees here under one roof. Each licensee has its own entrance and is separated by walls, but some of those walls have windows which allows us to see into each other.”
Immediately adjacent to the retail entrance, customers can peek inside an indoor grow at the corner of a long, open hallway lined with windows looking in on various stages of cultivation, harvesting, extraction and packaging.
“From an educational standpoint, people can literally pull back the curtain,” Green says. “We’re really trying to have a variety of ways that people can engage in the cannabis conversation.”
Another way Vela does that is by hosting regular discussion panels. The forum is open to the public and past topics have ranged from sex and cannabis to understanding DUI laws. Speakers have included Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board director Rick Garza and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.
While the panels aim to provide something for both experienced and casual consumers, Green says the store also hosts events for under-represented demographics, such as its educational programs for seniors (see more about Vela’s senior days on Page XX).
“Whether that means learning about it in a formal educational session or just being present around cannabis while you’re doing a yoga class or whatever that point might be, we’re an open place for the community,” Green says.
Green believes that by being sociable and open with the community, Vela eliminates apprehension. She says Vela does this by “having a variety of engagement points for people” to have a better understanding of cannabis through visual, educational, interactive and even communal ways.
The first and easiest way to see how Vela distinguishes itself is through its retail floor. It’s spacious enough to fit all the display cases, educational materials and color-coded infographics, but Vela goes one step further to show consumers the actual seed-to-sale process — with some help from the company’s immediate neighbors.
Alicia Rose, the founder of California-based HerbaBuena, used her experience in wine consulting to create the model for the company’s pop-up social clubs.
Meeting some of the leaders and innovators of the wine industry over the course of her 15 years in Napa Valley gave her the idea of starting a business in the cannabis space.
“Working in that environment is so inspiring,” she says. “I realized that (the people) were a part of the industry that I was really passionate about, more than the wine itself.”
The social clubs, Rose says, were a happy byproduct of trying to promote the clean cannabis HerbaBuena grows for its collective’s members. But instead of having a single brick-and-mortar location, Rose’s business connects with customers through delivery services or events at various locations around the area.
“It’s very much like if you were going into a dispensary, but we do them at tea shops, yoga clubs and we’ve done a few of them at wineries and at private homes,” says Rae Vittorelli, the marketing and production manager for HerbaBuena. “It’s not quite as intimidating as a dispensary for a lot of people because it was just a tea shop yesterday, but now it has cannabis and informational pamphlets and you can try it and buy it.”
Medical cardholders over the age of 21 can join the collective and attend the bimonthly events around the Bay Area.
“It’s not like a party,” Vittorelli says. “It’s a social event that revolves around cannabis. It’s the same thing as a dispensary, where you have to sign up to be part of the collective before you can enter.”
Rose founded the collective in 2015.
“It was never our intention to become a virtual or mobile dispensary,” Rose says, but entry into the Bay Area market requires a licensed dispensary location and a lot of capital. Instead of adding one more green cross to the gray market, Rose decided that HerbaBuena could use a different model to bring clean, safe and tested cannabis to patients. But first, since cannabis cannot be labeled as “organic,” Rose wanted to have her products certified for safety by a third party.
“Our business is based on controlling purity and quality from seed to sale,” Rose says. “We treat people with the same organically sun-grown and certified biodynamic products whether they have cancer, chronic pain or run-of-the mill stress and anxiety.”
A selection of cannabis produced by HerbaBuena has been certified as biodynamic by Demeter, an 89-year-old international association whose requirements include everything listed in the USDA’s National Organic Program, plus requirements that pertain to sustainability, water conservation and biodiversity. The philosophy extends past HerbaBuena’s in-house products to include anything the collective sells.
“Anything that we don’t make, like some of the vape pens and that sort of thing, we at least make sure to research the companies and ensure that they are operating on the same level as we expect for ourselves,” Vittorelli says. “With our collective, everything you purchase will be at those standards.”