While many cannabis entrepreneurs seek fortunes in major cities — Denver, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles — there’s something to be said about going against the grain.
Small towns may never be able to draw the foot traffic of their metropolitan counterparts, but there are advantages to be found, including less competition and lower overhead. Plus, marijuana retailers in more rural areas can attract customers from a wider radius with so many communities banning commercial sales. Although more than 500 licensed cannabis retailers have opened in Oregon since the state began allowing recreational sales, only five are located in the vast, rural expanses of Eastern Oregon — including two in the tiny town of Sumpter.
A Small Business in an Even Smaller Town
Portia Mittons’ entire life was flipped upside-down during a three-day stretch in 2016.
She was laid off on a Friday from her job as an event manager for a nonprofit organization in Chicago. The following Monday, she received a call that would turn her into a local celebrity, a small business owner and a legal drug dealer, when an old family friend helped connect her with her current business partners.
“He calls me one day and says, do you know anyone interested in investing in a dispensary?” she says. Having received a severance package from the nonprofit, she jumped at the opportunity.
“It was now or never,” she says. “Do or die.”
So she did, moving from one of the largest population centers in the country to a town that barely registers on the map.
The Chicago metropolitan area is home to nearly 10 million people. The town of Sumpter has 204, according to the latest census data, but that number is said to shrink to fewer than 100 during the middle of winter. It’s the smallest city with a state-licensed pot shop in either Oregon or Washington, and it has not one, but two: Mittons and co-owner Cheryl Farnsworth opened The Coughie Pot on Jan. 31, 2017, about a quarter-mile down the road from The Sumpter Nugget, the city’s first marijuana retailer.
Needless to say, the move has been a major adjustment for Mittons. For one thing, it meant giving up the 24-hour conveniences to which she’d been accustomed.
“I’m used to being able to run down to the corner store and grab whatever I need,” she says. “Now you have to plan things out. If you run out of toilet paper at 2 a.m., there’s no getting any.”
Now, she has to buy a lot of her supplies — both personal and business-related — online. As she answers interview questions, she remembers she needs ink for her printer.
“The closest place is …” She pauses mid-sentence, thinking about the distance. “I haven’t found it yet. I think it’s Portland, five hours away.”
But it’s not just the size of the city that has been a significant adjustment. She says everything is different from Chicago to Sumpter: the food, the music, the culture, the clothing.
“I wore these gold pants one day and people thought I was Liberace,” she says.
One of her customers from “nearby” Baker City — 28 miles to the east — called her a “legend” in Eastern Oregon.
And it’s not hard to see why Mittons is memorable: “I’m the only African-American in the city. I have red hair. I wear all these funky clothes. And I sell weed. I’m a drug dealer.”
Her minor celebrity status might provide a few small perks — some extra fries at the Dairy Queen or better service at the car wash — but she also sees cannabis retail as a benefit to the town by bringing in additional tax revenue and maybe a few extra tourists.
“I may be biased because I’m the store owner, but it seems like the town is getting more attention,” Mittons says. “There are new people moving in, taking over new businesses and existing businesses, who are more progressive.”
The New Gold Rush in Sumpter
Like many conservative towns in rugged Eastern Oregon, the legalization of marijuana was not welcomed with open arms. Every county in Eastern Oregon rejected Measure 91, the state’s 2014 legalization initiative.
City officials in Sumpter initially pushed for a ban, but ultimately allowed retailers, only because they hadn’t opted out before a state deadline.
Mittons says the reaction to The Coughie Pot from local townspeople has been a little bit mixed. Some of the original naysayers have stopped in just to look, even if they didn’t want to buy anything.
“Curiosity got the best of the them,” she says.
Others still haven’t stepped inside.
“And they probably never will,” Mittons acknowledges.
The building where The Coughie Pot is located was previously the Scoop-n-Steamer Station & Log Cabins, a restaurant with adjacent rental cabins. The rentals remain, but the marijuana retail shop now occupies the space that was previously the deck of the restaurant.
The quaint, cozy interior of the shop “makes people feel like they’re getting individual attention,” Mittons says. Customers have time to look and ask questions. They don’t feel rushed. And more importantly, having two marijuana shops in town has not brought any of the problems originally predicted by city officials.
Crime hasn’t increased, police haven’t had to deal with additional bar fights — “I don’t even know how you all thought that!” Mittons says — and the extra tax revenue has been a boon for the city.
“Their worst fears haven’t happened,” Mittons says.
Mittons’ life has been a whirlwind for the past two years — not the least of which has been learning everything she can about the cannabis industry as fast as possible.
Mittons has taken note of the ebbs and flows of business that are unique to the Oregon frontier, setting her up to better manage inventory moving into year two. For example, because of fire restrictions that limit smoking, edibles tend to be more popular during the summer as campers travel through the town.
She’s also a more savvy cannabis buyer than she was a year ago, learning how to negotiate prices and networking with more producers to keep a steady supply of product. One year ago, she might have bought a full pound of one strain, rather than a half-pound each of two varieties.
“People like to see the turnover. If you have the same thing for a while, they wonder why it’s been there so long,” she says. “In their minds, turnover means you’re selling a lot, which means you’re doing well and people like to be associated with winners.”
Initially, growers avoided selling small quantities to the shop because of its remote location. For the most part, the closest growers are located in Portland, Salem or Bend — all of which are at least five hours away — but as the market has shifted and producers feel the impact of oversupply, more are willing to make the trek across the Cascades.
Business has picked up steadily over the past year. October and November were slow months, but the favorable winter weather has helped traffic pick up again recently. Without conventional avenues to advertise, The Coughie Pot has relied heavily on word of mouth.
Mittons and Farnsworth each work six days a week. The two co-owners and one part-time employee make up the entire Coughie Pot team.
When people visit the town, it’s not uncommon for them to shop at both The Coughie Pot and The Sumpter Nugget, Mittons says.
City ordinances require marijuana retailers to be at least 1,000 feet from each other and they must be located in commercial zones. Mittons estimates the two shops to be about 1,010 feet apart — a four-minute walk according to Google Maps.
“We kind of stay in our own lane,” she says of the relationship between The Coughie Pot and The Sumpter Nugget. “There’s no Hatfields and McCoys, but there’s no camaraderie either.”