One of Washington’s leading retailers on standing out, the philosophical power of pizza and how cannabis money will change the world
To call Steve Lee’s path to the cannabis industry “winding” would be an understatement.
The owner of the Green2Go retail store in Kennewick, Washington, went through many, many jobs before finding his place in this industry. He worked in fast food, as a server, at Starbucks, at Disney World, for Amazon’s customer service department, a Chamber of Commerce, in fundraising and on multiple political campaigns.
“I’ve done weird, weird things,” he says of his pre-cannabis work. “It’s hard to find a job when you’re overqualified and undereducated.”
He says all of his work experience made him into the successful entrepreneur he is today, despite never graduating college. According to Lee, he learned “how to solve problems” by working for all those different companies.
“A lot of people work service-level jobs and the only thing they take out of it is ‘boy this sucks, I wish I had a better job,’” he says, “but the whole time I was in those industries the big goal was ‘how do I learn to do the things these people do by myself.’”
Lee says he uses the problem-solving techniques he learned while delivering pizzas every day, both as a cannabis store owner and as a city councilman and mayor pro tem in Kennewick. It was also in delivering pizza where he picked up one of the mantras that help him deal with the stress of the industry.
“One time I was having a really bad stress-out because I had late pizzas and (my manager) said ‘Steve, it’s not life and death; it’s pizza,’” he recalls. “Very few things are life and death. Worst case scenario: someone’s going to get a cold pizza. That’s one of the first times I realized not every problem is an emergency.
“There’s this whole strategy out there about loss limitation and exposure leveling and figuring out really how bad the situation is before you decide if you are going to allocate dollars to solve it,” he says. “There’s really this whole, complicated Ivy League philosophy out there that’s basically ‘it’s not life or death; it’s pizza.’”
“The restaurant industry is a great place to learn how to be a politician, learn how to be a leader,” he adds. “I think everyone should have to work in the restaurant industry for a couple of years.”
Since opening, Lee has continued to innovate and make minor changes at his shop, including adding custom ordering kiosks so customers who don’t need to talk to a budtender can get in and out of the store quicker and the addition of a mobile head shop built in a trailer to sell glass, T-shirts, hemp products and other non-cannabis products.
Marijuana Venture: What sets you apart from other cannabis retailers?
Steve Lee: My wife and I started Green2Go together and have remained independent in the I-502 marketplace. While maybe not allowing us to have as many stores as other companies, it has allowed us to approach our business from a values-based perspective first. We do what we do the way do it because we believe in our community, our vendors and our employees.
MV: Is price a big factor in what sells or are you more focused on quality or selection?
SL: Price is always a big factor in what a customer decides to purchase. As a store, we are committed to buying for quality and consistency before price. During harvest season, for example, many stores are inundated with the cheapest cannabis money can buy from farms that only sell once or twice a year. The problem for customers is that if they are lucky enough to find something they really love, how will they get it the other 11 months a year? A mature marketplace provides the ability for customers to have a repeat experience. Our customers build the most loyalty to brands with a consistent supply, community presence and quality packaging. I’m not saying those three things will make your farm successful, but you’ll have a hard time winning without them.
MV: How important are employees in creating a positive customer experience?
SL: Employees shape the whole experience. At Green2Go we have a few rules to guide them. Rule 1: Don’t be a dick. Rule 2: Don’t make stuff up. Rule 3: Focus on education not sales.
Things like this help clarify our company position, but the real trick is just hiring nice, genuine, hardworking people. We aren’t 100% effective at this, but have found that since we build a culture around our values, our customers and employees don’t hesitate to call it out when actions or words don’t reflect them. That kind of honest dialogue helps weed out folks that don’t have the right motivations, and it encourages the customer to keep engaging with us.
MV: Have you always wanted to be involved in retail?
SL: Yes. I have been on the retail side of cannabis my whole time in the industry. Delivery, walk-in medical and then 502. It’s the side of the industry that keeps you in contact with the people. It lets you meet the other medical and recreational consumers and makes it easier to build community. I still find a lot of joy in providing a safe, clean, smooth, satisfying retail experience. People’s lives are already so rough, it’s nice to be a part of their solution.
MV: What product category do you see as up and coming?
SL: At Green2Go, we brand ourselves as “Your Grandma’s Pot Shop.” We do this because catering to moms and grandmas is the future. In the prohibition days, a majority of men purchased cannabis because of the illegality and relative danger. This far into legalization, we still see a vastly disproportionate percentage of men doing the shopping. If we as an industry zoom out and look at successful consumable retail item paradigms, they are all pointed toward women — mainly moms. Women are the future of cannabis industry growth. The few products we have had that cater to this demographic sell out weekly — things like bath bombs, sex lubes, patches, topicals, high-end edibles and vapes are the opportunity items for this group of people. The first company to really succeed at catering to women without pandering will make a zillion dollars.
MV: What mistakes do Washington’s producers and processors make?
SL: People are getting better in general. Normally if things go wrong it’s a series of little inconveniences that add up. Some of them are being late, having the wrong number of items or the wrong items, not having manifests ready to be received, etc. While we can work through these things normally, our best vendors have the whole act together and inventory intake is pretty seamless.
The biggest mistake a vendor or sales person can make is having a poor attitude. Almost everyone that works with us is doing some form of their dream job. When a delivery comes in with an unordered side of negativity, the whole staff ends up feeling it.
MV: What advice do you have for other people in the industry or those trying to get into the industry?
SL: One of things I would like people to take away from my story is that you can do this. You don’t have to be special or pedigree, you just have to use your life to figure it out. It’s not easy, but anyone can do this. And the other thing is that the only reason I was able to run for office was because of (IRC Section) 280E. We can’t do anything with our money in the cannabis industry. There are people out there with money in a box they can’t use, that they pay taxes on but it just sits there because the laws are so tricky. You can unlimitedly self-fund your own campaign and your cannabis money is fair game. There are a lot of people like me who live in a medium-sized to small-sized community that have a cannabis farm or a cannabis store and in a lot of small communities, people only spend $3,000 to $5,000 in elections. People in the cannabis industry can use their expertise and their skills in the form of their dollars. You can use your cannabis dollars to get into these positions of leadership and you can work with the community to shape their ideas and change your community from the inside. A five-vote majority is much more meaningful than a 500-person protest. People need to use their weed money to run for office because it will change the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Additional reporting by Brian Beckley.