The cannabis industry is always described as fast-paced and dynamic, but there are times when that pace reaches another level — frenetic, bordering on chaotic.
The entrepreneurs who thrive in this space are the ones who are capable of keeping their head above water when everything seems to be happening all at the same time. For Giving Tree Dispensary founder and managing director Lilach Mazor Power, that time came at the beginning of 2021, when the company was moving its retail location — just as Arizona regulators launched the state’s newly minted adult-use program and allowed licensed retailers to begin selling recreational cannabis immediately.
When voters approved Proposition 207, there wasn’t a specific time frame in which the industry would transition to allowing adult-use sales. Power says she was expecting that change to take place in mid-March, while other operators believed late spring was more realistic.
5 questions with House of Form
By Garrett Rudolph
The House of Form design team of Dala Al-Fuwaires and Jillian Kelley worked with Stinnett Studio and Torcom Construction to give the new Giving Tree a fresh, modern look, reimagining a Circle K gas station into a retail space fit for Arizona’s booming new adult-use market.
Drawing on House of Form’s experience in bars, restaurants and hotels, Al-Fuwaires says the company focused on giving shoppers a memorable experience, while working within the strict rules and regulations for cannabis retailers.
Marijuana Venture: What was the challenge of creating a space that could have ultimately been either a medical dispensary or an adult-use shop, depending on the 2020 election?
Dala Al-Fuwaires: From a medical perspective, we had to make sure that all products on display were secure. Nothing can be out in the open like you see in most retail stores. We also didn’t want it to feel medicinal. If you have this new wave of recreational consumers coming through with different backgrounds or different agendas, then they should feel that boutique experience that is similar to other retail experiences.
So the idea was to create a space that both educated new consumers in a fun way, as well as creating a boutique environment that really allowed them to walk around the space and explore it without feeling like they were being watched or that they had to go in a certain order.
MV: How did the building’s past as a gas station play into the layout of Giving Tree?
Al-Fuwaires: We wanted to honor the history of the gas station, so we actually kept the walk-in refrigerator. We split it in half. One half would be the manager’s office so they could look out at the retail store and have their eyes on it. And the other portion was turned into a podcast/media room.
MV: Overall, how did this project compare and contrast with other design projects you’ve handled?
Al-Fuwaires: Having to understand the rules and regulations around the cannabis industry was a learning curve for us. It’s obviously a lot more regulated than restaurants or bars — and even those projects are pretty heavily regulated. So we had to gain a really strong understanding of what we could and couldn’t do.
And once we got past that, we really wanted to create this experience or customer journey that felt like it aligned with something we would do on our hospitality projects. You want your customers or clients to be greeted when they come in. You want them to feel comfortable navigating the space and to be able to know where they’re going. It was really about creating an experience first versus starting with the question of how do you make more sales.
MV: Did you did you use any of the components or design elements of the original Giving Tree location or did you approach it from scratch?
Al-Fuwaires: In the restaurant world, we usually say there’s a seven-year turnaround. But the cannabis industry is so fast-paced, it’s almost a four- or five-year turnaround, if not less. So the original location was a little outdated by the time we got to it, but Giving Tree has a process and a culture that we really wanted to highlight.
So we spent a full day at their first location, walking the space, learning about how they work. We got together with some of the team, from people that worked the floor to the back office to the accountants, and 25 of us had an open discussion about what worked and what didn’t work.
But in terms of an aesthetic vision, we knew we had to push the boundaries and really reinvent the way people associated the old Giving Tree with the new vision for the space, while keeping the culture intact.
MV: With this being your first experience in the cannabis space, what attracted you to this project and this industry?
Al-Fuwaires: I just had this interest in being a part of a fast-paced industry that was changing before our eyes and learning about it and being a part of the movement of removing any stigma associated with it. And if I could do my part from a design perspective, I think we have a big role to play in designing experiences. I like to say that we don’t just design spaces, we design the actual experience.
Because it’s so new and fast-paced and there are a lot of rules and regulations that we weren’t familiar with, we knew we had to ask questions. I remember learning early on that cash was the only way transactions were made. Debit cards can’t be used. And that was just mind-blowing to us. It’s simple information that everyone in the industry knows, but we didn’t. So we had to make sure that we planned for an ATM on site.
We spent a lot more time researching than we typically do for other projects because there was a lot of groundwork we had to cover before we could make a static design decision.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Instead, state regulators announced adult-use sales could begin in late January. Power says Giving Tree applied for a recreational license in January and was approved to start selling adult-use cannabis within 48 hours. The company moved its dispensary on January 24 and reopened in its new location with an entirely new process and roughly double the foot traffic on January 25.
“It was very exciting, but you’re also kind of screaming in your own head, ‘We’re not ready!’” Power says. “We were definitely on our toes. I kept looking at my team and everybody just had the same look of ‘what is happening?’ but they made it work.”
Cannabis companies throughout Arizona dealt with product shortages, particularly in flower and gummies, and were hampered by backlogs at the 10 state-certified testing labs.
“It’s been chaos, but it’s also a lot of fun starting to introduce our world to the world,” Power says.
In addition to the boom in sales and the logistics of moving across town, Giving Tree went on a hiring spree, bringing in 19 new people during the month of February — increasing the total staff size by almost 50%. Not only did that bring about the technical challenge of onboarding and training new staff members, but it also strained the company culture Power has worked so hard to develop and maintain over the years.
Power personally interviews every employee hired at Giving Tree “because I want to make sure they fit on the cultural level,” she says. “My managers and my HR know what we need professionally, but I want to make sure that they join and they will fit in.”
Working at Giving Tree is different than working for a larger organization. The company is more embedded in the community and active in local fundraising efforts. Power also set up a profit-sharing plan to show her appreciation to staff members.
“I think people either love working for a small business or you hate it. There’s no in-between,” she says. “Every person was hired for their voice, their opinion, their brain, their thoughts, and we want to hear that.”
Although legalization supporters had raised a ton of money and the opposition had seemingly given up without much of a fight, anything was possible going into election night, November 3, 2020.
Arizona voters, who traditionally lean conservative, rejected a legalization measure in 2016. Six years earlier, the state’s medical marijuana bill, Proposition 203, passed with just 50.1% of the vote.
Many Arizona cannabis businesses had already begun major expansion plans — either to keep up with the rapidly growing medical program or in anticipation of full legalization — and they watched anxiously as the results were reported late Tuesday night.
But while the nation would wait weeks for Arizona’s official results on the presidential election, the fate of Proposition 207, the legalization measure, was clear: It passed overwhelmingly, with 60% of the vote, and cannabis entrepreneurs across the state were able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Power had already set in motion plans to relocate Giving Tree, expand its grow and triple the size of its extraction facility.
“I knew I wanted to move my retail store no matter what,” she says. “It was time to get ourselves off the hidden path.”
When it comes to the most important rule for successful retailers — location, location, location — Giving Tree’s new space is only two miles away from its original shop, but a world apart in terms of visibility and street traffic.
Giving Tree was originally located in an industrial area of Phoenix.
“No one would ever just drive by this location unless they actually put it in their Google Map and came here intentionally,” Power says.
Plus, Giving Tree is somewhat unique in that women comprise almost 50% of the company’s clientele (at the end of 2020, more than 58% of medical marijuana cardholders in Arizona were men). However, Power noticed that women became a substantially smaller percentage of customers later in the evening. The dark, mostly vacant industrial area didn’t feel as safe and welcoming to female customers after the sun had set.
The new location is a prime space for retail, a well-lit corner lot that was previously a Circle K gas station, eliminating concerns about safety and the lack of traffic. Power says she specifically found a location that provided better visibility, but wasn’t very far away from the original location, so the company wouldn’t lose any customers that had been so loyal to Giving Tree for years.
“The people that helped us get to where we are today are really important to me,” she says.
But the new location wasn’t just about attracting more customers. It’s about changing the experience shoppers have at a cannabis retail store.
Within the medical cannabis space, most of the interaction happens at the counter, where the patient is on one side and the employee is on the other. Giving Tree’s new open layout encourages customers to browse the different showcases and educational displays.
“Now, what we’ve created is a space that people can come and hang out,” Power says. “We don’t just push for sales and up-sales. We really push to be part of your cannabis journey.”
Surviving and Thriving
Power opened Giving Tree in 2013, and she’s guided the company through some challenging years that sunk some of her peers.
“I can see why a lot of people gave up,” she says. “A lot of people joined this industry thinking that we’re just going to swim in dollars, but it’s not that way.”
Arizona, in particular, has seen many of its licenses acquired by large multi-state operators, and the consolidation doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
Power says she doesn’t resent those larger enterprises in any way; in fact, her store sells many of their products. But it does make her wonder what the future holds for smaller, independent organizations like Giving Tree.
“It’s the feeling of being in a shark tank and you are a small fish, and they’re all trying to figure out who’s going to put you in their belly.”
And yeah, while she’s been approached by some of the big fish — at this point, probably every licensee in Arizona has — but “I still have so much I want to do.”