Photography: © Mike Franklin

Sonny Langdon was broke.

He had coughed up nearly his entire life savings to open a dispensary in Millwood, Wash. And while owning a business had always been Langdon’s dream, he wondered if he had made a mistake as he sat inside his empty shop.

It was Sept. 20, 2014, the grand opening of his dispensary, Green Light, and business was slow. There were no lines out the door, no news cameras, no giant ribbon-cutting scissors.

“I spent so much money on building it out and on product and all these things that … we couldn’t do any advertising. … So, we basically just opened the doors,” and rolled the dice, Langdon says.

Then it happened. A man named Jeff cautiously opened the door and popped his head in, almost as if to ensure a DEA team wasn’t waiting to pounce. “Do you guys sell weed?” Langdon looked up. His mouth curled into a smile. “Yeah, man.” Langdon said. “Welcome to Green Light. You’re our first customer.”

Jeff returned to the store frequently (he would later become an employee), and the staff nicknamed him “Number One.” Every time he came in, according to Langdon, the staff shouted, “Hey, it’s Number One!”

“That’s really kind of how our dispensary feel is,” Langdon says. “We have so many regulars, we’re almost like counselors for happy people. They know us; we know them. It’s kind of cool.”

Green Light prides itself on these types of positive customer interactions, which have helped make the 1,000-square-foot dispensary No. 1 in sales in Spokane County since 2014, according to 502data.com. 

Such a feat might seem difficult in Washington’s competitive market, but for Langdon, the formula is simple: provide great customer service, have tenured, knowledgeable budtenders and offer a wide selection of products at fair prices. “We put the customer first. Also, the budtenders are top notch. … We have very little turnover. A lot of people like that. We have multiple employees that have been here since Day One,” Langdon says. “I would put their product knowledge against any budtender anywhere.”

Indeed, that knowledge is crucial considering that Green Light works with roughly 30 vendors; has 60 strains of flower, 100 different edibles and 100 different concentrates on its menu; and serves anywhere from 500 to 1,000 customers daily, according to Langdon. While most customers are locals because, as Langdon says, “We don't really have a lot of tourism in Spokane …,” the shop still sees its share of out-of-towners. “We're only about 30 miles from the Idaho border and then we have a lot of Montana people,” Langdon says. “… If you live in [Western/Southern] Montana, Spokane is the biggest, nearest city to it.”

The days of an empty sales floor are well behind Green Light now; however, there was a period when the city issued Green Light the red light, and Langdon wasn’t sure if he would be able to open. That led to one of the most important meetings of his life.

Before becoming a dispensary, the 1,000-square-foot building Green Light occupies was a hydroponics store.

THE SELL OF A LIFETIME

While Green Light leads in sales in Spokane County, the shop itself is technically located in the city of Millwood, which, as Langdon describes, is literally across the street from Spokane. “It just happens to be what side of the street I’m on,” he says.

Because Millwood’s zoning restrictions only allow for dispensaries in certain areas, another dispensary was trying to open at the same time a mere 600 feet down the road when Langdon was going through the application process in 2014.

According to Langdon, Green Light worked closely with its state-issued investigator to complete and submit the necessary paperwork in an expedited fashion because Langdon was well prepared. “They were trying to fast-track us to being one of the first 20 stores to open [in the state],” he recalls. “I had everything built out, everything ready to rock and roll,” including product. All he needed was the Millwood mayor’s signature.

Then he received a call: Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman rejected Green Light’s application. Langdon knew that something was amiss because he had been in talks with the mayor for nine months.

Langdon dropped everything, hopped in his GMC truck and raced to the mayor’s office, only to discover the mayor was out of town for three weeks. He and Green Light were left in limbo.

Langdon used this hiatus to investigate. He learned that the dispensary trying to open 600 feet from his had submitted its paperwork before Langdon, and the mayor misinterpreted the state regulations and thought, “[The state] didn’t want dispensaries close to each other,” Langdon says. “So, he only rejected [our application] because [he thought] he was following what the state wanted.” Langdon scheduled a meeting with the mayor after he returned.

“I had to … plead my deal of how it would be good for the community, that it would bring tax dollars, that I, myself, am responsible,” Langdon reflects. “I had to sell … him on why they should allow more than one dispensary.”

Failure wasn’t an option: Langdon had already signed a lease and spent $100,000 on build-outs. After their meeting, the mayor approved Green Light, and the store was able to open, albeit two months behind schedule.

“I was nervous as all heck,” Langdon says. “I just knew that had to be the sell of my life.”

BIRTH OF A SALESMAN

Langdon’s success in selling the mayor may not have been luck, however. In fact, his professional background prepared him for it.

In 2006, at the age of 26, Langdon took a job at Spokane’s BMW dealership where he sold cars until he transitioned into cannabis. Langdon says that selling high-end cars is what instilled the motivation to always provide excellent customer service and to run his own business. “I’ve learned working in different aspects at the car dealership. You have sales. You have finance,” Langdon says. “I’ve learned a lot as far as business skills. … You learn how to take care of a customer differently” when you’re selling expensive cars.

The dealership wasn’t Langdon’s only sales experience. Before slinging luxury German cars, Langdon grew and sold marijuana on the black market. “I started growing cannabis back in the late ’90s,” he says. “I went up to Canada and got some DJ Short Blueberry seeds.” That was a major turning point in his life, Langdon says. “Ever since I started growing pot, I loved it. I like growing plants,” he says. As a child, Langdon would play in gardens, planting anything he could get his hands on from sunflowers to lettuce. “I liked messing around in the dirt.”

With no prior cannabis growing experience, Langdon planted his seeds and set up a small grow in his dad’s house in Spokane. To his surprise, the plants yielded great buds. “I got lucky,” Langdon says. However, once the plants started to get tall, Langdon’s dad asked him to move them elsewhere.

This is when Langdon became a more serious grower. Langdon rented a former Humboldt grower’s house in Spokane that had a basement outfitted for growing, moved in his plants and went to work.

Growing and selling over the next two decades, Langdon perfected his craft, gained invaluable knowledge and networked with growers, all of which ultimately gave him a competitive advantage when selecting vendors and products for Green Light.

Langdon treats his staff as if they were family, leading to minimal employee turnover and a positive work environment.

LOYALTY ISN’T DEAD

Knowing how great cannabis is supposed to be grown, Langdon tries to tour the facilities of every vendor he carries. “I like to … see what kind of growing mediums they're using, what kind of nutrients, see what kind of pesticides they're spraying. That's something where I'll know more than most retail owners just because of my background,” he says.

Although never a commercial grower, Langdon’s cultivation background allows him to sympathize with the pricing struggles facing Washington growers (Langdon says he can buy wholesale ounces for $20), so he tries to be reasonable when negotiating price. “I don't want to beat everybody down on price. This industry isn't going to continue if it's a race to the bottom, which it's turning into right now,” he says.

When it came time to stock his store, Langdon was able to do it quickly, leveraging relationships with many of the area’s better growers who are now licensed, he says.

Given his loyalty to his connections and the fact that Green Light is now a well-established dispensary, Langdon makes it clear that obtaining shelf space at his store isn’t easy. “… To get into my store it's really hard because you have to come with a better product at a better price.”

“My philosophy is not to have every single grow,” he continues. “I don't order $500 from 50 different growers, I order $30,000 from Phat Panda (a local grow), I order $30,000 from Root Down (another local grow). So, I've built relationships where I'm their biggest store.”

The quickest way to get black-listed from Green Light, Langdon says, is to showcase sub-par product. In Washington, vendors can provide 4 grams of flower to negotiate a sale. “To me, that should be your best flower … and the best pick of the nugg,” he says. “When I get a sample that is in a bag [with] small buds, or if I find seeds, [they’re] probably not getting into the store.”

According to Langdon, his mission to only work with the top growers and to provide customers with the best products at the fairest prices has led to the store generating “about $800,000” in monthly revenue, with his top-selling strains being OG Chem and Golden Pineapple from Phat Panda, Presidential Kush from 50 Fold, Middlefork from Royal Tree Gardens and Super Lemon Haze from Root Down. Flower is the store’s best seller, followed by concentrates, cartridges and edibles.

“We have very little turnover. A lot of people like that. We have multiple employees that have been here since Day One.” Sonny Langdon, owner, Green Light

A SITE ‘DESTINED FOR POT’

Green Light occupies a building that “has been destined for pot its whole life,” Langdon jokes. Before becoming a dispensary, the building housed Spokane Valley’s only hydroponics store. That business relocated, leaving the property vacant. One of Langdon’s friends leased the building and planned to open another hydroponics store, but was never able to get it off the ground. “So, he had the building, and it just fell in my lap that it was in the [area zoned for cannabis]. It was available. Kind of just a weird circumstance,” Langdon says.

Obtaining the building was easy, however, making it operational for a dispensary was anything but, Langdon says. “The building was just run down,” Langdon says. “It hadn’t had any updates in 30 years.”

The building wasn’t a complete tear-down project, though. Langdon ended up keeping some of the original features. “The inside has real wood paneling. So, I made the decision to leave that up because I wanted to make it like a ‘home-type’ atmosphere,” Langdon says.

Throughout his growing days, Langdon was used to selling cannabis out of a house, and he figured most customers were accustomed to buying cannabis the same way, so he elected to keep his dispensary layout simple, paying homage to his roots. “I wanted it to be more old-school, you know, just more comfortable, laid back,” he says.

More than wood-paneled walls help to achieve this effect. Inside Green Light, unlike in many dispensaries today, customers will not find any flat screen menus, self-service kiosks or other flashy technology. “Ten years ago, no one bought weed off a TV,” Langdon laments. “You smelled it. You looked at it, and that’s how you knew it was good.”

Langdon wanted to provide that same experience to his customers, but Washington’s requirement that all products be pre-packaged made that difficult. The closest he could come to allowing customers to view, smell and touch the product was by using sniff jars, which he has for every strain he carries. “While you are waiting you can go pick it up, sniff it. I just didn’t want to restrict people; I wanted people to just kind of have free reign,” he says.

Green Light also created a home atmosphere by removing the waiting area, allowing customers to walk directly into the dispensing area. “A lot of [stores] make people wait in line,” he says, adding, “I wanted to do an open concept. … I wanted people to be able to look around freely.”

FOLLOW THE RULES

Without a waiting area, you might believe that Green Light is lax about IDs, but the opposite is true. “We are [extremely strict] with our employees about checking IDs,” Langdon says. In the break room, a sign hangs that lists “10 Things to Keep Your Job.” Check IDs is listed first. At the end of March, Washington state rolled out a new voluntary budtender training program that includes how to review IDs. Green Light employees are required to attend.

Langdon boasts that Green Light has never had a compliance violation. To him, that isn’t a surprise. “It’s pretty easy. The laws are the laws—follow them,” he says. “The problem is everybody wants to act like they interpret them differently.”

Green Light's wood-panelled walls help the dispensary create a relaxed atmosphere.

To help ensure that his staff all interprets the rules correctly, every staff member receives a weekly flier outlining any new rules and changes to existing regulations. 

Green Light does not have a formal employee training program, but the team spends multiple days shadowing budtenders, and Langdon spends time with each employee. “I can teach anybody about weed, and I can teach it correctly,” he says, adding that he waits until budtenders are ready before letting them handle sales.

Langdon also feels that his budtenders go out of their way to help keep the store compliant because they truly care about it and their co-workers—a result of Langdon investing time and resources in his employees. “People spend so much time worrying about how to treat the customer, when they need to be investing in their budtenders because they're the ones dealing with the customer,” he says. Langdon buys the staff lunch once a week, brings them coffee and spends time with them outside of work, grabbing drinks or dinner. “Anything I can do to keep their morale up,” he says.

Langdon makes it a point not to buy from every vendor, instead, he opts for bulk orders with a few trusted cultivators. 

The 38-year-old owner says he has tried to make Green Light’s culture more like a family than a sports team, meaning new employees aren’t teased or given grunt work, but instead are welcomed with open arms. “You're just part of the family instantly; that's pretty cool for them. I think it helps them adjust a little easier,” Langdon says.

“I try to keep it a true open-door policy where they give me input. … Because they deal with the customer every day, they know more than I do about what each customer that comes in wants,” he says.

GIVING BACK

Now that he has found some good fortune, Langdon makes it a point to give to those less fortunate. “When I go out to eat, I'll take my leftovers and go find a homeless person and give it to them. It's just kind of who I am,” he says. However, giving back has been somewhat difficult for Green Light, as Langdon says some charities won’t accept money from cannabis businesses. So, he thought, “Dogs don’t care about weed,” and then partnered with the Spokane Humane Society. Green Light is a pet-friendly store, so he felt it was a perfect match. “I think cannabis lovers and pet lovers just go together,” he says.

Green Light's menu has over 100 strains of flower

Inside the dispensary, a wine barrel collects treats and toys for the Humane Society, and donation jars rest on the display counters. Langdon reminisces about the first time they set out the donation jars, saying they filled up in three days. When he called the Humane Society to see how to turn it in, Langdon says they were shocked, telling him that it typically took months for retailers to fill the jars, and it was usually just change, whereas Green Light’s jar was filled with $5s, $10s and $20s.

It was a feel-good moment for Langdon because he was able to show cannabis could make a positive difference in his community, just as he told the Millwood mayor years earlier. “The stigma of marijuana or cannabis—whatever you want to call it—is bad. I love throwing it in people's faces how good it can be.”