Shareef El-Sissi, chief financial officer of Garden of Eden dispensary in Alameda County, Calif.
All photos: © Mark Madeo

Today, Alameda County’s Garden of Eden dispensary is a model of efficiency, according to its chief financial officer, Shareef El-Sissi. The California dispensary welcomes some 1,400 patients daily, El-Sissi estimates, to its 1,000-square-foot space, which makes it one of the busiest dispensaries in the country—as well as one of the smallest and most technologically friendly, he adds. That’s a lot of people in a little area, and Garden of Eden was not always as adept at handling them as it is now.

“Trying to serve 1,200 customers or 1,400 customers in a day—that broke the shop,” and resulted in long customer wait times, El-Sissi says. To make matters worse, a 2016 review of the dispensary by the Alameda County newspaper, the East Bay Times, described it this way: “Garden of Eden sits beneath a huge billboard in a run-down, one-story, cinder-block retail shop, with little to attract shoppers beyond copious street parking. … The retail area is small, with two cash registers. There are no clones, edibles, extracts, or trappings. The only splurges are the [HD] flat-screen menus, displaying a truly miraculous marijuana lineup.”

El-Sissi admits that this is a “100-percent” accurate description of the dispensary at the time, adding that it was “just a beige [building], as simple as can be.” Back then, the dispensary’s menu kept patients coming in for the time being, but Garden of Eden knew that wouldn’t last. To stay competitive, the company, which launched in 2003, had to reinvent itself with its customer in mind.

At first, Garden of Eden was reluctant to make sweeping changes. As El-Sissi explains, the Garden of Eden team didn’t want to upgrade the space—neither technologically nor aesthetically—because it had been difficult to operate the dispensary in Alameda County. The dispensary—along with all dispensaries in the county—was only allowed to sell flower for many years, which limited its ability to become profitable. In addition to that hurdle, “We had been raided by the DEA,” El-Sissi says. “We had been [audited] by the IRS—you know, all these occurrences that kind of limited our desire to invest a ton of money into a shop where we didn’t know if we were going to be open the next day or the next year, and we had a bureaucracy in Alameda County that made it really tough for us to build a new building.”

El-Sissi qualifies Garden of Eden’s front door as “a piece of art.”

However, in 2015, the dispensary team began conceptualizing the major re-design that patients enjoy today. “We basically have been clawing and fighting uphill for a long time,” El-Sissi explains. By this time, regulations that had slowed the dispensary’s growth—such as one that restricted dispensaries from having more than 20 pounds of flower on site at one time—began to ease or be eliminated.

As “the times kind of shifted, we were able to dedicate the attention that the shop really deserved,” El-Sissi says.

Garden of Eden contracted multidisciplinary design firm Sand Studios for its redesign, which was completed and unveiled in September 2018. This time, when the East Bay Times wrote about the dispensary, its tune had changed: “Smiling greeters at a check-in desk, soft lighting and creams displayed behind glass make the Garden of Eden more like a spa than a marijuana dispensary.”

According to El-Sissi, “We literally didn’t spare any expense to build the Garden of Eden—to build that world-class experience that our customers had deserved for a long time here. That’s something that we had envisioned for a long time.”

Paradise: Rebuilt

Garden of Eden and Sand Studios worked for six months to refine the redesign plans, El-Sissi says. Construction took an additional eight months. “The end product is really beautiful, really efficient,” El-Sissi says. “We’re able to serve a lot of customers.”

Plants fill the walls to provide a fresh feeling to customers.

Today, the building’s exterior is wrapped in ivy and “is very easy on the eyes,” El-Sissi says. “The front door is a piece of art,” he adds, mixing metal and glass to make a bold impression on customers as they enter the dispensary.

Inside the store, “we went from a two-room layout to a single room,” El-Sissi says. “Now, when you walk into the front door of the dispensary, there’s one continuous space that patients can go in—and we kind of broke down the barrier between intake and retail [for medical products].”

The dispensary’s gray concrete floor blends well with the bronze-glazed glass displays. “There’s all these different design elements that kind of pop out at you,” El-Sissi says. “For the most part, the first time people walk in, they are really taken aback. You see people looking up, down, left and right, or looking at the lighting.”

The color, lighting and decor choices were purposeful: “People want to go to beautiful spaces,” El-Sissi explains. “So we wanted to attract people on the outside, but we also wanted people to feel good on the inside. The lighting selections, the color of the floor, the color of the glass, the countertops, all of those elements of design to make you feel good.” Flat-screen TVs positioned throughout the space rotate among 12 channels that show information or menus. “We’ve used tech to enhance the experience,” he says.

The dispensary’s processes have been streamlined to cut down waiting time

What’s more, El-Sissi adds, “We owe it to our employees to feel really good. I wanted them to want to come to work and … be in a room filled with oxygen being produced by plants.” As such, greenery fills the space via a large live wall across the room from the check-in counter.

Garden of Eden’s changes weren’t strictly aesthetic, though.

With a check-in process performed entirely on iPhones, Garden of Eden’s patients can quickly obtain their medicine without hassle, El-Sissi says. Before transitioning to the smartphone system in 2017, Garden of Eden captured required patient information, such as names, purchases and dates of visits, by hand.

“As we got busier and busier, we needed to make those systems quicker, so we moved into scanning driver’s licenses and capturing people’s pictures so they didn’t have to bring in their recommendation or their ID because we had that information stored in the system,” El-Sissi says.

A few of Garden of Eden’s branded products

Garden of Eden, in its tech-friendly fashion, has also “designed our own inventory system that enables us to count the entirety of our inventory every day,” El-Sissi says. “We’ve been able to count a ton of money—and a ton of our inventory value—in a very short period of time.”

Its inventory system works a little like this: Using software called Treez, employees can “cycle-count” inventory and sort it by product and location, says El-Sissi. “Counting inventory daily allows management to reduce shrinkage and hold employees accountable for the inventory they came in contact with,” he says.

These are merely a few examples of how Garden of Eden has evolved to become a forward-thinking and in-demand dispensary.

Garden of Eden carries 24 different flower varieties at any given time.

In addition to its modern-day check-in system and its inventory tracking method, Garden of Eden has also prioritized its digital presence. “If you take a look at our digital footprint—whether it’s social media or on our website—you’ll see we really care about our representation of our business digitally as much as we do physically,” El-Sissi says.

On the company’s website, prospective patients can take a 360-degree, virtual tour of the space before ever entering the building. “We’ve also started a pick-up program that if you preorder online, you don’t have to wait when you come in,” El-Sissi says. “We’re trying to improve the efficiency of the store so customers don’t have to have a waiting experience. … The more preorders that we [can] get, the quicker and shorter the wait times are. That’s very important for us.”

Whether they order online or come into the store to browse, El-Sissi says that Garden of Eden’s patients do have preferred products. According to him, the store’s most popular products include the Honeycomb Farm brand of flower, and vaporizers account for roughly 20 percent of total sales. When it comes to flower, “We don’t buy flower in huge lots,” says El-Sissi. Instead, “We buy small amounts and we keep the flowers for [short] stints and keep [the menu] constantly rotating.” At any given time, Garden of Eden has about 24 cultivars on its menu, El-Sissi says, including some “classics” the dispensary always keeps in stock. But, as he explains, “The best cultivators tend to keep their offering relevant to the times as newer, more exclusive genetics command higher prices. When we find a cultivator who works well [with] the classics, we find shelf space for them.”

Garden of Eden and multidisciplinary design firm Sand Studios worked for six months to refine the redesign plans. Construction took an additional eight months.

Paradise: Expansion

Garden of Eden has evolved quickly, but the dispensary is far from finished. “We’re really turning toward becoming the Apple store, where you sell your products and they are super high quality and they are well designed, well packaged, well thought out—and that’s the bulk of our business. That’s something we’ve been working toward.”

It has also been working toward opening as many as four additional dispensaries. “By the end of this year, we’ll have one in Union City, Calif.,” El-Sissi says, describing it as a “campus” that will have its own indoor cultivation facility, distribution and retail “in a city where there’s no other cannabis businesses open today,” he says. “That [Union City location] is going to become Garden of Eden’s hub and kind of the headquarters of our entire business.” Additional locations are also planned for outside Fremont, Calif.; Ukiah, Calif.; and in Mendocino County, Calif.

“We’re going to continue to seek licenses for retail and … continue to extend our retail footprint,” El-Sissi says. “We already have enough infrastructure for us to do cultivation—outside cultivation and indoor cultivation—that we really could be growing into that [footprint].”

El-Sissi anticipates these new locations and operations will grow quickly—just as its original location did—without much marketing. “I think word of mouth goes a long way, especially when you’re in an area [where] you may be the only game in town,” he says. “It doesn’t take a ton of spend to have really wide-reaching impact when you’re selling quality product,” and, of course, enjoying Garden of Eden’s new design aesthetic.

Jillian Kramer is a Cleveland, Ohio-based freelance writer.