Edited by Scott Guthrie
Barbary Coast Collective opened in 2013 at 925 Mission St. in San Francisco. Nothing about the facade indicates it’s a medical dispensary. There are no giant green crosses, signs or marijuana leaf symbols. It’s understated and discrete. But walk inside, and you’re suddenly in a cannabis wonderland that has routinely been dubbed one of America’s most beautiful and unique dispensaries.
The tufted red-leather booths, Persian rugs and woodgrain counters pay homage to old-school San Francisco, the community where Executive Director Jesse Henry grew up. Henry has been with Barbary Coast since its inception and is the face of the business. He has worked diligently over the past four years to position Barbary Coast as a community leader in medical marijuana and civic engagement. The dispensary places extreme emphasis on the customer experience and the clinic’s environment. And the addition of a new vape lounge helps with both priorities.
Given the impending implementation of recreational marijuana in California, Claudio Miranda, co-founder and executive director of Guild Enterprises, sat down with Henry to discuss how Barbary Coast is preparing for a potential new wave of clients. In an all-encompassing conversation, Miranda and Henry also touch on the store’s aesthetic, patient philosophy, commitment to community and more.
Claudio Miranda: You opened your vape lounge in March 2017. In San Jose, they don't allow vaporizer lounges so this could be pretty advantageous. How has that affected your sales, retention and overall experience with your patients?
Jesse Henry: It's opened the doors to patients who need a safe and comfortable place to medicate. It's helping get people off the street, which is great for the community and the patients. I think we've been able to provide a place that gives patients, who might be on a work break or have limited time and access points, to come in and medicate briefly without the risk of being persecuted on the street. Nobody walking down [the street] who doesn't medicate wants smoke in their face. People who are medicating don't want to be perceived in a bad way. Having a place where people can medicate onsite is a win-win for the neighborhood and the patients.
Miranda: It sounds like there's a use-case for that type of customer. Do you feel that it was existing customers who saw a place to medicate safely or do you feel that it's opened the doors to a new customer segment that you didn't have before the lounge?
Henry: I think it's both. Probably the majority, if not all of the customers who use the lounge have been in our store at one point. But, it does help to offer this onsite, safe, comfortable, clean access point to medicate for new patients.
We also lab test all our medicines. We don't really allow outside medicine to come in and be used in the vaporizers. We don't want to cross-contaminate.
Miranda: Do you feel there's pretty good usage of the facility, or do you think it's a nice thing to have that doesn’t get used as much as you would have expected?
Henry: I think it's great. As adult-use comes into effect and more people are able to come into the store, I think it will obviously get busier. But it's been good so far.
It's such an ebb-and-flow business. Sometimes it will be packed, and other times it will be empty. It depends on the time of day, but that can change within 10 minutes. On a regular basis we'll probably see 10 to 15 people in there at any given time.
Miranda: You guys have a more progressive, forward-looking aesthetic, and the general user experience at the store seems to lend itself more to recreational versus medical. The branding pays homage to the heritage of the Red-Light District of that region. Do you feel that's been a market advantage for you in terms of attracting a customer?
Henry: As far as the aesthetics, we wanted to keep it something that's timeless. It's classic, and it goes back to that era where people took a little extra time to make sure that the customer experience was perfect. Our group is all born and raised here, so we all grew up going to some of those restaurants and seeing how Old San Francisco was. So, we wanted to pay homage to that.
As far as the adult-use or medical, whether it's labeled adult-use, rec, or medical, in our perspective it's all medical. That's kind of how we've approached this.
Everybody who walks through the door has some sort of ailment they're using cannabis for. I don't look at cannabis as recreational. … We just wanted to open it up to more people to be able to use cannabis in a medicinal way, and I think that's what adult use is going to do.
“We wanted to create a place that you could bring your mother, and she would be happy coming in and wants to come back. I think it's breaking the stigma that cannabis has been associated with for so long.” Jesse Henry
Miranda: As 2018 comes around, it sounds like on the state level that they're classifying the medical versus the recreational as two different user types that might have different treatment within the store. Are you planning to go right out of the gate with both medical and recreational as soon as recreational becomes available?
Henry: The legislation is still kind of being worked out, so we're waiting for that to shake itself out. We will be pursuing an adult-use permit.
The difference is there are some people who need heavy, heavy doses for what they're going through, and those could be perceived as medical, but even the person who says they just need it to relax, they're using it for that purpose, and that's more medical than recreational … in our opinion.
Miranda: It's interesting that you say that, because at The Guild store we have a lot of the extreme medical cases, as well as people who need medical, but not to treat severe symptoms. If you look at some of the new dosage requirements that are going to be implemented here next year, they're fairly low.
We have some veterans that come in, and they can easily do a 500-milligram or a 1,000-milligram edible, and that's standard practice for them because their conditions are severe. Whereas a recreational user or someone who’s milder on the medical could do 10 milligrams, and they're fine.
So, it's interesting how they're lowering the cap on that, but when it comes to the more extreme medical cases, it will be interesting to see how that's going to be satisfied for those patients that need a stronger dosage.
Henry: A lot of it too is … [that] adult use is going to bring people who haven't really tried it before. I wouldn't put anything more than 10, 15, 20 milligrams on anybody who has never tried a cannabis edible before. I think that those dosage requirements are good, but I think it's more directed toward the brand-new patient.
Miranda: Talking about the budtender experience, the traditional model has been focused on medical. I know in California we do the consultation, you try to size-up the customer's needs based on the symptoms. But there's also the whole recreational case where a budtender can have a dialogue in terms of the intended effect. How do you guys go about that? Do you do the standard medical consultation? Do the budtenders lead with that recreational dialogue?
Henry: Our industry is a hospitality industry. It's a customer service-based industry. We have always been about carrying the best brands in a clean, safe and comfortable environment. We want the patient to have the best experience they can each time they come in. Customer service and product knowledge is a big part of brand consistency. Training budtenders about our products and the ways they can help people is a big part of our brand. We provide as much information as we can to our budtenders.
Miranda: Looking forward to 2018 with the rec market, what changes are in store for Barbary Coast? It sounds like you're going to try to hold the line with that user experience, but are you thinking about ways that you might start to alter that user experience to put more emphasis on recreational? Are there any other changes that you're wanting to speak to?
Henry: We remodeled the store about a year ago and opened the consumption lounge. We do have quite a bit more point-of-sales stations to accommodate a new wave of patients. All the medicines are lab tested to make sure it's safe and clean for the patient.
We wanted to create a place that you could bring your mother, and she would be happy coming in and wants to come back. I think it's breaking the stigma that cannabis has been associated with for so long. There's a lot of people who walk by, look in the door and go, "Oh man, I always wanted to go into a dispensary and see what it's like and see how it can help me, but I'm afraid to for whatever reason." It's being able to break that stigma to say, "Hey, it's OK to come in and check it out, and see if this is something that can help you and be a positive influence to live a better life." That's really what it's all about.
Miranda: There's a lot of other clubs that sometimes have the intimidating, brooding feel. They’ve got the thugs at the door. For a lot of your causal, everyday marijuana smokers, when they walk by and you have that level of intimidation at the door, it harbors that stigma that cannabis has a black-market way of life.
That's unfortunate because a lot of shops are trying to usher in a user experience that is more approachable and trying to rest on the ideals of great service and great product. That hasn't been the model historically for a lot of clubs.
Henry: Before we opened in 2013 we said, "OK, how do we become a really positive force in this community? How do we become this anchor tenant on the block that's an example of not only a dispensary, but a great business that can set an example to the rest of the neighbors?”
We have relationships with different youth groups not only in our specific neighborhood, but throughout the city, and give back to them on a monthly basis. We donate to the Gun Buyback Program with the San Francisco Police Department to try and help get guns off the street. We've donated to the SF Parks Alliance; they open school yards on the weekends to give kids in the neighborhood a place to play basketball or soccer.
It's working with different community leaders and saying, "Let's put ourselves out there as a leader within our own community, not just in medical cannabis, but throughout the city."
Miranda: Do you find that building that goodwill translates over to your patients in that they become more loyal because they see that you guys are doing good in the community? Do you find that that helps to impact retention?
Henry: I think most people want to be a part of something that's doing the right thing. Patients come in and say, "I know when I'm supporting this ... dispensary it’s going back to something that benefits the community."
It helps to also get our message across with the leadership community, saying who we are, how we're doing it and why we're doing it the way we're doing it.
Miranda: What have been your biggest challenges and biggest successes?
Henry: The first thing that comes to my mind would be the banking issues that we see within our industry. That's a tough one for everybody. When we first started, the advertising was tough to get out there, too.
We employ 32 people. We're helping sick people on a daily basis and giving back to our community. That's something I think we're all really proud of, being able to operate a small business in the city in a positive way.