Most doctors agree that your diet is just as important to your health, if not more, than how much you exercise. When it comes to cannabis edibles, however, it can be hard to make healthy food decisions. Most dispensaries only offer infused sweets such as chocolates and gummies, and/or baked goods like cookies and brownies.
The Mint, a dispensary in Guadalupe, Ariz., is looking to serve a market segment with a more refined palate and bigger appetites for both food and cannabis through its in-house cannabis kitchen that offers made-to-order meals to its patients.
While it still offers the typical pastries and confectioneries, The Mint Café’s staff, led by a team of five chefs, serves a varied menu that includes artisan Beyond Meat burgers (THC is fat-soluble and binds well with the vegetable oils present in meat substitute products, Valle explains), pizza, street tacos, and macaroni and cheese.
“We saw a large, unmet need from patients who were regularly visiting our dispensary; they were looking to access fresh and healthy cannabis-infused foods,” Eivan Shahara, CEO of Brightroot, parent company of The Mint, said in the statement. “We know that the right kinds of healthy foods can help people battle a variety of illnesses, from cancer and epilepsy to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. We’re using our knowledge about food and nutrition to help patients in their search for fresh, healthy snacks and infused meals.”
The café’s impact on the company’s bottom line is not insignificant: Monthly sales of roughly $60,000 represent up to 6% of the dispensary’s total revenue, according to Brightroot’s VP of operations Raul Molina. More importantly, the kitchen has attracted attention beyond Guadalupe’s 6,597 residents (according to the 2018 U.S. census).
“The kitchen was one of the things that put us on the national scene,” Molina says.
(Food) Safety First
Building a cannabis kitchen was no small feat, Molina says, especially considering that no other cannabis licensee in Arizona had ever approached regulators about having a kitchen that would prepare made-to-order, to-go meals for customers.
“The state made a lot of hoops and hurdles to get the kitchen open,” Molina explains. The state rejected the company’s first proposed proof of design because it misunderstood that the dispensary wasn’t opening an area to make gummies and other pre-packaged goods. “They were a little taken aback by the menu when they saw that we had pizza and burgers” and all the commercial-grade kitchen equipment, he adds.
The Mint’s ownership spent several months (and more than $300,000) working with the state to ensure that the dispensary could remain compliant with both cannabis and food safety regulations. These negotiations and delays forced The Mint Café to open in October 2017, six months after its originally planned 4/20 opening date.
Molina says talks took a turn “when they figured out that we weren't going to give up [on having our kitchen]. … When they started telling us exactly what they wanted, that's when everything kind of moved a little quicker.” Ownership agreed to concessions on the menu to ensure ingredients are not quickly perishable—notably, all of The Mint Café’s items are vegetarian—and continuous efforts are made to educate consumers on expiration dates and how best to preserve their medicated meals at home, mostly through having conversations with patients when they pick up their to-go orders.
Christopher Valle is one of the chefs who oversees kitchen operations at The Mint Café. Raised in the food-service industry with his restaurateur grandparents, Valle has worked as a chef in professional kitchens for the past four years. He received cannabis training in his early 20s at Herbal Risings, a group offering classes to cannabis industry hopefuls. There, he took introductory courses on budtending, concentrates and cooking with cannabis. Among other things, he says that experience taught him the importance of decarboxylating cannabis (the heating process that turns THC-A into ?9-THC) before using it in cooking to ensure that patients are receiving as much of the benefits as possible.
In addition to its all-vegetarian menu, there are a multitude of vegan and diabetic-friendly options to cater to a wide variety of dietary restrictions. Pastries and hot food items are made in similar fashion: butter or oil, which is ever-present in the menu, gets infused with THC distillate that is carefully dosed with syringes before being used in recipes.
To ensure even distribution of the cannabinoids “when we do our pastries, we churn the butter with the [distillate] oil. We turn the butter with the oil, then we add sugar [or stevia for ketogenic recipes] and turn it some more before any other dry ingredients are added,” Valle explains.
Beepers let patients know when the order is ready for pickup, allowing them to simply wait in their car or wander the dispensary to make additional purchases. That said, items are often ready before patients complete their regular dispensary purchases. For example, the seven-cheese mac n’ cheese dish takes only eight minutes to prepare from scratch.
This rapid delivery allows The Mint Café to serve more than 100 items from the made-to-order kitchen to an average of 30 patients per day. Patients often come with multiple orders. Some patients go so far as to order a month’s worth of meals and freeze items. The culinary team members walk those patients through best practices to keep and defrost their frozen wares. (“Seal everything in airtight containers,” Valle says, and “don’t defrost items in a high-voltage microwave for more than 20 seconds at a time.”)
The culinary team continuously tweaks the menu, offering both regular staples and seasonal items in what Molina calls a “live menu.” During last year’s Super Bowl, for example, the dispensary sold out of its 300 pizzas it had planned for the event. “They went really, really fast,” Molina says. The team already was planning menus for Thanksgiving and the winter holidays in July.
During the summer, the dispensary had team members from Flourish (an edibles manufacturer in Arizona) teach its kitchen staff how to make infused, homemade ice cream. The team of chefs is eager to add that to the dispensary’s menu but is awaiting a pasteurizing machine to be able to make the ice cream in-house.
Another potential item that Valle would like to further explore is ginger beer. However, the chef says infusing beverages is much harder than infusing food, as THC is fat- and sugar-soluble but not water-soluble. “Infusing without sugar is hard,” he says. “My background is in healthy foods, and I’m working on a ketogenic diet menu, so I want to keep things without sugar,” which makes infusing drinks even more challenging. The fermentation process required to make ginger beer also needs to be reviewed and approved by state regulators before being introduced into the dispensary’s kitchen. A smoothie and juice bar are closer to reality than a ginger beer, Valle says, but he’s hopeful that the team will figure out an in-house recipe.
“We’re very passionate about the things that we do, and when we go into something, we do a lot of research and dive deep into things,” Valle says about their drive to innovate the menu.
Molina hopes to keep the kitchen’s momentum going and launch branded lines of homemade food products in the coming months. “I’m also in discussions with a couple of brands in California in the hopes of getting a licensing deal where we make their products in-house,” he says. “We’re always looking for good partners who want to do things the right way.”