What’s it really like to open a medical cannabis dispensary

The truth is, there’s no way of knowing until you embark on the journey yourself. However, the whole process including getting started, finding a location, staffing, and building a community impact plan can be demystified by following in the footsteps of those who’ve already accomplished the task you’re setting out to execute. 

Cann Strategy CEO, Juliana Whitney chatted with Chris Vickers, COO of the Tree of Life Dispensary in North Las Vegas, Nevada about how to start a cannabis dispensary. Keep in mind, Tree of Life is not your ordinary dispensary, with a plan to donate 50-70% of their proceeds. Check out our interview or keep reading to learn more.

JW: How did you join the Tree of Life team and how did they find you?

CV: I’ve been in the cannabis industry since 2010. I’ve been specifically here in Las Vegas since 2015 and originally helped another operator get established. Being that this industry is so small I actually had one of my friends reach out to me, Jennifer Solis, who talked to me about partnering up with a new family-owned business whose mindset was all around giving back. It struck me as the right kind of way that business should be approached. So, after a few conversations and meeting the family, I decided to jump on board and join the group. It’s been a lot of fun over the past year building out and getting ready to open up two brand new dispensaries in Las Vegas. Right now we’re working on the one which is going to be opening in North Las Vegas and then the second location which will be opening up in about 3-4 months.

JW: Can you tell me about finding your location? It’s something I’ve found a lot of the clients want to know more about. 

CV: Especially here in Las Vegas, being able to open these dispensaries came from the last round of licensing that Nevada handed out. So, as you can imagine, as all of these licenses are being distributed you suddenly have all of these operators who are immediately dashing out here looking for property sites. I would say after months and months, if not years of scouting for locations, we were finally able to solidify the two that we found. It comes down to abiding by all of the restrictions that Nevada puts in place, as well as just making sure that this location works best for us and especially with keeping nearby competitors within distance of us as well. 

JW: What does working best for you mean? Were there specific demographic pieces you were looking for?

CV: Not necessarily demographics, but going back to how many dispensaries are in the nearby location where we’re setting up and looking at the population plus the annual income for those individuals that in the area are absolutely going to be some of the more pressing items when looking for locations. As you can imagine, as locations get scooped up left and right it becomes a little bit more challenging to find the perfect spot that every operator out there is looking for.

JW: Yes, and then you have to plan the build-out, what’s that like? I know you’ve worked with an architecture team and they’d done some planning prior, but how was it to refine what you wanted the dispensary to look like?

CV: Building out a dispensary, I say, is a lot like counting to 10. There could be a lot of different ways to accomplish it, but really it comes down to what’s going to work out best for you and the kind of the operations that you’re putting in place. What’s very exciting is that this space was an empty suite when we first started. Sitting down with the architect, our contractor, the team, and the owners to figure out the customer flow, the selection of products we would like to offer, and the overall experience is what I like to look for. As an operator, I like to say there are the three P’s: setting up your Process, your People, and your Products. Having something successfully set up with all 3 P’s will really set you off in the right vote for a successful dispensary.

JW: I know there are so many pieces from that point, you have to get approved by the state, you’ve got to get your permits, and at the same time, figure out when to hire staff based on when you’ll be opening. So, what was the process like to balance all of those pieces? 

CV: It’s a very large timeline, yes. There’s a lot of town hall city council meetings that we attend alongside strategically getting the building set up as well as the design and construction done. We’re finally at the phase of now being able to bring on board the staff, so I know that’s something they’ve been so excited about, just getting the opportunity to finally get their feet inside the store and to start putting everything we’ve been talking about into action.

JW: When I first started at a dispensary as a ground floor staff member, I remember the process of being hired. You’re so excited and then there’s just delays, which is the nature of everything as you’re starting up. What are some key delays you would say someone just starting a dispensary for the first time can look out for and know are normal?

CV: That’s a great question. I would say no matter what going into the cannabis industry, you have to be like water. You have to be willing to adjust and flow to whatever’s coming your way. More than anything it’s a lot of the excitement that builds up within the staff of just being so ready to get into the store, like, “When can we come in?”. Having strong communication with the team that you’re coming on board with is extremely important, whether things are going in the right direction or in the wrong direction. Sound communication with the team is extremely important, I like to say this isn’t the first time our opening’s been delayed in the past. What’s been great for us is in the past 88 of our employees that we’ve hired and then had delays in store opening have actually all decided to end up coming back on board with us. I think when you’re truly looking for hiring passionate individuals who are really doing this for a reason, for them it goes back to the excitement and then willing to kind of find a change of pace from what they’re normally doing on the day-to-day and so they’re willing to be a little bit more patient and understanding to the hiccups or things that can be thrown your way. Again, it’s just making sure that you’re not leaving the team in the dark at all we’re making sure that giving them guidance as kind of we get updates.

JW: As you’re choosing your team members, you mentioned choosing ones that are doing it for the right reasons. What are those reasons and how can you suss out if someone is genuinely feeling a passion for the industry, connected to it, and dedicated? Especially, given the crazy turnover rate, what do you do in that process to find good people?

CV: For us, we look for candidates that are willing to ask questions. Finding candidates that you know are asking you about what is the company’s mission and values. Candidates that are asking about their own potential within the business, as in how do you see me growing with your establishment. Those are great questions to start with so one can understand, ‘Is this company actually something I’m on board for the long run?”. Also just making sure that you’re setting yourself up for success so if an opportunity presents itself, you can make sure that you have one up against some of the other candidates, ensuring that your management and owners of the company understand what your goals and objectives are for being on board as a team member.

JW: As a company you have benefits. I know a lot of dispensers start out without benefits. This is definitely something staff members can look out for and companies can make sure they take into consideration when launching. It’s a big pull for potential staff, right?

CV: Especially nowadays, that’s a major priority for a lot of team members to come on board. Looking back again 10 years ago, you were getting payroll paid to you in cash and it’s different now. We have direct deposit available! As the stigma is changing we’re starting to see cannabis become more acceptable. We’re seeing all of the major benefits almost that any other corporate business offers available at some cannabis establishments. 

JW: When you’re choosing all the companies to work with, not in terms of product but in terms of your point of sale system and marketing, I know you probably have a slew

of companies coming to you. With so many new companies in the industry, how do you decide which ones are legitimate?

CV: This goes back to each operator’s individual way of running their business. For us, referencing the 3 P’s again, it goes back to what systems we’re going to put in place that are going to work best for our people, our processes, and our products. So, especially nowadays we’re seeing more and more competition come on board for a lot of these different software systems, which is great! It’s creating more competition and we’re no longer forced to be with a point of sale system that we don’t like and have to be on because there’s nobody else available. Whereas now it’s bringing more benefits to the light because we’re able to have more options and then ensure that maybe some of these systems we’re putting in place can be a little bit more customizable to specifically what we want here at our location.

JW: Since you mentioned point of sales software is bringing in the product, choosing your product, who you’ve hired to choose your products, and what their skills are, and how you as a company decide what brands that you want to work with and what your mix of products will be? Is there data behind it that is linked to your location?

CV: With every demographic a dispensary opens is going to have a different type of clientele. So being a brand new operator coming into this area us to start is a learning experience, so I would love to have a really large selection of products just for one to make sure that any customer comes through our door we have something available that they want. As we collect more data we’ll be able to smarten that up a little bit more and really understand what it is that a customer is looking for in this area, what’s driving customers to make a trip here, and then going back to keeping an eye on our competitors. What else is everyone in this area doing? That way we can always make sure that we have a one-up on a lot of those individuals and then as far as the vendor goes I think especially just with our mission and our cause here you know with us being so willing to give so much of our profits back, partnering up with a lot of the vendors who have the same mindsets. A lot of dispensaries here in Las Vegas carry a lot of the same products from dispensary to dispensary so that’s something unique and different i like to challenge our team about is, how can we stand out against our competitors? The giving back aspect with us on giving back 70% of our profits is going to be huge, getting creative, and getting the community on board with where those proceeds are going is going to be a huge attraction.

JW: I’d love to dive into that because it’s such a beautiful thing. I worked with you guys on licensing at the very start and that was the coolest part, I don’t think anyone else has ever written the story of a company that’s going to donate 50-70% percent of their profit to local charities. That’s unheard of in business generally, let alone in this industry, and largely because the owners are philanthropists who give back. Tell me more about what that looks like, how you feel about it, and how your staff feels about what you do for the community

CV: Going back to our ownership, we like to say our northern lights in the sky are their passion and willingness to give. I’m really hoping it attracts not only the right staff but also the right customers to our facility. It’s just all about how we can do more, so what’s phenomenal is the family already has created about 4 non-profits here in the Las Vegas area. For one, it’s going to be our priority right off the bat to see how can we help those nonprofits to the best of our ability and then a lot of the conversations that we’ve been having are just what else can we do to raise more money or maybe not even look at it from a monetary standpoint, but volunteer our own time to give back to the community in all areas that we can. What’s really exciting now is that we’re starting to look at bringing products into the store and having conversations with vendors on sales and specials, we’re looking at all the different outlets and getting creative. To me, that’s the fun part. Being able to really go home at the end of the night and know that we’re doing something good.

JW: When we do the licensing process for clients in any given state there’s always the community impact plan and Tree of Life obviously has a community impact plan that will exceed what we can really expect the general industry to have. However, I’ve seen a lot of companies develop plans that are either just trying to get the points and they’re not really thought through or trying to feed to what the state has asked and therefore, there’s no real passion behind it. What would be your tips on how you one can make a CSR plan to better their community impact?

CV: In regards to the community impact plan, I would say we see a lot of our competitors only giving back when it’s around the required holidays of the year. So, it’s around Thanksgiving and Christmas time there’s or 3-4 times each quarter of the year that we’re seeing these other competitors raise money and donate it back. So, for one, challenging the business to do something each month where it’s like now instead of waiting until the end of the year , what can we do proactively in the moment consistently. So, I would just say really looking for those different outlets, continuing to challenge yourself, and not getting caught up and content and continuing to to explore and look elsewhere. 

JW: With such a solid ethos as a company, you’ve got it outlined how you are going to impact the community, you’ve got your staff, you’ve done your licensing, you’re getting your approvals, you’ve built out all the things. Now you’re prepared to launch, what does what do you feel like and how do you see that going? Are there familiar hiccups people should know about? 

CV: It feels great and I would say that there are going to be hiccups. We joke about it as a team where we say even the way that this whole dispensary is laid out and set up right now as soon as we open those day on day one everything’s gonna probably change completely. It’s just being able to adapt and adjust as needed. What I’m hoping for is not only a great experience inside of the store but I think success for us is going to be how much we’re able to give back to the local communities here. If we’re not able to help out the Las Vegas or the Nevada market with the giving back aspect, I won’t feel like we’ve really succeeded as a company. For us just making sure that that’s front of mind and looking at all the different ways that we can continue to give back by being able to donate back 70% of profits successfully is going to be the number one way that we see that success as an establishment.

JW: Once you prove that concept, do you foresee this company duplicating this model in other states?

CV: That’s still up for conversation. Right now, we’re absolutely just looking at the local market but we’re always open to a conversation and hopefully, we can be trendsetters for the future. Where others can now kind of see what we’re doing and then hopefully carry that going forward into some of the new territories that they’re taking on.

We CANN Do It. 

The cannabis industry requires high risk, instability, and uncertainty tolerance. It’s the nature of the beast, but if you’re ready to jump in the game or to expand your company from other states, let’s do this.

Whether you’re in the application phase for licensure or aiming to be the first trailblazing community impact leader, CANN Strategy is here to help. Our team of industry experts can help you put together the best application possible for your team. Turn your business’ CSR goals into actionable strategies that truly make a difference in the world.

Ready to work together? Contact us today.

Glory Finnegan