Marijuana: A Store Visit

A Trip to a Retail Store in the LA Area

At the end of January, I visited some folks in LA and, since the sale of recreational marijuana is legal in that state, I thought I would visit one of the stores and check it out.

A friend who lives there and had purchased medical marijuana in the past, agreed to go with me and serve as a guide—a ganja guide.

Before I get into the fascinating and (dare I say) fun shopping spree, let’s take a look at the current marijuana situation in the US.

MedMen Venice store. Courtesy of MedMen

Some Facts and Figures

As of 2018 there will be eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Over twenty other states allow marijuana for medical use. And, both lists keep growing.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the following polling results on the subject from the Gallup people:

  • 64% of Americans support legalization and this represents the highest number recorded since Gallup started asking the question in 1969. (Jan 4, 2018)
  • 45% report having tried marijuana, also the highest since 1969, and 12% claim to currently use it. (July 19, 2017)

In a study on its use by DIG Insights (a global research firm) few people are concerned about harmful effects (16%) and a majority believe consumption can be beneficial (51%). (April 14, 2017)

What About the Effect on Alcohol Sales?

Well, here the data is currently less clear, but signs point to more impact on beer than wine and spirits.

But it seems to me that just as there is “share of stomach” that beer, wine and spirits compete for, the advent of widespread availability of marijuana has to create a fight for “share of buzz.”

A Cowen Insight report (via Mark Brown’s Industry News Update on Jan 15, 2018) indicated that a study using scanner data showed, “that counties located in states that legalized medical marijuana saw a reduction in alcohol sales of 13%.” Further, the Cannabiz Consumer Group (C2G) predicted in March, 2017: “Legal marijuana will take away 7.1% of revenues from the existing retail beer industry.

With this information in mind, I set out with my friend to visit a store, see what the shopping experience was like, get an understanding of who the customers are, and learn first-hand about this product and its future.

MedMen Enterprises

The store we went to is owned by MedMen Enterprises, who currently own 18 facilities in 3 states and has over 700 employees. Unlike other retailers/dispensaries, MedMen is vertically integrated and has licenses to own cultivation facilities, retail stores, and distribution. (In the cannabis industry, distribution involves a “watch dog” and oversight function whereby quality, record keeping, compliance, and related matters are scrutinized.)

The company both owns and manages various aspects of the marijuana trade. It will be listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange in the second quarter of this year. (By the way, here is the list of marijuana companies on the CSE—around 60. You might also find this of interest.)

This is how MedMen describes themselves:

MedMen is writing the book on the modern cannabis industry, from how facilities are designed and constructed to setting the bar on quality and excellence. We are also helping shape the laws that make this industry viable.

These are true professionals with a serious set of business criteria and mission:

MedMen operates scalable, highly-efficient growing facilities using the latest in agronomic technology and sustainable techniques, and our manufacturing facilities use standards comparable to those in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

They are not the first company to enter this emerging business, but from what I witnessed by talking to their management and visiting a store, I think they’re top of the game and will grow.

Sun Valley cultivation workers
Courtesy of MedMen
Plants
Courtesy of MedMen

 

The Shopping Spree

We went to their Venice store on Lincoln Blvd. It was at 1:00 on a weekday and the place was mobbed. I was told that it’s always busy and fairly common to see people waiting to come in. The Venice store is small (perhaps 700 square feet of selling space) with shelves of products and showcases on the floor.

To enter, you must stop at a registration area and show proof of age (driver’s license or passport) and register, which allows you to buy. They sell cannabis in different formats including—cannabis buds, of course (various strains and potencies), edibles such as gummies and other sweets (chocolate, cookies, etc.). There is even medicated cannabis rubs (salves) meant to help with aching joints, uh, body joints.

There is a limit to the amount of product you can buy on any one visit.

What really struck me was the caliber and knowledgeability of the sales people. My friend described them as akin to the sales people at the Apple store and Daniel Yi, the Medmen spokesperson, told me that many customers come to the same analogy. These folks were friendly, happy to answer questions and serve as a cannabis escort—what you might be interested in, how much to use, etc.

I learned, for example, the difference between THC and CBD and their role in health matters as well as in “mood change.” Also, the difference between Sativa, Indica and Hybrid strains. I was kind of envious of their retail skills and how the booze business might benefit from similar selling approaches—low key on sales persuasion and primarily focused on educating and guiding the customer.

What about the customers? Good question. It was everyone—young and old; men and women; from all walks of life; all socioeconomic levels. I couldn’t help but ask some of the shoppers about the comparison between alcohol and marijuana. One person said they were just looking for something different from alcohol. Another told me that sometimes they like a drink and sometimes a joint. Still another told me that they preferred cannabis because alcohol was chemical and marijuana was botanical. Ouch.

Here’s the interesting kicker that can serve as a predictor of marijuana legalization and potential growth—taxes.

The Tax Situation

My friend spent $517 that day. Of that amount, $411 was for various products and $62 was for state excise tax (15%) and $45 was for local sales tax (11%). That’s over 25% in taxes. The tax revenue from marijuana sales are attractive to State governments and taxpayers as well, for that matter.

Here’s an interesting article on the California tax situation. It points out that the sales tax on alcohol and marijuana are fairly similar (7.5 to 9.5 percent) but the state excise tax for cannabis is 15%, while wine is 0.25% on average and beer is 1.5%.

But it’s not totally a rosy picture. From my understanding, people in California are skeptical as to how these taxes will be used and whether they will go to where it was intended. A few states can’t seem to figure out how to proceed despite the vote for legalization. And, of course, the federal government repealed an Obama-era policy of leaving law-abiding marijuana businesses alone in those states that have legalized it.

Those of us in the booze business know firsthand that prohibition doesn’t work and that the single most important reason for the end of the “noble experiment” was the absence of taxes from booze.

Further Thoughts and the Future

As to what the alcohol industry should be doing, I found it very interesting that Constellation Brands made a play in the marijuana business last year, investing $191 million in a Canadian company. At the recent Wine and Spirits Daily Annual Summit at which COO Bill Newlands spoke, he said they believe marijuana is an emerging trend that they need to tap into because it’s going to be a big business.

A recent article from Rolling Stone had some interesting predictions for 2018 and what to expect from the marijuana situation in the US.

Let’s start with this quote: “State-legal pot markets seem poised to match or exceed the value of black market pot by 2020.” The friendly, neighborhood dealer could soon be looking for work.

They also predict that there will be legal marijuana lounges in some places, probably Las Vegas for starters and Canada will continue to benefit financially and otherwise from their role in the business.

But the most interesting of all is that the possibility of legalization of recreational marijuana in New Jersey will mean increased pressure on New York—where medical marijuana is legal—to do the same. You can get to Jersey City from Manhattan in 15 minutes or less. Also, let’s not forget that much of New England has approved medical and/or recreational sales already.

*          *          *

My takeaway is that the marijuana industry will have growing pains but, in the long run, it is here to stay and will flourish. The question for us, dear readers, is how the alcohol industry can or will adapt.

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Dorothy Parker, Gin, and the Center Bar

Drinks with Stories to Tell

Allow me to set the stage for you.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was a writer (short stories, poetry, screenplays), one of the founders of the Algonquin Round Table, and a wisecracking, witty critic of 20th-century idiosyncrasies. Dorothy Parker’s quirky remarks and crass opinions were her hallmark. Here are two samples:

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”

The other player is the gin by the same name—Dorothy Parker Gin, produced by New York Distilling Co., an outstanding craft distiller in Brooklyn. (I will write more about NYDC specifically, in an upcoming post. For now, suffice to say that these folks make outstanding gins and rye whiskies. You can find them here.)

Last but by no means least, there is Center Bar, an elegant restaurant, wine bar, and cocktail lounge located on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center. Under the direction of Chef Michael Lomonaco, whose neighboring Porter House Bar and Grill has established itself as one of the city’s leading modern steakhouses. Porter House is far and away my favorite NYC restaurant and arguably the best steak house in town. Drinks at Center Bar and dinner 50 paces away at Porter House—well, in my opinion, it doesn’t get better than that.

By the way, Porter House was judged to be the Absolute Best Steakhouse in New York and Michael Lomonaco’s creativity is an important element in the story.

The Center Bar
Porter House Bar and Grill
Michael Lomonaco

Here’s to Dorothy

August 22nd is Dorothy Parker’s birthday. So, in 2015, Allen Katz, one of the founders of NYDC and Michael Lomonaco, chef and partner at Porter House and Center Bar decided to pay tribute to her and create drinks and a fun experience in her honor. They’ve been running the event every year since.

This year they lined up some of the foremost bar chefs and mixologist and had them create a “Here’s to Dorothy” drink menu. The cocktails were spectacular from the name to the ingredients to the luscious taste.

Be sure to look for the event next year. I’m told Michael has something special planned.

Oh, and if you stop by Porter House, try the Wagyu New York Strip Steak. Unbelievable.

Here are the drinks and their creators:

Honey, I’m under the Host
Jena Ellenwood, The Sparrow Tavern
A Walk in the Parker
Lucinda Sterling, Middle Branch
A Certain Lady
Alissa Atkinson, Precious Metal
Know-it-all
Estelle Bossy, Del Posto
The Mighty Tux
Tonia Geffy, Highland Park
Love Dot
Brooke Baker, Dead Rabbit

The Menu

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You Don’t Have to be Jewish…

The Whisky Jewbilee Annual Event

For the past five years, Josh Hatton and Jason Johnstone-Yellin have been holding an event involving whisk(e)y tastings, education, and an overall fun evening. On June 15, at Studio 450, they will have their 2017 New York City show. (Other shows are in Chicago and Seattle.)

I’ve been intrigued with this event and set out to learn more about it by contacting Josh and talking to previous attendees and industry insiders.

Let’s start with their simple description from their website:

“The world famous Whisky Jewbilee is a nationwide parade of top-shelf spirits and fine kosher dining for whisky lovers of any faith.

I also learned that the Whisky Jewbilee is considered one of “the world’s top 10 whisky shows,” by The Spirits Business.”

Many of the people I spoke with told me previous shows have had huge turnouts and they consider the event to be top notch.

The Organizers

The Whisky Jewbilee is one of three businesses owned by the Jewish Whisky Company LLC, an umbrella organization that also owns two other companies—Whisky Geek Tours of Scotland and Single Cask Nation. The latter is an independent bottler that describes itself as follows:

Single Cask Nation began as a social fellowship or membership society organized around the right to purchase rare, fine single cask whiskies under the Single Cask Nation label.  More than a mere club, Single Cask Nation represents a unique virtual community in which members share a common affinity for the quality whiskies and other spirits of the world.

The idea is as old as scotch whisky itself. Johnnie Walker, Chivas Brothers and many others began as purveyors selling whisky from various distillers. Single Cask Nation has some interesting offerings. You might want to check it out.

Josh Hatton (L) and Jason Johnstone-Yellin (R)

The event—Jews and Booze

You might not realize it or never thought about the fact that members of the Jewish faith love whisk(e)y. A June 2013 NY times article, had this to say:

“Whiskey has numerous fan bases, but few are more devoted — and arguably less noticed by the press and public — than Jews, particularly observant Jews. Synagogues are increasingly organizing events around whiskey, and whiskey makers are reaching out to the Jewish market.”

In fact, many religious Jews wanted to attend Whisky Fest but could not because it’s held on Friday and Saturday nights. So, Whisky Jewbilee was launched in 2012 (on a Thursday night) with the blessing of the Whisky Fest people. It grew significantly over the years.

Today, the event will cap at 450 attendees and 80 companies/brands will be present with roughly 300 whisk(e)y SKUs (individual brands). But check this out—this is not a drinking event as much as it is a knowledge event and a one to one dialogue between producer and consumer. You won’t find beautiful people from central casting behind the tables or actors mindlessly spewing memorized lines. What you will find are whisky aficionados and well-informed representatives of the distilleries.

By the way, many marketers have told me that kosher consumers are very brand loyal. Perhaps more so than many other market segments.

About that Kosher thing…

I’m far from an expert on Judaica matters but I couldn’t help but wonder about what possibly could be in whisk(e)y that would violate the rules of kosher. So, I spoke with Josh about it and did some research.

What I learned is that there is nothing in whisk(e)y to make it non-kosher. Wine on the other hand, because of its sacramental use, has strict kosher rules. But with a few minor exceptions, nearly all whiskies are okay.

The organizers welcome all whiskies regardless of maturation style. This means that whiskies matured in sherry, port or other wine based casks are perfectly fine and will be present at Whisky Jewbilee. They believe all whisk(e)y to be kosher-by-nature unless the whisk(e)y is flavored. At their event, only the food is under kosher supervision.

The flavored whisky situation has to do with the fact that the flavorings used to augment the whiskey taste might contain non-kosher elements like glycerin. It would take certification to assure observant Jews that the glycerin is a vegetable rather than animal based oil.

But you will find some amazing whiskies there including some of my favorites from Brenne Whisky, Koval Distillery, FEW Spirits, and the best in the world, including—Bowmore, Glen Grant, Four Roses, Michter’s, High West, and many more.

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The organizers of the event have invited me to be there and part 2 of this article will be after June 15. If you attend, please look for me and say hi.

The Chicago Whisky Jewbilee will be on November 9 at Artifact Events. The Seattle show will be some time in February or March.

And, remember, you don’t have to be Jewish to attend. Just enjoy!

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