High Design: Pot Dispensaries Lure Customers With Stylish Trappings

January 5, 2018
Written by: Jen Chan, White Tiger Condo Conversion
By Jen Chan, White Tiger Condo Conversion

When medical marijuana was first legalized in California in 1996, patients were often forced to get their fix in dark, dreary dispensaries policed by scowling guards stationed behind thick glass screens. But as pot has gained both social and legal acceptance here and across the country, those days are long gone.

Today many medical marijuana dispensaries resemble upscale boutiques more than seedy opium dens. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the Bay Area, which is home to some of the most stylish and sophisticated pot clubs on the planet.

One of the most striking examples is the Apothecarium in San Francisco’s Castro District, an elegant emporium of weed that features crystal chandeliers, white marble countertops, tufted leather chairs, original artwork and fresh-cut flowers. Visiting the Apothecarium is not unlike checking into a trendy European-style hotel. Customers are greeted by a smiling receptionist behind a sleek, semi-circular desk illuminated by domed pendant lamps. After a check of their paperwork (basically all that’s needed to gain admission is a valid doctor’s recommendation), visitors are assigned to a patient consultant to guide them through the menu of available products, which range from flowers and edibles to concentrated and topical applications.

The 5,000-square-foot space, which was formerly occupied by an upscale restaurant and cocktail lounge, is divided into several sections, including a boutique offering pot paraphernalia, clothing and a variety of other items; a gallery area displaying a rotating selection of work by local artists; a space for seminars and support groups; and the sales floor, with its sleek white counters and dark wood cabinetry.

The Apothecarium was designed by Urban Chalet, a woman-owned interior design firm based in Marin County, in association with San Francisco architect Vincent Gonzaga. The designers aimed to create a space that was clean and modern but also had traditional touches that would appeal to a wide range of clients.
“It was important to create an aesthetic that allowed patients of all types to feel comfortable,” said Michelle Granelli, a principal at Urban Chalet. “We wanted a space that was very fresh and contemporary but also blended traditional elements.” To that end, the cool minimalist aesthetic is accented with traditional notes such as wingback chairs, houndstooth fabric and traditional moldings.

The Market Street dispensary has been so successful that the Urban Chalet team designed a second Apothecarium on Lombard Street in the Marina District, which opened in the summer of 2017. The new shop has a similar feel as the Castro dispensary but a slightly different aesthetic to appeal to a different demographic, Granelli said.

Medithrive, a small dispensary in the Mission District, offers customers a more intimate but equally stylish experience. The small storefront dispensary gets customers into the proper frame of mind with large monitors displaying vivid photographs of marijuana plants and other pot-related subjects, trippy artwork by local artists and the soothing strains of Bob Marley on the sound system.

A mouthwatering assortment of brownies, donuts, chocolates and other edibles are brightly displayed in a curved, three-tiered glass case. The buds themselves are cleverly exhibited on slender black poles illuminated by powerful pin lights under birdcage-shaped glass domes. The effect is like looking at a sculpture in a museum.

Customers can examine the buds on cantilevered glass countertops. For a closer inspection—to ensure the cannabis is free of disease, rot or other defects—microscopes are available that project images of the buds onto large, wall-mounted monitors.

Medithrive manager Sheryl Clark said the dispensary was designed to give customers a feeling of openness and ease. “We’re all about transparency,” she said. “We wanted to make sure our customers can get close to the product and close to our staff.”

Word has apparently gotten out. Medithrive has been featured on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and in the style section of the Los Angeles Times, and one of its staff members was recently voted best “budtender” by readers of SFWeekly.

Across the Bay in Oakland, Harborside Health Center, founded by renowned marijuana evangelist Steve DeAngelo, is one of the oldest and largest medical cannabis dispensaries in the country. Harborside doesn’t have the sleek, polished vibe of its San Francisco rivals, but it does offer a warm, inviting ambiance, which is exactly what designer Yolanda Felix intended.

“When we opened Harborside 10 years ago, going to a dispensary felt like visiting a jail,” Felix said. “There were angry, mean-looking guards behind bulletproof glass. You went down into this dark place. It made you feel like you were doing something wrong. We wanted to bring it into the light.”

Harborside is located in a nondescript brick building on the Embarcadero, across from Alameda that was once occupied by tunnel builders. (There is also another dispensary in San José.) “The first day I saw it, I thought it was the ugliest building I had ever seen,” Felix recalled. “It was just a horrible place.” She ripped down the interior walls to open up the space and broke through the exterior walls to bring in more natural light.

“My intention was to make it a clean, open space where people could move around easily,” she said. “I wanted everyone to feel comfortable no matter who they were, rich or poor, young or old.”

Felix used her limited budget to build angled glass display cases that enabled customers to examine the goods without having to lean over. She painted the walls white and used natural, nontoxic materials. “We’re not decorated,” she explained. “It’s a simple, utilitarian design. I felt my job was to set the stage for our patients, to create a special place where they could shine.”

About the Author
Jen Chan, MBA, is the founder and president of White Tiger Condo Conversion, a pioneering San Francisco real estate service company specializing in multifamily residential condo conversion. She has more than 25 years of experience in business, residential, and commercial real estate. White Tiger’s vision is to help San Franciscans, Oaklanders, and other Bay Area residents realize the opportunity of home ownership and increase wealth while at the same time building more vibrant and diverse communities. Its mission is “transforming properties, transforming lives” by creating more alternative, market-rate, affordable home ownership and building wealth through condo conversion—in essence, achieving the New American Dream. For additional information, visit WhiteTiger.us.

This article will also appear in The VIEW, the quarterly publication jointly curated by the three Bay Area chapters of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW)—CREW San Francisco, CREW East Bay, and CREW Silicon Valley. CREW is a nationwide business networking organization dedicated to the advancement of women in commercial real estate. For chapter news, events, and membership information, visit the Bay Area member organization websites at crewsf.org, creweastbay.org, and crewsv.org.