I pulled into a shopping center off of West Elliot Road in Tempe, AZ just before 3:30pm on a Wednesday and soon spotted the green "Harvest" sign above the suite I was there to visit. I waited for a shady parking spot to open up so that my gas-sipping Prius rental wouldn't feel too much like an oven when I returned to it. I was here to meet with Liesl Sicz, the general manager of Harvest of Tempe-- possibly one of the most well-designed medical marijuana dispensaries in the Southwest. A car soon left and I slipped into the open spot, gathered my notes (and my confidence), and headed into the shop.
No sooner was my sandaled right foot in the door than I was greeted by an energetic, focused, older gentleman donning a security badge-style name tag that read, "Bob." Bob quickly greeted me with a smile and upon telling him I was there to meet with Liesl, gracious escorted me to the cafe next door where she was lunching. I thought, "Wow, these folks are friendly AND on-point." I had no idea how accurate this first impression was.
Liesl, a beautiful, petite brunette, sat eating her lunch and despite the clear interruption I was causing, didn't hesitate to invite me to sit down and thanked me for coming by to meet with her. We dived straight into a conversation that would last an hour and would transpire as though we were already friends.
Our discussion quickly focused on the state of the MMJ industries in our own states-- mine being California, hers being Arizona. I explained to her the nature of California's ever-unreliable medical marijuana industry. Although California was the first state in the country to legalize MMJ for medical purposes in 1996, the Golden State did anything but lead by a positive example. The lack of regulatory framework and the pervasive use of the industry for profit and illicit means has once again left patients and providers in a post-crack down state of confusion, illegitimacy, and flat out risk. I am no stranger to this reality, as the dispensary I worked at and helped run for three years was shut down in May of 2013. Despite our great efforts to operate Orange County’s Patient Care in a professional, honest, compassionate manner, the lack of rules and regulations for California medical marijuana providers ultimately groups the good businesses with the bad when city and county-wide crack downs take place.
And then you cross over state lines into Arizona, and it's a totally different picture.
Arizona's MMJ industry is just beginning to emerge in comparison to other states, like California, Colorado, and Washington. Their medical marijuana program is governed by the Arizona Department of Health Services. Dispensary locations are chosen through a state lottery which currently allows only one dispensary to operate in each pre-determined Community Health Assessment Area, or CHAA. There is also an extensive set of rules and regulations in place that oversee everything from security and inventory, to pre-operation inspections and sales. Dispensaries must operate as non-profits, and are allowed one cultivation site. It is this framework of regulations and oversight that allow the dispensary owners the peace of mind that they are abiding by laws and competing fairly with other dispensaries in the state. It allows them to focus on running their businesses with the peace of mind that any other business in any other legitimate industry has.
Liesl's background is in retail. Her husband, who is on the board of directors for Harvest, got her involved in the dispensary prior to its opening on May 4, 2013. For those of you who haven't seen Harvest, I highly recommend checking out their website, www.harvestoftempe.com. They have a time lapse video posted of the construction of their space. It is fascinating. This is an example of a dispensary that made their space fit their needs exactly. In working with a general contractor, they were referred to an interior designer who created their unique and vibrant branding and interior design to fulfill their vision. They also worked closely with the Tempe Police Department-- whom she often cited as a "very important relationship" to them-- for insights and suggestions on how best to design the security features of the shop, including the bullet proof glass, vault room, and plethora of security camera locations. "Our shop is designed like a bank," Liesl said. "But the designer played a huge role in making sure it doesn’t feel like a bank. She was able to make it feel warm and inviting and comfortable to our guests, even though the place is as secure as it is."
The professional designer was able to provide interior design elements that most amateurs don't have the expertise or vision to execute. The waiting room is fully designed to be both comfortable and open. A small space, the designer choose to use a lot of glass to give a more open feel; a far cry from the standard cave-like feel of many California dispensary waiting rooms. The designer also opted for wall coverings that were more creative, interesting, and attractive than just simply throwing some paint up. Wood paneling and a large 3-dimensional logo give warmth and texture to the concrete floored space, and the small bit of wall space that was left after the implementation of the bullet-proof glass wall and large store front window is covered in a large-scale image of a grain field and windmill-- An interesting take on the word "harvest" when you are in the context of a medical marijuana dispensary.
Being from out of state, I wasn't allowed back into the product area per the City of Tempe guidelines, but could easily see into the space through the French door that lead into it from the lobby-- another refreshing find for a California dispensary goer. The merchandising is kept to a minimum, yet is still clearly planned out.
When I asked Liesl what the driving force was behind the owners' decision to hire a designer and pay as much attention to the design of their dispensary as they did, her answer came without a trace of hesitation.
"The patient experience. Everything we do is about that patient experience."
Successful dispensaries cannot rely on the quality of their product alone. Nor is it a business that can be successful and meaningful if you only pay attention to price. So much of what keeps customers coming back, no matter what your store sells, is the way your customer feels when they experience you. Do you create an environment that calls them back time and again? Do they feel comfortable spending money on the products you offer? Do they feel like they are a criminal for being there, or do they feel the way they do when they visit the doctor, or a clothing store, or Starbucks?
According to Medical Marijuana Business Daily’s Marijuana Business Factbook 2013, one out of every three patients prefer an upscale, relaxed environment in their dispensary, and one in five seeks something with a more clinical feel. Harvest of Tempe has executed a delicate balance between these two criteria, and so far it is paying off.
If Harvest of Tempe is any indication of where the future of our country's medical marijuana industry is headed, and I truly believe they are, interior design will play a much larger role in the planning and success of the businesses that participate and succeed.
"I absolutely believe that interior design has played a role in our success," Liesl told me. "A business's needs change overtime as it grows, brings on new products, and adapts to its customer base. Bringing a designer in to the business allows us to maintain the customer experience, and we need the expertise of a designer to achieve that."
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