WEST HOLLYWOOD — Like any good chef about to open a restaurant, Andrea Drummer wants to get her pairings just right. But her lamb chops with plantain-mango salsa won’t be matched with wine or beer.
Instead, a “budtender” — some in the industry call them ganjiers, as in ganja sommeliers — will help guests at the soon-to-open Lowell Farms cannabis cafe pair their farm-to-table meal with the perfect strain of farm-to-table marijuana.
“A kush is a little more pungent, so it pairs better with a stew, or something like a beef or a meat product. A lighter lemon profile goes nicely with a fish,” said Drummer. One of her favorite strains, Blue Dream, “pairs well with both savory and sweet. I’ve done it with ice cream, and with bread puddings, but I’ve also done it with octopus.”
When the rustic, plant-filled 220-seat space opens, it will be the first of its kind in America: a place for locals and tourists to have a high-quality meal and smoke a joint in public. Other restaurants are soon to follow. But if they want weed on the menu, restaurateurs in the famously progressive city — which in 2017 approved an ordinance allowing business licenses for this purpose — will still have to navigate a complicated patchwork of regulations.
“With cannabis, we are building the boat as we’re on the water,” said Jackie Subeck, who plans to open a cannabis spa, clinic and cafe and serves as the chairwoman of the cannabis legislative subcommittee for the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
States that have legalized recreational cannabis will be watching how the city pulls it off. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed a bill in May allowing cannabis lounges. If legalization continues apace, cannabis restaurants might eventually become as normal as wine bars.
“Whatever West Hollywood does now,” said Sean Black, co-founder of Lowell Herb Co., the cannabis company opening the cafe, “the rest of the blue states, at least, [do] three years later.”
Cannabis restaurants face unique challenges
Running a cannabis restaurant is nothing like running a typical restaurant in West Hollywood. Cannabis businesses cannot serve alcohol, so drinks are zero-proof. The state does not permit cannabis businesses to operate after 10 p.m., so Lowell Farms cannabis cafe must have last call for cannabis before then — though it can remain open until 2 a.m. (Leonard said West Hollywood hopes to be granted an exemption.) The businesses cannot be within 600 feet of a day care or a school. Some neighbors, including a synagogue across the street from the Lowell cafe, aren’t too happy about sharing a block with a cannabis business.
Because the federal government still considers cannabis a Schedule 1 drug, most banks are unwilling to serve cannabis businesses, which must rely on alternative banks and credit unions or cash transactions. (The California Senate approved legislation in May that creates a pathway for more banks to work with cannabis companies.) When the city collected more than $1 million in license application money, it was primarily in cash.
Leonard said he anticipates that many businesses will pay their taxes in cash, too, which “creates risks for everybody,” he said. “We have to have multiple people in the room counting cash. We have to have sheriff’s deputies there with the cash being counted. We have to have armored cars coming in, picking it up.”
Tables probably won’t turn as quickly at cannabis restaurants because guests who are high may be more likely to linger. Lowell’s plans for a roof deck were scuttled because cannabis consumption cannot be seen from the street, so smokers must partake in a walled-in garden at street level. And guests who don’t finish their cannabis won’t be able to take it home.
“They’re going to purchase less,” said Subeck. “How is a business supposed to survive if they can’t sell products?”
It might encourage some people to take a larger dose in the interest of getting their money’s worth. The restaurant also has to ensure guests don’t over-consume, and that’s trickier than a budtender cutting someone off. Cannabis — especially when ingested — affects everyone differently, depending on body mass and tolerance level, so a dose that barely registers for one guest could send another sky-high.
Cannabis cafes are not yet the moneymaker they seem to be. The added expenses — extra staff and 24-hour security, pricey vents to suck up the smoke, lobbying and preparing the license proposal — mean the Lowell cafe will cost approximately $3 million to open.
“The chance of this being a real moneymaking operation is that it is truly the first of its kind and it becomes a tradition throughout America, and 30 years from now, it’s a historical landmark and the first place in America cannabis was served,” said Black.
City officials hope the gamble eventually pays off. West Hollywood is ready for marijuana tourists and hopes the new businesses — which include a virtual-reality space and an art gallery with a cannabis lounge — attract them in droves. There are already cannabis tour buses, and the city’s dispensaries do brisk business. The Standard Hotel has plans to open a high-end shop in its lobby by cannabis company Lord Jones. And in August, the company WeedMaps opened a 30,000-square-foot Museum of Cannabis in Hollywood, with exhibits both educational (the science of terpenes) and Instagrammable (a room that looks like a psychedelic lava lamp).
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Leonard estimates that once most of the new businesses are up and running, annual cannabis tax revenue will be between $5 million and $6 million.
“Amsterdam kind of went to step one,” with its simple cannabis coffee shops, said Rachel Burkons, who co-owns Altered Plates, a culinary collective and cannabis hospitality company. “I think these are going to be much more robust in terms of their overall concept and execution and are going to really kind of blow that out of the water.”