"Just as we treat a glass of wine with dinner, this is how I'm treating cannabis—as an accent to the meal."
That's Chris Sayegh describing his approach to cooking. The Los Angeles chef prepares elaborate multicourse dinner menus, with foie gras custard, citrus-cured salmon, and pomegranate sorbet—all infused with cannabis extracts.
Sayegh calls himself "The Herbal Chef," which is, obviously, THC for short. "Everything is subtle," he says, describing his use of weed as if it were thyme. "That way, you can enjoy the entirety of the meal without getting overwhelmed."
For Sayegh and other chefs delving into the growing sector of high cuisine, cannabis is an equal member of the dining experience. No different from a bottle of Pinot Noir.
Legal marijuana is a rapidly growing industry. Sales in the U.S. are expected to hit $22.8 billion annually by 2020, even though states allowing recreational use are still limited. Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington are where you can buy weed without a prescription, although California may join that list this fall. And while cannabis has long been associated with food (you might be familiar with "the munchies"), stoned dining is now getting the luxury treatment. An increasing number of entrepreneurs want to cater to discerning palates.
For his dinners, Sayegh prefers to use THC extracts rather than asking his patrons to smoke joints. He sees no place at the table for soot, ash, or heat on one’s tongue. In fact, he doesn't even want you to taste the cannabis. With a joint, he says, "Your palette isn't clean to taste the food, and to me, it’s all about the integrity of the food. I don't want it to take away from the flavors of the dish." The use of weed in his recipes is a full sensory experience. "You're literally changing people's brain chemistry as they're eating," he says.
Sayegh hosts about six events a month in private homes and event spaces in California, with attendance ranging from 12 to 80, at $300-$500 a ticket. (If it’s a sponsored event, the meal is free.) In the past four months alone, business has grown more than 400%. He sees this growth as a sign of "the culmination of everything"—a perfect storm of the rise of the foodie, the destigmatization and legalization of marijuana use, and the growing cannabis dining market.
Other venturers into the spacey food space include celebrity chefs. Top Chef star Hosea Rosenberg cooks seasonal, multicourse marijuana pairing meals for the Mason Jar Event group in Colorado. Unlike Sayegh's dinners, Rosenberg pairs more traditional edibles (primarily bars and candies) with (non-infused) dishes like pork roast with organic mustard greens, Western Slope apricots, Israeli couscous, and cherry cobbler topped with spiced amaretto ice cream and smoked candied almonds. Mason Jar plans these meals for "the cannabis connoisseur and the cannabis curious," with much of the experience dedicated to educating diners on different varieties. Rosenberg's events are so popular, they each receive as many as 10 sponsors (all from various sectors of the marijuana business), up from four just a year ago. Mason Jar is currently planning a 5,000-person event for 2017.
Who are these people, spending hours savoring their way through a groovy marijuana haze? A fair amount are tourists looking to enjoy the local recreational pot scene. "You get to try all these different strains," says Jane West, owner of Edible Events, which plans cannabis events in Denver. "It’s no different than an entire weekend of wine tasting in Sonoma." Well, maybe there's one difference. "We can't guarantee you won’t get cotton mouth," she says.
Private clients account for a large portion of business: Corporates eager to discover the emerging industry and individuals interested in testing the cannabis hospitality industry. Philip Wolf, founder of the culinary cannabis company Cultivating Spirits in Colorado, has two weddings planned this summer in addition to several dinners.
"Cannabis is a third layer to the dinner party," he explains. "You have your food, you have your drink, and now you have cannabis—it’s a cool element to add."
Within just a year, Cultivating Spirits, which pairs food with marijuana that guests smoke via pipes, increased its dinners from one to four a month. Wolf serves dishes such as coffee-rubbed sirloin with wild mushroom risotto and cherry-port demi glace, matched with a nug of Tangerine x Flo indica hybrid. In the next year, they intend to franchise the experience and expand to California once they’ve secured more investors.
"I think it’s going to explode," says Wolf, adding that he's witnessed a dramatic shift in consumer perception regarding luxury treatment of cannabis. "People are starting to trust that it’s legitimate."
Not that the marriage of food and getting high is anything new. It’s long been known that cannabis increases the senses, and therefore, one’s appetite. "It enhances food just like wine does, so it’s only natural that it’s an exact fit with fine dining," West says. "Cannabis is much more multifaceted than alcohol . . . that’s why there are so many chefs and food companies that want to work in this space."
And that’s why edibles have been such a huge facet of the recreational cannabis sector. Gummy bears, candy bars, beef jerky—you can find marijuana-infused versions of almost every traditional snack food. But in the last few years, more unique products have been spotted on dispensary shelves.
"It’s not just about brownies or cookies anymore," says Cy Scott, CEO and cofounder of Headset, a cannabis data analytics and market intelligence firm in Seattle. The company witnessed diversification across several subcategories of edibles, which now make up 7% of all sales of cannabis. "Now you're seeing brittle, honey, sugars, cooking oils," he says.
These lines can often be an extension of event planners' and chefs’ businesses. For example, West sells low-dose cannabis products "expertly made for the new user," including an olive oil kit intended for home infusions. They come in rosemary and Meyer lemon flavors.
"I was thinking way too small with just events," West says. "This stuff sells itself."
Sayegh also produces a line of products: cannabis-laced marinara sauce, basil pesto, ketchups, and mustards. Still, he believes pot dining might remain a niche market. "I see it growing rapidly, then flattening out. Cannabis is not all about going all out all the time; it’s about moderation."
He predicts that once the current high dining trend plateaus, the edibles market will continue to grow. "Edibles will become huge, that’s the way of the future," he says. "Food is the way."
A new crop of companies are banking on this. Stillwater, a line of THC-infused tea bags, is one recent sponsor of Mason Jar Events. They provide Arnold Palmers, a mixture of lemonade and their black tea over ice. The organic brand’s products contain 2.5mg THC (the state of Colorado has a recommended dose of 10mg), offering consumers what owner Melissa Bradley calls "relaxation instead of impairment."
Stillwater specifically wanted to create something sophisticated that would appeal to a more grown-up audience. After seeing how other companies were simply going after stoners, it set on targeting working professionals and, yes, moms. According to one Stillwater employee (who preferred to remain anonymous), "women are completely underserved by the market right now." Tea hits a sweet spot: It's functional, it’s healthy, and it’s a daily ritual many women swear by.
"For moms especially, there is a lot to be done during the day," says Bradley. "Children wake up in the middle of the night. Things happen. It's nice to relax, but if you're inebriated and life hits the fan, you need to be in the right mind-set to act." Describing the philosophy behind their micro-dosing business model,
she says, "Theres a level of personalization in the market that is yet to be tapped. We made something with ourselves in mind, something we would want to consume."
But how many cannabis lovers want that, really? Are users accustomed to getting the biggest bang for their buck by noshing on a THC-packed brownie going to shell out money for luxury goods with a low dose? "There's an interesting dichotomy in the industry right now," says Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer for the Denver-based Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, which sells gourmet chocolates, beverages, and mints. "There's a romanticized vision of this discriminating, high-end consumer that is willing to pay extra for the packaging and finer ingredients." In his estimation, this group is poised to grow.
Dixie's elevated line of products is meant to appeal to a refined palate. The goal is to appear upscale without scaring off consumers accustomed to a certain reasonable price point. The average Dixie chocolate bar retails for $15; the elixirs, which include flavors like Old Fashioned Sarsaparilla and Dixie One Watermelon Cream, go for about $17. For comparison, the average market price for a pot brownie ranges from $5-$10.
"We recognize our best play is not to say we're a luxury item; we [market ourselves] as a value item in the sense that we're offering really great quality that leads to great taste," he says. "But we're offering it at the right price."
Overall, the company has seen steady 25% revenue growth, year over year, since 2014. In addition, headcount has tripled in the last two years, and their market has expanded from one (Colorado) to six, with the addition of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Washington. (Not all products are available in all states, however.) Their elixirs are still the most popular, but the gourmet chocolates are quickly gaining speed as their second best-sellers.
Hodas believes there will always be a subset of consumers looking for high-end treats. Because as he sees it, who doesn't appreciate biting into something luxuriously delicious? As the press-shy Stillwater rep points out, "You could also just take a pill, but that's soulless. Ultimately, you want something that tastes good."