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It’s Happening: Will MedMen Become The Starbucks Of Weed?

California’s MedMen is a leader in the legal marijuana gold rush. The chain of recreational and medical cannabis shops is even going public in Canada.

It’s Happening: Will MedMen Become The Starbucks Of Weed?
[Photo: courtesy of MedMen]

At the end of Weeds’s eight-season run, marijuana-dealing queenpin Nancy Botwin (Golden Globe winner Mary-Louise Parker) winds up going legit. In the series finale, set years in the future, cannabis has finally been legalized, and she’s running a chain of recreational pot shops that the four-times-widowed mom of three eventually sells to Starbucks for a killing. It was a neat wrap-up to the acclaimed show—and one that was eerie, looking back, in its prescience.

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Since the finale in 2012, recreational marijuana use has become legal in Colorado (2014), and six other states after that, including California earlier this year. And the chain of ganja shops fantasized about in Weeds? Well, it’s happening.

On a recent night in trendy West Hollywood, that Nancy Botwin future is happening now (sans the association with Starbucks). A line of men and women chat cheerily outside a Santa Monica storefront. They aren’t waiting for a hot new coffee shop or wine bar to open its doors. They’re queued up for pot.

[Photo: courtesy of MedMen]

California’s Ganja Gold Rush

Since cannabis became legal for recreational use in California in January, pot retailers have been springing up throughout the Golden State. And we’re not talking ones like the dumpy head shops of yore. Today’s weed stores are upscale, sleek affairs where customers can browse through an array of products and accessories, such as $295 vape pens that look like iPods, and cannabis-infused edibles in fancy packaging.

One of the companies leading the way in the upscaling of pot is MedMen, a Los Angeles-based company with 700 employees that manages and owns nearly a dozen cannabis shops and cultivating and manufacturing operations in California, Nevada, and New York (where only medical cannabis is sold). Later this year, the company’s expansion plans even include a Fifth Avenue flagship in Manhattan.

MedMen’s recreational use stores all adhere to the same design aesthetic: an open space where customers can mill around reclaimed-wood tables outfitted with iPads (a few swipes will get you detailed information on various marijuana strains) and bud pods in clear plastic cases, which can be sniffed and examined with a magnifying glass. Swarms of young “sales associates” in bright red T-shirts emblazoned with the logo “Shop. It’s legal.” provide guidance for an enhanced shopping experience. The overall vibe is that of an Apple store, albeit with an unmistakable aroma.

[Photo: courtesy of MedMen]

Mainstreaming Marijuana

MedMen’s strategy is to make buying recreational weed akin to “going to buy a new computer or a new set of headphones, or to get something fixed,” says MedMen cofounder and CEO Adam Bierman. “Our overall goal is mainstreaming marijuana.” This means expanding the drug’s customer base beyond stoners to “Chardonnay moms” and “nine-to-five dads who previously came home and opened up a bottle or had a shot or took a Xanax.”

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He continues: “For someone who’s never used marijuana before, and now their friends are telling them it’s legal and they want to go see what it’s about, I’m going to make that experience something that feels normal. Something that feels good, that they’d be comfortable integrating into their weekly routine.”

As more states loosen their marijuana laws, the pot industry is projected to grow to $50 billion in 2026 from $6 billion last year, according to a report from Cowen & Co. Much of this growth is expected to come from untapped demographics, such as the aforementioned Chardonnay moms and other older, affluent consumers who see marijuana more as lifestyle-enhancing than mind-altering.

“I think historically, if you look at YouTube, you see people taking dab hits on these devices that look scary to me,” Bierman says. “And then getting excited about how they got stuck on the couch for eight hours. That’s not what people want. That’s not what mainstream consumers want. That’s not the future.”

[Photo: courtesy of MedMen]
This explains why so much of MedMen’s stores are devoted to vaping pens, and edibles like gummies and marijuana-infused granola bars. The stores carry over 1,000 products, which are arranged decoratively along the walls. Although smokable cannabis accounts for 60% of MedMen’s sales, that number is expected to drop as new users are drawn to less traditional ways of consuming pot.

MedMen tracks all these trends through the data it collects on its customers, who are required to show identification when they enter the store. The company also conducts focus groups to try and predict where the market is going. “We know what they’re buying, who they are, where they come from, what their background is, and not only what they’re buying today, but what they’re buying over periods of time,” Bierman says. “We can track all that so we can stay ahead of it and plan for it.”

Bierman and his cofounder Andrew Modlin started the company nearly a decade ago when medical marijuana was first gaining legal ground. The a-ha moment came when Bierman and Modlin were running a branding and design company and were asked by a “blue-haired lady” who ran a medical dispensary in L.A. to provide consulting.

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“By the time that meeting was over, I was determined to learn more about the business of marijuana,” says Bierman, who was not a pot smoker. “It was just a shock to me that I walked into this storefront that was so run down, so filthy, so unattractive, and when I started going through my questions—which revolved around, How many customers do you see a day? What is your revenue per month? What do you want to grow to?—the answers she was giving me, I had to check her multiple times because I did not believe her. But the answers were true. That somebody like that could run a business that outwardly appeared to be run so poorly yet was creating those numbers—it was intriguing to me.”

Going Public

Bierman saw a parallel between marijuana and gambling, believing that there was simply too much demand for pot, and too much economic incentive, given the potential tax revenue, for it to remain illegal for very long. So he and Modlin opened a medical marijuana dispensary and eventually expanded into cultivation and manufacturing. Their initial model was to pair up with marijuana license holders and then come in and operate and manage (and in most cases totally revamp) their stores, but today they both own and manage properties.

Through a private equity fund, the company has raised $135 million. And soon, the company is planning to go public in Canada, which is legalizing weed nationwide. Although nationwide legalization is likely far off in the U.S., the breakthrough in California means heady times for MedMen. On the first day in January that recreational use was okay, the line to get into the West Hollywood store (only 45 people are allowed in at one time) snaked around the block. By the end of the month, 23,606 customers had passed through the doors, a 350% increase from the previous January.

Bierman maintains that the regulation lift is good news, but says he’s not “jumping up and down about it. It’s part of the plan. We’re building this company not because California has retail pot. We’re building this company not because New York has medical pot. We’re building this company because we believe that prohibition will end, and marijuana will become mainstream and accessible to pretty much all Americans. And as that’s happening in front of our eyes—while we’re living, which is crazy—we’re building this company to be at the forefront of it and shepherd it in in the right way.”

Like Nancy Botwin.

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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