It’s been a long, slow process, but the legalization of cannabis in the United States is hitting main streets across the country. The growth of the marijuana business has led to a new kind of store–the recreational cannabis dispensary–and posed a new challenge for designers. Now that people can walk into stores and buy cannabis, what should those stores look like?
That’s a question the interdisciplinary design firm the McBride Company is at the forefront of trying to answer. Known for its flamboyantly kitschy, Caribbean getaway designs of dozens of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurants—as well as the slightly less kitschy Margaritaville resorts and the yes-this-actually-exists Latitude Margaritaville retirement communities—the McBride Company has been steadily translating its themed environment design to the burgeoning retail cannabis business.
After working with more than half a dozen dispensaries and cannabis retailers, firm founder Pat McBride says the future of cannabis design is not so different from an over-the-top Margaritaville.
“The initial dispensaries looked more like a pharmacy or GNC or an Apple store. The connection to the history, the music, and the story of cannabis was basically eliminated,” McBride says. A former member of the soft rock band New Colony Six, which charted a few Top 40 hits in the late 1960s, McBride understands why the first dispensaries took a more conservative design approach in the early days of decriminalization, but decided that cannabis shouldn’t turn its back on its counter-culture roots. “We didn’t want to be doing what the existing few dispensaries that had opened at the time had done,” he says. “They were actually sort of anti-cannabis in their atmosphere.”
So McBride and his design team embraced the wacky side of weed. Its dispensary design for Maine-based Grass Monkey is an eccentric and fluorescent store, with an emphasis on graffiti art and monkey-themed sculptures and product displays. Jungle plants spill from shelves, and an oversize banana accents the main product display. The store does all the things the business needs—making customers feel comfortable, and enabling workers to help guide them through the purchasing experience—but tries to make it more than just a transaction. “We felt like, in addition, what if we could make it interesting, enjoyable, and a unique experience?” McBride says.
The firm is applying this concept to a forthcoming dispensary for Oakland-based Root’d that will also be a consumption lounge and live music venue, with cocktail bar-like seating and mood lighting more similar to a club than a packaged-goods store.
Even Margaritaville is getting into the game, with its new Coral Reefer brand cannabis stores that embrace the smokier side of the Jimmy Buffett island lifestyle.
“Things are changing logarithmically,” McBride says. “This has turned into a big, interesting world for us, where the rules that apply in a lot of other businesses are being written now, and we’re getting the opportunity to help write some of those criteria.”
This experience in the cannabis business has also started to inform the company’s other projects, including a recent design for a U.S. outpost of Peanuts Cafe, a restaurant based on the classic comic strip. Though it would seem a far cry from the day-drinking of Margaritaville and the bud-sniffing at a place called Grass Monkey, Peanuts Cafe was actually partly inspired by these adults-only spaces. During the development of the cafe concept, McBride says the design team suggested thinking more broadly about what the cafe could be.
“This was a blasphemy, but because we had the strength from what we learned from cannabis, we said we think there should be a bar in these things. A real bar. I mean booze,” McBride says. The company was taken aback at first, he says, but the idea caught on. As a result, their concept includes a piano-shaped bar, based on the instrument of the Schroeder character in the comic. Whenever a location is selected, beer, wine, and cocktails will be on the menu.
McBride says this more playful approach to design—in cafes, restaurants, hotels, and especially cannabis dispensaries—is becoming a bigger part of the way his firm approaches its work. With the pandemic beginning to wane enough for in-person activities to resume, McBride says designs that emphasize novel experiences will be even more attractive to people. “Socialization is going to be more important than ever,” he says. “We’re trying to let what we’re learning from entertainment and from cannabis to cross-pollinate everything.”