The bong hits come with cheeseburgers, and you can order pre-rolls with your nachos at Lowell Cafe in West Hollywood, the only place in the Western Hemisphere where you can purchase cannabis and food in a legal indoor and outdoor restaurant and consumption lounge.
At Lowell Cafe, you can bring in your own cannabis, for which you pay a $30 “corkage” fee, or else purchase pot either from Lowell Herb Co., the licensed producer which owns the restaurant and uses it as the ultimate last stop in vertical integration, or else buy weed from California brands like Lola Lola, Maven Genetics and Stone Road Farms.
The food menu is two-pages long; the cannabis menu runs eight pages, and the prices are slightly higher than what you’d pay at an L.A. dispensary. The vibe, managed by 47-year-old chef and co-owner Andrea Drummer, is chill.
“I’m surprised you guys don’t have anything like this in Canada,” Drummer said on my recent visit, in which the cannabis enthusiast mentioned working with Canadian investors. “I think we benefit every branch of the industry – producers, extractors, tourism. Every ancillary business that even touches the plant in any fashion benefits revenue-wise when there’s great places for like-minded adults to consume.”
It’s difficult to know when something like Lowell Cafe might open in Canada. Consumption lounges are an issue for provinces and municipalities to approve, and while “farmgate” direct sales from the growers to consumers is currently legal under federal regulations, it’s one of the many activations yet to be achieved on the ground.
“Obviously it’s a new and exciting revenue stream that takes a product and turns it into an experience – it’s inviting someone over to your house for dinner instead of showing them a picture on Instagram,” says Dan Sutton, CEO of Tantalus Labs, a privately held B.C.-based LP that aims to ramp up production from 2,500 kilos in 2019 to 7,500 kilograms in the new year. “Politics are slow, but the tax revenue on something like Lowell Cafe is too good for the provinces to ignore – I bet we see this in Canada within the next three to five years.”
Lowell Cafe, which opened Oct. 1, currently seats between 800 and 1,200 people a day, seven days a week. It closes at 10 p.m., and doesn’t serve alcohol or cannabis-infused food. But Drummer says she wants to stay open until 2 a.m., add liquor, and add more locations, including in Santa Barbara - where her parent company is based - and Las Vegas, which opened a consumption lounge last month on a native American reserve.
Alison Gordon, CEO of Canadian licensed producer 48North, used to run dispensaries in Los Angeles, and while she’d love to open a consumption lounge and create an create an experience for her customers, it’s pretty far down on her current wish list of government priorities with respect to the weed business.
“There’s bigger fish to fry, like packaging, branding and marketing regulations, and getting the actual stores opened,” says Gordon.
“If we had more creative spaces where you can legally consume legal product, we’d increase our 14-per-cent adoption rate,” says Gordon, referring to the fact that most Canadian are still largely purchasing cannabis in the illicit market. "From a business perspective, regulated consumption lounges gives the advantage back to legal weed, where we’d also enjoy better margins.”
At the Lowell Cafe, the room isn’t oppressively smoky, though the outdoor tables are completely filled, while inside there’s space at the milkshake-serving bar. Ambient music is played at a tolerable level and the customers are young and diverse, yet there’s not much fraternizing between tables. I spend $30 to rent a bong and enjoy my burger, although Drummer acknowledges that people aren’t waiting in line around the block for her turkey club sandwich. The typical customer, according to Drummer, orders their cannabis first (very roughly averaging 1 gram per consumer) then food, then orders more cannabis – then more food.
In its two months of operation, the police have never been called and there’s been no fights or visits by EMS. Charles Khabouth, a restaurateur in Toronto with 30 years of experience who launched pot company TREC Brands last May with $10-million in private equity, says he already has the design completed for his cannabis restaurant.
“I’m in touch with the people from our municipality and looking at being vertically integrated, and being first,” says Khabouth, who owned three smoking lounges at the turn of the millennium, spending $75,000 on ventilation at each one. He says the cannabis industry is rife with inexperienced operators, such as the Ontario woman who wanted him to buy her dispensary license for $4-million. Khabouth declined, and says that legalization 2.0 will be won by real companies with real fundamentals who know how to run their business.
“Leading up to legalization, the market was inflated, everybody jumped in and cannabis businesses, fuelled by speculation, were based on dreams,” says Khabouth, predicting he could open his restaurant, which would serve infused food, within the next two years. “A restaurant like Lowell Cafe in Canada would have a huge impact on our industry because it helps a brand have a long-term relationship with its clients and, maybe most importantly, decrease the stigma that unfortunately still exists.”
Eds note: On Dec. 2, 2019, Lowell Cafe the Original Cannabis Cafe.