Opinion: Leaning into cannabis retail with lessons from liquor

Credit: Courtesy of Muse Cannabis

Opening soon: The first Muse Cannabis location, in Vancouvers South Granville neighbourhood

When my family company branched out into marijuana, decades in the B.C. drinks business helped us hit the ground running

After 38 years in liquor retail in B.C., we’re breaking into the cannabis industry. And it’s all possible because of the lessons we’ve learned from liquorAt first we thought marijuana might be a substitute for alcohol, but now we see the two products in a more complementary light, even though they can’t be purchased together. In other words, we had to create a separate business plan and concept to get into cannabis.

JAK’s is a fourth-generation family business, so in 2015, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau included the legalization of recreational marijuana in his election platform, our dinner table debates started. Is now the time to expand beyond liquor? What about the stigmas and stereotypes associated with pot? We could see the potential, but our first big hurdle to overcome wasn’t in the boardroom—it was in the living room as we navigated a generational divide on cannabis.

After much discussion and debate, we all came to see the synergies between selling liquor and cannabis, and the natural expansion opportunity it presented for us. Following the election, it was game on to strategize how we would bring our new concept, Muse Cannabis, to life.

It’s all about location, location, location

Then the real work started. Here’s what we learned about creating cannabis stores, in an emerging industry, with no real case study to go by. We had no choice but to lean on our many lessons from liquor.

Location is everything, and setting up a retail space near an anchor tenant like a pharmacy or grocery store is always preferable. When we first tried to secure retail space for Muse, it was obvious that finding a spot that checked all the boxes would be challenging. Since we wouldn’t compromise on location, our first step was to differentiate ourselves from the fly-by-night retailers that many landlords were concerned about.

Asset managers, landlords and developers were—and to some degree still are—after safe, vanilla-type tenants and understandably didn’t want to take a risk on a cannabis store when immediately images of Cheech & Chong customers came to mind.

It was my job to leverage our reputation at JAK’s to convince them otherwise, which was how we signed our first retail space on Vancouver’s South Granville. We now have additional lease agreements for Muse locations in Courtenay and Campbell River, with more pending across Metro Vancouver. But it continues to be a lesson in patience and persistence when we’re dealing with perception challenges and other issues beyond our control.

Despite what the headlines say about a decline in stigmas associated with cannabis, they’re alive and well in the business community. Legwork was necessary, but ultimately we had to hustle for the best spot in a new industry.

Community engagement combats NIMBY-ism every time

When it comes to anything that could be perceived as even slightly controversial, nothing beats real connection with people in the community. To hear ideas and concerns, and take the time to listen to people, whether they support the concept of a JAK’s or Muse location in their backyard—or not—is part of the process.

That’s why we hit the pavement and started talking about what Muse Cannabis would be: a larger-format store that would create a positive shopping experience and promote a healthy lifestyle through cannabis.

In our engagement efforts, we received more than 500 signatures of support in the communities where we’re in the process of setting up shop. Even two years ago, this level of encouragement would seem unfathomable. In South Granville, we engaged the local business community and were met with sheer excitement; most people simply wanted to know when Muse was opening.

Growing? Get uncomfortable

We hope to open up to eight Muse locations across B.C. in the next 12 to 24 months, with the grand opening of Muse South Granville tentatively set for early June. There’s no way we could move at such breakneck speed, navigating the challenges of a new industry, and the municipal and provincial approval processes, if we didn’t have the scratches and scars from expanding our liquor business to 15 locations on a similar timeline.

To achieve our bold expansion goals with Muse, we need to leave our egos at the door because when we work together, we’re unstoppable. We’ve learned the importance of celebrating our victories and losses as a team, especially in times of uncomfortable growth.

Mike McKee is a director of finance and partner for JAK’s Beer Wine & Spirits, and Muse Cannabis