Art-focused retailer sprouts in a central California cannabis desert

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Image of an art exhibit at The Artist Tree

The Artist Tree works with the Fresno Arts Council to host events. (Photo courtesy of The Artist Tree)

(This story is part of the cover package for the May-June issue of MJBizMagazine.)

Being one of a small number of stores in a cannabis desert might seem like an easy proposition: Open your doors and let customers roll in, unencumbered by competition.

But as Lauren Fontein, founder and president of The Artist Tree marijuana chain in California, learned when she opened a store in Fresno (population 500,000), being a cannabis oasis comes with its own challenges.

These include a community inexperienced with cannabis, staffing issues and more.

“It really is a cannabis desert,” Fontein said of California’s Central Valley, a more conservative, agricultural area of the state.

“People really didn’t have that experience of being able to shop in a licensed dispensary.”

While California launched an adult-use marijuana market in 2018, Fresno didn’t award its first licenses until fall 2021, Fontein recalled, long after most other big cities in in the state.

Before that, there were no cannabis stores in Fresno or the surrounding areas.

The only legal options for consumers to access marijuana retail included using delivery services or driving to Merced, which is about an hour away, Fontein said.

Busy from ‘minute one’

In contrast to Artist Tree stores in highly competitive markets such as Los Angeles and Riverside County, which didn’t experience a surge of customers when they first opened, “The Fresno location was super busy from minute one,” Fontein said.

The clientele ranged from seniors with medical marijuana patient cards to recreational customers who previously drove long distances to purchase regulated cannabis.

“We had somewhat of an idea that we would be busy, but (we) underestimated that – and how quickly we had to ramp up with staff,” Fontein said.

The Fresno Artist Tree location started with about 25 employees when it opened and gradually added more.

Today, the store has about 75 employees, Fontein said. The company’s other retail locations, meanwhile, have 20-40 employees apiece.

The Fresno location continues to see a higher volume of consumers than other Artist Tree stores, and therefore it needs more staff, Fontein explained.

“Once we got open, we were luckily able to find a lot of people that were really interested in working in a dispensary. It hasn’t been an issue to find people that are interested, and we’re continuing to expand the team,” Fontein said.

“Our business model is to have guides on the sales floor that can help customers (on a) one-on-one basis. So, it’s a model that inherently requires more staff than a behind-the-counter sales model.”

 Friend of the arts

The Artist Tree also has used community outreach to help garner customers.

The retailer says its “whole business model is built around promoting local artists,” and the store functions as an art gallery as well as a cannabis store.

To find artists to feature in the store, Fontein first looked to Fresno’s local art scene.

“Even before we opened, I did a lot of outreach in the city to connect with the Fresno Arts Council and different artists groups,” Fontein said.

That outreach led to the retailer being included in a monthly ArtHop organized by the Fresno Arts Council, which hosts exhibits at different venues, along with refreshments and entertainment.

Fontein said that ArtHop participants wishing to visit The Artist Tree must be 21 or older (or 18 with a medical marijuana card) and have their IDs checked before entering the store.

The events in Fresno have gone so well that The Artist Tree location in West Hollywood is trying to organize its own ArtHop-like event and has reached out to local hotels and other businesses to participate.

Because cannabis is less entwined with Fresno’s culture than it is in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, effective marketing is especially important to the Fresno store’s success.

Fresno prohibits cannabis billboards, so The Artist Tree location there advertises in the Fresno Flyer, a local alternative newspaper, and also participates in more local community events than its other stores do, Fontein said.

For example, The Artist Tree has a “big presence” at the local FresYes Fest in March. Though the business can’t sell products, it can give away swag and use the opportunity to be visible in the community.

“The idea is to get in front of the entire community and people who might be interested in trying (cannabis) once they talk to us and learn about our business,” Fontein said.

The Fresno location also hosted a blood drive with the Central California Blood Center a few months ago, and customers who donated blood received a store discount.

“We completely filled the donation spots,” Fontein said.

The company held a Thanksgiving food drive and Christmas toy drive, Fontein said.

It also hosts art classes in a restaurant next to the store in conjunction with a company called Paint Party USA. Product discounts are offered to consumers who take the classes.

“It’s another way to lean into the art aspect of our business and collaborate with other businesses in the community,” Fontein said. “It’s raising awareness.”