(This story is part of the cover package in the October issue of MJBizMagazine.)
Executives often undertake business diversification as a hedge against their core business or the economy going sour.
But in 2014, when Curio Wellness co-founder and Chief Brand Officer Wendy Bronfein and her partners conceived the idea for a Timonium, Maryland-based medical cannabis dispensary combined with a wellness store and a spa, the challenges facing MMJ entrepreneurs weren’t just economic but cultural.
Diversification built in
Bronfein and her partners built diversification into the business model not only to provide backup revenue for the company – Curio does business as Far & Dotter and now also serves recreational cannabis consumers – but also to overcome the stigmas about marijuana that were significantly more substantial in 2014 than they are today.
“Our mindset was that medical patients are coming to cannabis because they are looking to find alternatives to Western approaches of medicine. If that’s the case, then they’re probably also interested or open to alternative products and services,” Bronfein said.
At the same time, having mainstream businesses such as a wellness store and spa attached to the dispensary helped to “build the concept of a safe environment and breaking stigmas,” she said, adding that the multiple concepts also “created traffic.”
“Back in 2014, it wasn’t just the legitimizing, it was also safety,” Bronfein said, noting that many consumers unfamiliar with marijuana wondered if a dispensary would be “a shady place.”
“If there’s other traffic, and there’s regular people shopping that aren’t related to the dispensary … it helped diminish those security fears,” she added.
While the stigmas around marijuana have lessened from a decade ago, the economic imperative remains.
The Far & Dotter dispensary, The Holistic Pharmacy and The Spa are all under the same roof but operate in separate sections.
Patients and other customers first walk into the pharmacy, which serves as a gateway to the dispensary and spa. There, consumers can shop for health and wellness products while waiting to be let into the dispensary or for their spa appointment.
The pharmacy carries high-quality CBD products, vitamins, supplements, natural health and beauty products as well as paraphernalia aligned with the cannabis space.
“Everything is playing into the legitimizing” of marijuana, Bronfein said. “There is seating in the holistic pharmacy … but obviously there’s more of a goal to browse and shop.”
Glass doors that lead to the spa’s lobby are on the right side of the pharmacy, while the doors to the dispensary are on the left. Like any dispensary, customers have to check in and then wait to be let inside.
The spa’s lobby plays relaxing music while the treatment rooms are set farther back to help with sound mitigation.
The spa has four rooms: one for a massage therapist, one for an acupuncturist and two for estheticians.
Curio found practitioners with “strong books” within the local community and recruited them to work out of the store, Bronfein said.
Curio rents the rooms to the practitioners, who run their own business but wear uniforms with Far & Dotter branding.
“To the customer, they feel like they are of us, but they are running their own businesses,” she said.
Another difference separating the marijuana business from the pharmacy and spa business is that the latter two can take credit cards and are not subject to Section 280E of the IRS tax code.
Advertising and marketing
One unexpected consequence that Far & Dotter has experienced from recreational marijuana legalization in Maryland is less leeway in advertising and marketing.
In the medical-only era, Far & Dotter could promote its pharmacy and spa, and because they shared the same name as the dispensary, the cannabis retail business would also get customer attention.
“Our ability to advertise has been curtailed in the new program. We had more freedoms from the cannabis side when we were medical,” Bronfein said.
For example, during the medical regime the company used billboards on the closest major road to its operation to advertise the pharmacy and non-cannabis products. But since recreational legalization, Far & Dotter isn’t allowed to buy that billboard space anymore, Bronfein said.
Despite the restrictions, Far & Dotter often gets customers who spend money at two or all three of the businesses.
Given the synergies that exist between the three businesses, Bronfein is surprised that more marijuana companies haven’t tried something similar.
“I’m surprised particularly that it didn’t start on the West Coast, mostly because it just feels like that is so aligned with that mentality,” she said.