In many ways, cannabis dispensaries are like other retail stores. They are designed to make customers feel welcome and allow them to explore the shops intuitively, experience the brands and have positive experiences overall.
Without question, though, a stigma remains about marijuana, so the firm that designed three The Apothecarium cannabis shops in San Francisco and the people who run them have taken extra steps to make visitors comfortable.
The design firm, Urban Chalet, helped create three beautifully appointed and welcoming cannabis shops in San Francisco. One of them, the flagship store in the Castro District, was tabbed “the #1 best-designed dispensary” in America by Architectural Digest.
Beyond the designs, The Apothecarium shops go above and beyond to satisfy their customers, said Rachel Chichester, senior designer at Urban Chalet.
“The Apothecarium’s dispensaries cater more to individual needs than a typical retail store, or a typical dispensary for that matter,” Chichester said. “At each visit, a customer meets with an associate individually to ensure that any questions they have are addressed and that they’re receiving products that will suit their needs.
“This individualized experience inspired us to focus on features that really emphasized the difference from other retailers.”
The Apothecarium wanted to create spaces that are approachable for a variety of clientele—from seniors to patients with serious medical conditions to first-time dispensary visitors, explained Karina Sainez, Urban Chalet’s design director.
“Throughout our design process, we spent time understanding the dispensary experience through different perspectives. Aesthetically, we wanted to create an upscale, modern, yet comfortable experience,” Sainez said.
“We did so by keeping most of the millwork and architectural finishes very clean and utilized high contrast to define areas. We brought warmth and familiarity by incorporating some traditional details throughout and by utilizing a mixture of lush and patterned textiles. To keep the space from feeling too traditional, these elements were used in unexpected ways. The strong modern artwork was used to also create a balance.”
Urban Chalet was founded in 2010 and has grown from single-family residential remodels to large-scale commercial roll-outs. The firm’s team of eight works on projects of all sizes and has been involved in more than 100 retail health and wellness spaces nationwide. Services include interior design, brand integration and growth strategy. The Apothecarium is its only cannabis client with locations in operation.
Urban Chalet first began working with The Apothecarium when the project’s architect, Vincent Gonzaga, brought them together to collaborate on the Castro location. At the time, The Apothecarium was operating a medical dispensary out of a significantly smaller space just a block away. For background, voters in California approved the sale of medical marijuana in 1996, and the state legalized recreational use effective Jan. 1, 2018.
“The client’s vision and goals were clear: They wanted a larger space to service more patients, and they wanted that space to feel welcoming and accessible to patients of all types, while maintaining design features that have become part of their signature aesthetic,” Chichester said.
The design intent for the Castro store was to make it a “destination boutique health and wellness space” that felt upscale, approachable and local, said Michelle Granelli, a principal at Urban Chalet.
“The size of the space allowed us to expand their program to include multiple seating areas, retail displays, large scale art installations, a classroom and gallery space for local art exhibitions. We did not use other dispensaries as precedent or case studies. We approached this space as its own, throwing out any preconceived notions to develop the aesthetic,” she said.
After being greeted at a check-in counter, customers receive personalized help from a consultant at the dispensary counter. The dispensary counter—with its painted trim details, quartz counters, warm walnut backdrop created of laminate, angled coffered ceiling above and carpeted floors—feels welcoming and comfortable and allows for a personalized retail experience, Granelli said.
The boutique area near the front is another successful feature, offering a variety of curated cannabis-related retail products displayed on custom millwork, she said.
For the second San Francisco location on Lombard Street, Urban Chalet used elements developed for the first store and modified the overall design slightly to engage the clientele of the Marina neighborhood.
“At only a third of the size of the Castro location, we specified appropriately scaled furnishings that allowed us to create distinct seating areas within the smaller space. We also took advantage of existing building conditions to create unique features, like a built-in bench to maximize the available seating that also is used for inventory storage,” Chichester said.
At the third and most recent location in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood, the firm implemented key aesthetic elements developed at the previous two locations. The shop is located in a historical building, so Urban Chalet chose to incorporate traditional paneling, which it painted in a modern deep blue to go with richer fabrics and metallic details.
As with any effective retail space, the materials used for the fixtures and other elements played a key role in The Apothecarium shops’ feel and success.
The main feature for each location is the dispensary counter, and it needed to make a design statement while being durable and functional, Sainez said.
“The materials included a quartz composite countertop, as quartz is beautiful while requiring an extremely low level of maintenance. We’ve also used white handmade tile from a local company with a strong graphic pattern and contrasting black grout at each location’s dispensary backsplash, varying the pattern to fit with each space,” she said.
“Over the dispensary counter, we incorporated a dropped ceiling section with decorative acoustical tile to help create and maintain a sense of privacy for each customer,” Sainez said, adding that the ceiling tile is Armstrong Metaphors made of gypsum.
At all locations, laminates—specifically high pressure laminate--were specified extensively for their aesthetic and durability. The three primary brands are Wilsonart NeoWalnut, Wilsonart Black and InteriorArts Pure Oak Natural.
“Where and how much of the laminate we used was determined by the design elements in each space,” Granelli said. “For instance, in the smaller Marina location, where we kept the material palette lighter, we utilized more of the InteriorArts Pure Oak Natural.”
For all countertops, including the check-in area and dispensary counter, and on all custom millwork, the designers specified quartz from both Caesarstone and Cambria. For the custom millwork, they chose powder-coated steel in combination with one of the three laminates for the shelving and cabinet components.
“We wanted to keep the look very clean and authentic, and we wanted the client to have minimal maintenance and ensure longevity for the space,” Chichester said.
Chase Chambers, director of operations for The Apothecarium, said the laminates in the shops play critical roles because of their durability, ease of maintenance and attractiveness.
“Since we see hundreds of customers a day at each of our locations, operating morning to night almost every day of the year, ease of maintenance and durability is essential. Use of laminates in the sales areas allows for us to use the buildout as it was designed and intended, without losing the warmth and connection to nature or being too one dimensional,” he said.
“Faux wood laminates are easy to care for and offer a more dynamic texture while adding to the atmosphere and blending in seamlessly with the other fine furnishings.”
Overall, Chambers especially likes that the shops feel welcoming to the wide variety of customers who shop at The Apothecarium.
“Whether it is a specific pattern of fabric in the custom furniture or the sleekness of the clean white countertops, the diversity of textures and materials match the diversity of our customers. That, in turn, creates a welcoming environment for all, which is a physical manifestation of one of our most important core values of diversity and individuality,” Chambers said.
“Creating a safe and beautiful space is important for us a dispensary because it helps break down the stigma around cannabis use and allows customers to feel comfortable to learn and create meaningful connections with our team.”
Clearly, the design approach has been impressive and effective. Beyond the kudos from Architectural Digest, the shops have been widely lauded by other publications.
“The elegantly appointed Apothecarium is the opposite of the image so often associated with such places,” The Bay Area Reporter wrote. “Spotlessly clean and with a friendly security team at the front door, the club’s interior features artwork and crystal chandeliers. A knowledgeable staff works behind the counter to answer clients’ questions.”
Fast Company, a leader in business media focused on innovation, said: “… Your grandmother would probably feel at home at Apothecarium—especially if she’s a design freak.”
The broader business model is working for The Apothecarium, as well. The company just sold for $118 million in cash and stock to TerrAscend, a Toronto-based biopharmaceutical and wellness company that is focused on the cannabis market.