Earlier this week I was lucky enough to be invited to a candid conversation with the current management of the OG Cannabis Cafe. Walking up to the location in my old neighborhood, not exactly sure what to expect, my head was filled with pre-conceived notions on what was currently going on with the cafe. In my mind, Lowell had used their money and influence to get the cafe open in order to push their boof at an exorbitant price on to tourists and those unfamiliar with good cannabis, and now that they are facing massive legal trouble from all angles, they changed the name as an additional shady tactic in order to try and protect this new unique asset from harm or scrutiny. What I learned is that I was completely wrong.
It turns out Lowell’s involvement with the cafe was very brief. They co-opted plans that were in the works for a long time, attempted and were successful in raising a new round of funding on the back of a concept they didn’t own or create, and were painstakingly forced out (mostly) once their true motivations became known. The efforts to open the cafe stretch back 4 years and started with a small group of forward thinking individuals that wanted to open an Amsterdam style coffee shop in West Hollywood. While that is a very straight forward and easily understood idea, making the leap from concept to reality was a much more difficult endeavor. Through rigorous effort and promises of civil good, this group was able to convince the city of West Hollywood to create a special cannabis consumption lounge license, however this was not without some incredibly strict stipulations placed on the location by the city. For example, if a neighbor complains of the smell of cannabis smoke the cafe can be shut down. Luckily this has not happened as of yet but I found that fact particularly jaw dropping as when I lived in Hollywood I’d walk by the cafe location near daily and smoke joints in the open as my roommate did not want me smoking weed in our apartment. I know I wasn’t the only one out smoking on those streets, I used to pass by other smokers as we gave each other a look of acknowledgement or might even mention the strain we’re smoking as we passed. It’s literally everywhere around that area so this sort strict regulation seems arbitrary but it turns out it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the strange rules the Cannabis Cafe must operate by in order to simply exist.
The Cannabis Cafe is actually two separate entities ran out of one location. One is a restaurant and one is a dispensary which means a whole host of regulatory agencies can make demands of the space as they see fit without having to consult with one another to see if they make logical sense. One of most evident examples of bending to the will of myopic regulations is the placement of the bathroom. The state of California views the Cannabis Cafe as a dispensary, and solely a dispensary, and as such there cannot be a public facing bathroom attached to the cannabis space. This might make sense in a vacuum of bureaucratic thought, but in practice it forced the cafe to wall off a convenient entry to the bathroom from the patio and anyone in need of its use now must walk out the front door, around the back to an entrance that serves the bathroom and the bathroom alone. Without this knowledge, the location of the bathroom just seems like bad planning on the part of the management as opposed to a savvy workaround in place due to narrow-minded regulation. For every aspect of the Cafe that “doesn’t make sense” there tends to be a bureaucratic requirement behind it.
That said, one of the biggest things that “didn’t make sense” to me were the prices on the menu. I figured if a normal dispensary can survive selling a certain brand/strain for X price, why was that same brand/strain on the cafe menu at $20-30 more than you can find it in your average rec shop? At first my thought was they are simply following a restaurant-bar model and while you can get a six pack of Flat Tire at the store for X price, you’re going to pay a significant amount more for 6 Flat Tires at a bar. While that is essentially true there’s a little more meat to it. While it’s technically a dispensary, the management admits it’s essentially a “bad one” as it’s not set up to push massive amounts of weight. Personally, when I visit a dispensary I spend no more than 10 minutes engaging with a budtender and I’ll drop 3-500 dollars and have my smoke for the next month. No one is doing that at the Cannabis Cafe. Their average patron will come in and buy a pre-roll or an 8th and will stay for an hour or longer. Not only will the amount they pick up during their stay be much less than an average visit to the dispensary, but any ash, roaches or other cannabis related trash they leave behind is considered “cannabis waste” and must be tracked, accounted for, and disposed of in accordance with state dispensary regulations. The amount of waste they handle alone when compared to a typical dispensary must be enormous as must be the associated costs. When taking into account these atypical factors it’s a wonder the menu prices aren’t even more expensive.
My initial trip to the Cafe was on a Saturday shortly after it opened. It was busy, cramped, and the visit felt very rushed as the wait staff stopped refilling our waters shortly before our 90 minute time limit was up. My friend and I felt the invisible hand of discomfort ushering us out of the restaurant. Visiting mid week the experience I saw others around me having was completely different. There was no sense of chaos, the ambiance was very chill and everyone at every table was having a great time. I even witnessed our flower server showing someone how to hit a bong for the first time. She was very helpful, encouraging and really took her time with them until they felt comfortable doing it on their own. It was awesome and I couldn’t help but think if only this place were open when I lived here that’d I’d be a weekday regular popping in for one of those $10 joint specials and taking advantage of the locals discount. It would have been nice to have a chill place to smoke instead of looking over my shoulder constantly as I paced the neighborhood in order to placate my roommate. I know I’m not unique in that sense either as there are many folks in that area who can’t smoke in their own apartments. That said, this Saturday (2/1/2020), they have over 900 reservations which is a number I really have a hard time visualizing. While I have no doubt the weekend experience has improved since my last visit, I’d say the the best time to get a real feel for what the Cannabis Cafe is all about is to drop by mid-day mid-week. It’s got a great vibe and some awesome specials that make stopping much easier on the wallet.
My trip to Cannabis Cafe this second time around was an eye opening experience that really turned me around on whats going on there. It’s not a cash grab by an evil boof pushing empire. It’s the result of the hard work of a small group of individuals that had a dream to open a cannabis cafe in West Hollywood, and after a bit of major turbulence due to Lowell’s involvement, they’ve regained control, improved what they could immediately (like the completely revamped cannabis menu) are making herculean moves to create a welcoming space for cannabis users of every level from the canna-curious to the well seasoned smoker. While it’s a journey that’s been incredibly difficult for those at the center of it the reward is the existence of this truly unique space that celebrates cannabis in every aspect. While you might not find me there on a packed weekend picking up my monthly supply of flower, I can imagine you’ll find me there on occasion mid-week smoking a on a discount J, munching on some fries with friends, or working on my next review. I’ll definitely be back as soon as I can.