Sonoma County cannabis dispensaries that deliver better positioned during pandemic
Press Democrat | Austin Murphy | March 27, 2020
Every adult in Petaluma did not get a delivery of cannabis last week. It only seemed that way to Dave Tohill, a kind of mobile “budtender” for Mercy Wellness, the Cotati-based dispensary. In a single day, Tohill had 40-plus deliveries in Petaluma alone.
One of his customers was a woman who’d spent the morning working in her yard, just off Maria Drive.
“I’ve driven past your house three times today,” said Tohill, as he delivered her package. “I like what you’ve done with the pavers.”
Cannabis, like alcohol, is thought to be recession-proof. But some dispensaries are better positioned than others to weather the coronavirus pandemic. While business spiked dramatically for area outlets around the March 18 imposition of Sonoma County’s emergency stay-at-home order, that boom lasted just a few days. Sales have since slowed. Although not hurt as badly as many businesses, cannabis retailers are still scrambling to adapt to the challenging new climate.
At Mercy Wellness, sales are now limited to in-home delivery and curbside pickup. That resulted, in the first few post-lockdown days, in traffic frequently backing up onto Redwood Drive, sometimes all the way down to Gravenstein Highway. Those backups are rarer now, in part because panic buying has subsided, and in part because CEO Brandon Levine and his staff figured out, after a bit of trial and error, the most efficient patterns for traffic in a parking lot shared with Grav South Brewing Company.
Upon entering the lot, customers are directed to one of two areas, depending on whether they’ve already placed an online preorder. Even those who haven’t preordered can be in and out in 5 to 7 minutes. Pads used by customers to enter their credit card information are promptly swabbed, by rubber- gloved associates, with Clorox wipes.
Pandemic or not, the vibe here is upbeat. Music from Pandora’s “Funk Radio” fills the air. Employees dash from cars to a fulfillment desk, then back. Tim Rowles said he and his co-workers have joked about donning roller skates, like servers at a drive-in restaurant.
Customers are buying, on average, 20% more weed than they would on a normal visit, Levine said. But they’re visiting less, as one would expect. Many seek relief from anxiety and sleeplessness. Levine has noticed a marked uptick in sales of edibles, “partly because they have a longer-lasting effect,” he said. “And then they put you to sleep.”
He is also executive director of Doobie Nights, the psychedelic, 3,700-square-foot ganja emporium 5½ miles north in Santa Rosa. A new business without an established, loyal clientele, Doobie Nights will suffer more than its sister dispensary during this economic downturn.
Levine sees tough times ahead for newer cannabis outlets, as does SPARC CEO Erich Pearson, whose company has dispensaries in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. Santa Rosa, Pearson said, has an “over-saturation” of dispensaries, many of which were in financial difficulty before the coronavirus arrived.
Added Levine, “A lot of those companies that didn’t have an established customer base” will now struggle even more during the COVID-19 lockdown, “and some of them won’t make it out of this.”
Despite a handful of huge days around March 18, overall sales are down at SPARC. To spread the pain, Pearson and some executives have taken 25% pay cuts. Some of his 150 workers have been shifted from retail sales to driving delivery cars. Several others have been let go.