Dueling Dispensaries

December 2020 View more

Suburbanites have long traversed our north-south state highway in search of big-box everything at Costco, Home Depot, Fox Valley, and Best Buy. The area is so full of retail warehouses that Crate & Barrel even chose to put its Midwest distribution center smack dab in the middle of this suburban retail sprawl.

With congestion reaching 25,000 to 40,000 vehicles a day, it’s no surprise that the first recreational cannabis dispensaries to open in Naperville and Aurora have tucked themselves into this chaos, perhaps hoping detractors wouldn’t notice.

Rise in Naperville (1700 Quincy Ave.) and Zen Leaf in Aurora (740 Illinois Rte. 59) recently have opened within blocks of each other, straddling this both sides of bustling Route 59. (Zen Leaf has another Naperville location currently under construction on North Naper Boulevard). We talked with budtenders at each location to get their take on the first year of retail cannabis sales in Illinois and the growing industry in the west suburbs. Damar Hampton, assistant general manager of Zen Leaf (an adult recreational facility), came to the cannabis industry with a nursing and medical background. Tim Kearney—a former firefighter and paramedic who is now off nine prescription medications because of cannabis—is a patient care specialist at Rise Naperville (a hybrid medical/recreational facility) who joined the industry to help others receive a quality-of-life improvement. Interviews with both have been edited for space and clarity.

Why was the location near Route 59 chosen?

DH The City of Aurora has been great, and the Route 59 retail corridor just made the most sense. We know what makes a store successful—hiring locally, having convenient access, great parking, and carrying premium products creates an elevated aesthetic.

TK We’ve been in that location since 2016. We’re able to accommodate parking and curbside pickup for medical patients. A lot went into the decision on the location.

What is the retail experience like for a first-time buyer?

DH As a first-time buyer we think your cannabis journey is going to begin with your experience at Zen Leaf—this is why we’ve invested so much time in hiring a great staff and a great location. If you’re a regular consumer, what you’re looking for might change from week to week or month to month. We really try to get to know exactly what you as a customer need, and relating the products we have to that, which makes it less intimating and more relaxing and comfortable.

TK I’ve noticed that there are three kinds of people: those with experience, who buy pretty frequently; those who use here and there, and ask some questions; and those who are first-time buyers. The day we opened we had an 88-year-old lady come in who had never used before. We want to make sure that people feel comfortable walking through the door—we understand that there are stigmas and myths that go along with cannabis, but we want to make people feel comfortable. People are blown away by the selection that we have—it’s not just traditional flower. Edibles, vape cartridges, concentrates, topicals—there are so many options. When they see the array, they quickly realize this is just a [typical] retail experience. We want to make people understand that although this is not for everyone, if it’s something they want to explore, we are there for them with no judgment.

How has COVID impacted usage and the sales process?

DH The safety of our customers is always our top priority. Customers want to spend less time in the store, so we set up a few things to make the purchase more convenient and move more briskly. We can fulfill a purchase online and have it ready for you to pick up. In conjunction with our online ordering, we also have cashless ATMs at the location [which allow patrons to make digital payments on site]. COVID also pushed us to change the layout of our store; instead of having display tables in the middle of the store, they were pushed to the outside to provide more space for people in the queue. No appointment is necessary, and you don’t need to make an online purchase first.

TK We went to curbside-only in March, as cannabis is an essential business, and we stayed curbside through the renovations in September. On October 8 we opened to adult use, and our patients are very appreciative—they are amazed that we did a complete renovation. It’s extremely inviting. We still offer online ordering for anyone, and we also offer curbside pickup for medical patients. If there is a need for a virtual waitlist, we can text them when their place in line comes up.

Mini Dog preroll pack from Rise Naperville, $32

Most recommended product?

DH Our most popular product is one of our hybrid Verano flower strains, G6, which is great for daytime. My favorite is probably the Mag Landrace, a heavy indica strain (more body experience, less cerebral) with nice body relaxation—great after a long day of work and also good for getting a good night’s sleep.

TK Right now it’s probably the Incredibles, our line of edibles. We also have a pumpkin pie bar and a black cherry bar. Edibles are great because you can microdose the amount you are consuming—you know the exact dosage. From there it’s probably our preroll joint packs (shown below). The Dogwalker line has preroll packs and Big Dog joints which are very convenient because people don’t have to roll their own.

Most unusual product?

DH Ours are probably more along the lines of unexpected. We carry Verano tablets that you put under your tongue and they dissolve—sublingual mints. We also carry candy and liquids, topical creams, lotions, balms, and Epsom salts (for a foot soak or body soak).

TK We’re always seeing people want to get creative and make things their own. Right now I would definitely say our pumpkin pie bar with shortbread and white chocolate—it’s essentially a candy bar.

How does one become a budtender?

DH There are some states that are starting to get school programs going, but most people learn on the job. Zen Leaf does quite extensive training on product knowledge; we have quizzes and tests that we take on different products. When I initially entered I had a medical background and I think that got me to hone in on being more personable, and that was a big part of my training—being able to take the product knowledge and be able to apply that to a person and create an experience out of that. I was trained at the St. Charles location in preparation for Aurora’s opening.

TK It first starts with the interest, then doing the work to find ways to get your foot in the door. For me, it was going to [Green Thumb’s] website and going through the interview process. The company offers budtender training, state compliance training, continuing product training—it’s kind of a continuous process. I’m seeing that once companies see that desire, the opportunities are endless right now.

What is the vibe at your store?

DH While our products are regulated, we don’t think your cannabis experience should be regular. Everyone here gets treated like family—that constant level of comfort—and it’s like stopping at your home away from home. A typical purchase can be anywhere from $15 to $60. We’ve just been open a week, but already we’re starting to see regulars.

TK It’s casual, friendly, inviting, bright. It’s very clean and spaced out for everyone. We have three kiosks that have our menu of all the items we sell. People are able to browse there and place an order. We carry our own products, but we offer many other company’s brands as well. I think we’re starting to see a more creative marketing side to it, because there is more of an interest. That’s starting to become more common. We see the future of cannabis is interest in consumer packaged goods.

Photos courtesy Rise Naperville and Zen Leaf