L.A.’s Original Cannabis Cafe envisions a bright future

Numerous restaurants in the United States serve alcohol. The procedures to obtain liquor licences vary state-to-state, but no national legislation prohibits their proliferation and distribution. Serving cannabis, a substance still federally considered a Schedule 1 narcotic on par with heroin, is a different story.

For that very reason, West Hollywood’s Original Cannabis Cafe is making headlines as the country’s first legal consumption-based business.

Ami Gan, the Cannabis Cafe's vice president of marketing and communications, wants the restaurant to feel warm and welcoming. Cannabis may be legal across California, but that doesn’t mean everyone has equal access to such smokable spots.

“There aren’t any places to safely consume with the exception of someone’s own home, and technically if you rent or you’re in a hotel you may not actually be able to smoke there,” Gan explained in an interview with Inside the Jar. “So that’s where a place like this becomes a very welcoming environment.”

Inside, the cafe is rustic and chic. Adorned with upcycled wood, vintage ceiling fans, and prohibition-esque photos showcasing cannabis’ troubled history, the business gives off an inviting vibe. The patio, featuring a massive, city-mandated ventilation system that absorbs excess smoke, maintains the same relaxed feel, with ivy-covered walls and two sprawling olive trees imported from Northern California.

The cafe has a 220-person capacity and often hits that limit on weekends. Of those 200-plus people, Gan said the customers vary in experience, and that some visit without consuming cannabis products. With guidance from flower hostesses, individuals choose from a wide menu, with certain items geared towards adept smokers, while others, buds with less THC for example, are recommended for novices.

“We really have guests from all walks of life here,” Gan explained. “Cannabis is for everyone, cannabis is about community, and with that we don’t have a demographic.”

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The Cannabis Cafe’s leadership team wants to establish it as a local hangout. With discounts for WeHo residents and veterans, the business has plans to participate in the L.A. Pride Festival, celebrating its 50th anniversary in West Hollywood this year, and to offer promotions throughout this year’s month-long 4/20 to continually engage with locals.

This sense of community is something Mayor John D’Amico and his fellow council members wanted to nurture when first considering consumption licences.

The Cannabis Cafe and future consumption-based businesses coming to West Hollywood are permitted through a series of licences the city council authorized in 2019. While California and West Hollywood are neither the first state nor municipality to legalize recreational usage, the Cannabis Cafe is the first legal public consumption business in the U.S.

A city council member since 2011, D’Amico has been serving his second mayoral term since last February—the position rotates annually among the five council members and he will exit the office in May. As mayor, he attended the cafe’s October launch and presented its business licence.

In D’Amico’s opinion, West Hollywood’s strange history—it formally became a city in 1984 after being unincorporated, loosely supervised county land sandwiched between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles—makes it the obvious location for the country’s first cannabis lounges. Mentioning Marilyn Monroe’s week-long defense of Ella Fitzgerald at the Mocombo Club and the Sunset Strip’s longstanding sense of counter-culture, he linked the city’s progressive values with the recent changes.

“West Hollywood has, for many years, sort of invented the cultural touchstones that we all take for granted right now,” said Mayor D’Amico during an interview.

Out of more than 300 applicants, the Cannabis Cafe received the first consumption licence. More businesses are coming, but Mayor D’Amico blames delays on state regulations that restrict lounges from selling cannabis and other products simultaneously.

To circumvent this system, multiple business units formally exist on Cannabis Cafe grounds. If a group orders hamburgers and joints, they are technically engaging with two separate business entities, one that sells food and another that sells cannabis, and will receive separate bills.

City Council capped WeHo’s program at eight licences and, according to Mayor D’Amico, they’re sticking with eight “for the time being.” Hopeful each licensee becomes a “destination experience,” the council is cautious about flooding the market.

“We really wanted it to be like you are going to the Cannabis Cafe in West Hollywood or you’re not and that it’s not interchangeable with any other experience,” the mayor said. “Most of us are interested in how the process is going to play out and then potentially evaluate if eight was the right number—was eight too many or too few—and then kind of take it from there.”

To make the Cannabis Cafe a user-friendly destination, vendor relations director Red Rodriguez designed a menu suitable for new and experienced consumers alike. Featuring a plethora of brands, dried flower of varying potencies, and pre-packaged edibles that Rodriguez tests himself, the cafe stocks products for people across the usage spectrum.

With 10 years of industry experience, including a stint managing a Coachella Valley dispensary, Rodriguez is excited to see the cannabis community grow and the conversation turn local rather than exclusively focus on national regulations. He’s fully aware that individuals can “virtually consume edibles and vape at any restaurant,” so he and his colleagues labor to make each visit a unique event that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

“Our cafe guests want to do what has been disruptive for so long and burn a joint in public and we are here to celebrate that experience,” said Rodriguez.

Initially, the Cannabis Cafe was the Lowell Cannabis Cafe. Named after a corporate sponsor with a minority share in the restaurant, Lowell Herb Co. and the cafe’s leadership team split ways shortly before it became publicly known that Lowell was facing civil penalties from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The suit is still working its way through court, but it alleges that Lowell processed cannabis from December 2018 to March 2019 at a San Luis Obispo site without proper licensing.

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Last March, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife seized over 1,400 pounds of Lowell’s product from the San Luis Obisbo facility, including 17,772 pre-rolls and roughly 100 pounds of kief as part of the investigation.

Lowell is no longer affiliated with the Original Cannabis Cafe, but they still operate a website called Organic Cannabis Cafe that features similar design elements and identical photos of David Bowie to the current cafe’s official website. A Lowell representative declined to be interviewed for this piece, but did indicate the company was considering other opportunities focused on “customer experience.”

Gan describes the separation as a positive development. The establishment may have been called Lowell’s Cannabis Cafe, but she said most people called it the Cannabis Cafe anyway so it hasn’t been a difficult transition.

“It makes it much more welcoming because you’re not promoting a brand when you’re going somewhere, you’re just going somewhere to hang out with your friends and have fun.”

Looking ahead, Gan’s vision for the restaurant lines up with Mayor D’Amico and his fellow council members’ goals when they developed the licensing program. Name dropping The Abbey, an iconic gay bar that opened in 1991, the Cannabis Cafe leadership team wants their establishment to become a similarly signature neighbourhood joint. The cafe hosted their first live comedy show on February 11 and have plans for additional performances to attract more people.

Cannabis already has a complicated history in West Hollywood. Back in 2001, federal prosecutors worked to seize the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center’s property despite the fact they provided medicine explicitly to ill and disabled residents. The Department of Justice could technically still interpret the law in a way that enables them to interfere with the local distribution of a Schedule 1 narcotic, but things are more relaxed now and Gan is focused on making the business as exciting and profitable as possible.

If more licences become available, she implied the Cannabis Cafe could be interested in applying, but that everyone is focused on growing this enterprise for the time being.

“That’s what’s exciting,” Gan said. “We got through launch, we got through all of that, what are we going to do in 2020?”