This story was republished with permission from Crain’s Chicago Business and written by Ally Marotti.
The Chicago restaurant group behind West Town Bakery is teaming up with a new dispensary that’s opening in suburban Wheeling next month, and it’ll be part bakery and cafe, part marijuana shop.
The store, called Okay Cannabis, will essentially have a West Town Bakery Cafe & Lounge operating alongside the marijuana shop. The shop will serve Dark Matter coffee, pastries, sandwiches, and cocktails, and it will have an outdoor patio that seats more than 100 people. Instead of staging customers in a waiting area like most dispensaries do, the idea is to let them hang out at the cafe, said Scott Weiner, co-owner of Fifty/50 Restaurant Group.
“Why have people wait in line when they can sit down and have a coffee, maybe get a muffin?” he said.
When it opens Feb. 1, Okay Cannabis will be among the first of a new generation of marijuana dispensaries in Illinois. Last summer, the state issued 149 licenses to open new marijuana stores to almost 100 applicants after years of delays. Those applicants mark the first new blood the state has allowed into its cannabis industry since recreational marijuana became legal on Jan. 1, 2020.
So far, Illinois’ marijuana shops have focused largely on retail and getting customers through the line, particularly with pandemic capacity restrictions. As new stores open, dispensaries will have to better distinguish themselves, Weiner said.
“Their whole business model was to get you in, get you out,” he said. “Looking at the landscape over the next two years to the end of time, that’s not going to work anymore. There’s going to be at least 500 cannabis dispensaries in Illinois, and we wanted to create an experience focused around hospitality.”
Fifty/50’s master baker and pastry chef will be introducing a new line of sandwiches, cookies, and more to the menu at Okay Cannabis, and its beverage director will develop the cocktail menu. It’ll be the first marijuana shop in the state that also has a liquor license.
The bakery will not be infusing its products with cannabis, or allow people to consume the cannabis they buy on-site. Marijuana products will be sold at a separate checkout counter than the bakery.
The store will also tie in Fifty/50’s loyalty program, Weiner said. That means points earned to purchase cannabis products could be cashed in at The Berkshire Room, for example.
Customers will have to be 21 to enter the store, which will be located at 781 N. Milwaukee Ave. Weiner said the location at the corner of Milwaukee and Lake Cook Road is ideal: Roughly 40,000 cars pass by per day, and there are corporate headquarters, a hotel and other businesses nearby.
The dispensary will hopefully become a place customers will visit more often than they would other, more transactional marijuana shops, said Ameya Pawar, former alderman of Chicago’s 47th Ward, who is part owner of the dispensaries.
“We want to make this a lifestyle brand, where it’s very much part of your day, part of your regular routine,” he said.
Offering food and drinks could end up being a good differentiator for Okay Cannabis as the dispensary market becomes more crowded, said Darren Tristano, CEO of research and consulting firm Foodservice Results.
Illinois is behind on offering food sales alongside cannabis sales, said Sara Stewart, co-founder of Ritual Cannabis Hospitality in California. She said in an email that pushing alcohol sales in an area that many consider to be “wellness” could prove problematic and might not jive with the cannabis culture that is developing.
The 12,000-square-foot building in Wheeling will also have private event space. The bakery will occupy about 3,200 square feet. It will be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily and mark West Town Bakery’s fifth location.
The Wheeling store will be the first of three Okay Cannabis shops opening in the next six months. The next one is set to open this spring on Chicago Avenue, next to West Town Bakery’s first location in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. The third is expected to open in Evanston in July.
Fifty/50 is the landlord at the Wheeling location and will operate food and beverage. Two teams won the three dispensary licenses to open the Okay Cannabis locations, said Pawar, who is involved in all three locations. Charles Mayfield, an Air Force veteran, is also an owner.