April Fool's day marked the opening of cannabis retail stores in Ontario as three outlets opened in Ottawa:
Hobo Recreational Cannabis Store - 391 Bank Street
Fire and Flower, York Street Cannabis - 129 York St.
Superette - 1306 Wellington St W
Hundreds of cannabis customers withstood subzero temperatures to take part in the legal cannabis retail experience. Since the province announced plans to award licenses to 25 lottery winners in early January, tight timelines created a mad dash to ensure proper licensing, staffing and inventory be ready for April 1st. Of those 25 lottery winners, only 10 retail stores in Ontario were prepared to open on the first day.
Illegal dispensaries provided a glimpse into the cannabis retail experience allowing customers to choose from a variety of strains and consumption methods. Legal cannabis retailers' work towards bringing cannabis from the shadows through engaging and interactive experiences; breathing new life into the industry. To capture the experience, I set to venture to all three stores by foot, embarking on an Ottawa cannabis trail. As the furthest from downtown, Superette was set as my initial destination. With proper winter gear and a Spotify playlist selected, I set off.
By 9am I joined a few stragglers forming into lines, by 9:30 the lineup radiated with a buzz, stretching around the corner. Store staff was busy with finishing touches inside while Tweed's promotional staff had arrived along with reporters from major news outlets. The cold winds were a challenge, however fresh coffee and Suzie Q donuts warmed hearts.
The interior of the store was a fresh experience, a cross between Stokes kitchen supplies, 50's Diner and 80's pizzazz, bringing colour and vibrancy accentuated by natural sunlight from large windows along with flowers strewn throughout. The shelving display allowed customers greater access to cannabis accessories, including a large variety of quality products making it a worthy headshop for the things you need and the things you didn't know you needed.
Restaurant-style menu cards displayed a selection of dried flowers on one side and oils, capsules and sprays on the other. The dried flower list was curated with the traditional labels of Indica, Sativa and Hybrids. WEED MD's Great White Shark and Liiv's Buddha Haze were among two of the notable items amongst an ample selection of products. To place an order, customers would take a number, pay for the order and then pick it up when their number was called. Prices on the menu did not include 13% HST.
The store provides a fun atmosphere to allow curiosity to wander, exploring the ways to consume cannabis. Experienced users will enjoy the experience of a wide array of pipes, papers, tools or pick up some hemp wraps while new users may find themselves in a time capsule.
Arriving at Fire and Flower on York Street in Ottawa's Byward Market, I was relieved to be greeted by a small line-up outdoors. By noon the line had dissipated such as the frost. Brass from Fire and Flower were excited to greet customers and engage on the topic of cannabis. The front entrance was showcased by a launch display with t-shirts being handed out.
The interior led through a hallway with display cabinets indented into the walls spanning from floor to ceiling, displaying cannabis accessories and products. Three large menu screens in the hall provided a first glance of the menu, seeming to be the largest selection of all three retail stores. Entering the main room, customers first interacted with their 'Strain Wall' with cards providing information on plant type, potency and terpene aromas. The product cards benefited new or novice cannabis customers helping explore or an option to chat with staff to find the right product. In a separate room, sniffing jars and seating were available for customers to review different products. The store focused on a limited amount of cannabis accessories, but carried good quality products which have been mainstays in the industry.
The menu was organized into set ranges, Engage, Boost, Spark, Mellow, Rest and Arouse, with different shaped cards used to categorize dried flowers, oils, capsules and sprays. To place an order, staff circulated the stores with tablets allowing you to create an order while continuing to browse. Among the interesting finds were WeedMD's Mango Haze and DNA Genetics Chocolate Fondue. Prices displayed for products did include HST.
The high end appeal to the store and the amount of curated information on display provides customers not familiar with cannabis a comfortable environment. New users would appreciate this store for curating information while providing additional insight through interactions with staff.
The final stop, which in turn was the closest from my launch point was Hobo on Bank, a.k.a. former home of Ottawa's Cannabis Culture. By 2pm the line had disappeared and the crowd had thinned, making this the quickest of my purchasing experiences.
The store sported a minimalistic, sleek design with wood accented features in an open space. Tables in the middle held sniffing jars, while staff behind a fast food-style counter under large monitors are able to take your order. The relaxed feel to the store was highlighted by a sofa and love seat combo at the end of the store, accompanied Jack Kerouac novels. For users on the go, the "I know What I Want?" express portal leading downstairs allowed customers to be served quickly without the bells and whistles upstairs.
The menu was displayed on screens behind the counter, organizing dried flowers, oils, capsules and pre-rolls into five categories: Rest, Calm, Balance, Lift and Move. Some of the best prices were found at Hobo, from Canaca's Mango at $30 for 3.5 to 9.50/gram of Aurora's Blue Dream. Prices here did not include 13% HST.
The sleek, cozy design as well as the focus on getting customers in and out quick, such as the express portal, made this store perfect for users on the go. The simple, clean layout allowed customers to focus on their cannabis purchase or engage with staff.
13.8km and several tokes later, I had ended my journey. The experience at each store was fun and enjoyable, paying by interac made purchasing cannabis easy and dangerous. Each store offered a unique look and feel for customers: Hobo with quick ease of service in a laissez-faire ambiance, Fire and Flower's curated content helping new users discover and Superette's look and feel allow existing users to explore a side of cannabis not yet familiar.
Reading the challenges in other parts of the province made me feel lucky to live in Ottawa as a cannabis user. Accompanied by its diverse landscape of toking spots, these three stores offer customers different perspectives and experiences when it comes to buying cannabis. With Gatineau set to receive a SQDC store (Quebec's cannabis authority), Canada's capital can make an argument for Canada's Cannabis capital.