Are Dispensaries Finally Nearing the Liquor Store Model?

Courtesy of Ajoya
Ajoya has stores in Lakewood and Louisville, with the Lakewood location opening for recreational sales this year.
The weed-shopping experience has come a long way since recreational dispensaries first opened in Colorado.  Take flower, for example: Formerly just buds in a faceless jar, flower is now branded and packaged with ever-changing names and bright colors as growers get the shine they deserve — but that evolution has come at a price.

No longer restricted by laws requiring the majority of weed sold at a dispensary to also be produced by the dispensary, wholesale growers are turning potheads into sneaker-heads, dropping new strains with $60-an-eighth price tags and plenty of hype on Instagram. Like most trends on social media, this affects a vocal minority of cannabis shoppers — but shoppers with deep pockets and loud voices nonetheless.

Despite all the talk about strain drops, most stores still prefer the hybrid model, operating an internal cultivation while also curating a selection from other growers. Yet it only takes a walk through a modern dispensary to see how cannabis retail is changing. To learn more about the power of trendy growers and how shoppers view strains today, we caught up with Ajoya purchasing manager Mary Santangelo.

Westword: Are we nearing a point where a dispensary is turning into more of a liquor store than a brewery now that vertical integration isn't so restrictive and stores don't need to grow their own?

Mary Santangelo: It seems we are nearing a time where a variety of different models can serve an evolving customer base. Many adult-use dispensaries have been purchasing exclusively wholesale flower and infused products for some time now. At Ajoya, we aim for a hybrid model, which includes a strong selection of reliable, well-loved strains from our in-house cultivation as well as a carefully selected collection of elite genetics from Colorado’s most respected growers. This offers customers both familiarity and the chance to explore a variety of rotating strains.

When did the term "strain drop" even pop up? How important are new strains to growers trying to create or keep a following?

“Strain drop” feels like a branding trend that came from tech and sneakers. We have been seeing it in Colorado cannabis for two or three years. Customers who feel invested in a certain product category love to be in the know about what’s coming next. Plus, with the trend of artisanal flower, these batches are notably smaller, with more exclusive genetics, than what some larger, more volume-focused operations produce. They can certainly move quickly. Additionally, the fresher the flower, the better the experience.

New strains can certainly generate excitement. That said, people come to cannabis for a variety of reasons: nostalgia, specific and desired effects, exploration, to name a few. I think success in the new-strain space will depend on how well the cultivators can reliably express the desired characteristics of the new genetics, and their ability to communicate the properties of the new strains with retailers and, ultimately, customers.

Who are some underrated growers that you or your customers are excited about?

Many of the growers producing the highest-quality flower have been cultivating in some form or another since the ’90s. The branding elements are pretty new to Colorado flower, so I think we’ll see some growing notoriety once these elements start to solidify.

Ajoya aims to provide education and transparency to customers, so we’ve done some information-gathering to be able to share deeply with customers. We love to do a quick interview with a new cultivation partner to dive into what makes them special. The more details we can share about each of the operators we work with, the more trust the customers build with that brand. Currently, Ajoya customers are loving Kind Love, Locol Love, Cookies and SevenFive. Billo is new to the Ajoya shelves and we have been very impressed with their quality.

What about genetics? What strains, new or old, do you always want around at the store?

Genetics are the heart of a quality cannabis experience. This goes hand in hand with cultivation expertise. If a cultivator lacks the experience to allow a particular cultivar to fully express, the original genetics make much less of an impact. Ultimately, strain selection is about trying to capture a particular feeling. Rather than categorize strains by indica, sativa and hybrid, Ajoya categorizes product by experience category. Those include Elevate, Focus, Unwind and Settle. This helps customers explore new strains while still guiding them toward their desired state of being.

For strain mix, some Ajoya classics include Golden Goat, Northern Lights #5, Blue Dream and Chem #4.

Colorado's legal weed has a moisture problem. What can growers and dispensaries do to ensure that buds aren't so dry by the time the customer smokes them?

For context, everything in Colorado has a moisture problem! Specifically, curing, packaging and storing well are key to ideal moisture content. We continue to see an increase in pre-packed eighths, which eliminates repeated opening and closing of containers. This helps with moisture retention. For customers, buying in quantities closest to what you plan to use in the next five to ten days can help with overall freshness, as well. Finally, Ajoya stocks accessories, like the Integra Boost, which help regulate humidity. It is a solid $2 investment to optimize carefully selected flower.

Lakewood is allowing recreational sales soon. That sounds exciting. Does Ajoya plan to pursue that?

What an exciting development for the city of Lakewood, as well as the neighboring cities of Golden and Evergreen. Ajoya has acquired one of the Lakewood recreational licenses, and we look forward to sharing more details as the opening date approaches. Ajoya is thrilled to be able to continue to serve the people of Lakewood.