The three cannabis retail locations in Ottawa officially opened their doors on Monday as part of the first wave of legal pot shops to open across Ontario.
Global News Ottawa was on hand to cover the launch of the stores, where education, prices, accessibility and crowds were all top of mind.
Hobo Recreational Cannabis Store
Located on Bank Street in Centretown, Hobo Recreational held a media availability before opening the doors to the public and explained some of how their location worked.
For those new to the cannabis market who may not have much knowledge in terms of which strain they are looking for, the store has a colour-coded information system indicating the different effects each strain would have on the consumer.
Harrison Stoker is the VP of brand and culture for the Donnelly Group who owns Hobo, and for him, one of the most important aspects is their “decision tree.”
“I think it’s something that you’re going to find becomes standardized, more or less, in the recreational market,” said Stoker. “There’s a lot of people that might be entering this market for the first time and they’re going to need a little bit of guidance.”
The strains are broken down into five categories on the tree:
- Move: a straight sativa strain to help boost energy
- Lift: a hybrid featuring more sativa than indica
- Balanced: a hybrid mix right down the middle
- Calm: a hybrid featuring more indica than sativa
- Rest: a straight indica strain to relax the consumer
From the active strain sativa to the relaxing indica and hybrids in between, customers can follow easy-to-understand symbols to help find what they are looking for.
The shop also has trained experts to help answer any questions new consumers may have and help them find the strain that best suits their needs.
The store has two floors. The main floor is where these trained staff are located and tables are laid out, with many of the strains offered on display with information cards.
Other paraphernalia such as grinders and rolling papers are also on display and available for purchase.
Downstairs is the “express” area. Here is where those who already know what they’re looking for can go to pick up what they need immediately.
“Anything that’s offered through OCS we can offer,” said Cole McCrea, on of the store’s “budtenders.” “Right now we are carrying over 700 products, so 36 different strains of cannabis.”
For some consumers, the prospect of buying product from a retail location eliminates the worry of what the cannabis product could be laced with. For Pokey Judge, who’d been lined up outside since early Monday morning, and Tracey Willette, knowing they’re buying a safe and clean product is paramount.
“There’s fentanyl in every kind of drugs these days, even in the pot ” said Judge. “For safety reasons, it’s the best.”
“It’s clean and you’re not taking a chance by buying it on the street,” Willette added.
Customers are required to bring two pieces of photo identification to prove they are over 19 before entering the building.
Fire & Flower York Street Cannabis
Over in Ottawa’s ByWard Market, no more than a couple dozen people braved the cold to line up ahead of the opening of the Fire & Flower York Street Cannabis store at 10 a.m. By 10:30 a.m., however, the store was bustling.
The private retail pot shop, co-owned by Michael Patterson and Eric Lavoie, has replaced the Smoque Shack restaurant, which moved to Clarence Street. Patterson and Lavoie worked with Edmonton-based Fire & Flower to open the store.
The main area of the shop is down a hallway towards the back. There, customers can consult a “strain wall,” where dozens of cards with information about different cannabis strains are hung and categorized according to their type and effect. A staff member was on hand by the wall, helping customers identify what strain of cannabis would be best-suited to their wants and needs.
The store also has a dedicated “education room” or “experimental room,” where customers can search tablets or talk to the shop’s cannabis educators — or “cannistas” — about different strains and consumption methods. Customers can also sniff and peer more closely at different strains at the “sensory” tables.
Several customers said they appreciated the educational touch the store offered, arguing this is something the online Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) is missing.
“I didn’t like shopping on the website because it’s not very intuitive. I knew what I was looking for … but for someone who didn’t know, it’s not good,” said Austin Toll, who shopped at Fire & Flower on Monday.
“Having the opinions of someone who is knowledgeable in it is definitely helpful,” he said, adding he consulted some cards on the strain wall and took a few with him.
The Ottawa store put an emphasis on customer education for that reason, Fire & Flower CEO Trevor Fencott said.
“This is a substance that not a lot of people have a lot of experience with, so we have to fill in that gap,” he said.
As they shop, customers can get a staff member to create a “customer profile” for them on a store tablet. Staff can then add the customer’s picks to a cart, in order speed up the process at the till. Customers at Fire & Flower will have to present an ID at the front doors before entering the store and a second time at the checkout counter before they make their purchase.
Toll described the shop as “a very nice store,” but left saying he didn’t know how often he’d come back. He said he thought some products were overpriced, but that the store’s prices were “reasonable” overall.
“In a pinch, this is great, and the hours are good,” he said.
Sandy Hill resident Crystal Roussel said she experienced “great” service inside, but noted the store isn’t accessible, claiming she observed a man in a wheelchair outside the building say, ‘”What about me?'”
The front doors of Fire & Flower York Street Cannabis are only accessible via staircase and customers must climb another smaller set of stairs once inside to get to the back rooms and the checkout counter.
Company spokesperson Nathan Mison said a wheelchair ramp, a chair lift, a wider front doorway and wider hallways were all in the original plans for the store’s layout but because the shop is housed in a designated heritage building, any major modifications require approval from the municipality.
Because of that, and the tight timeline the company faced before opening day, plans to make the building fully accessible had to be delayed, according to Mison, Fire & Flower’s vice president of government and stakeholder relations. He said Fire & Flower is working with the city’s planning department now and hopes to make those changes by later this spring or early summer.
“It’s still in process and we’re still working that through,” he said.
Located at 1306 Wellington St. W, Superette is the only of the three retail pot stores to be situated on the edge of a residential neighbourhood.
Roughly an hour before the doors were set to open, dozens of prospective customers began forming a lineup outside, which snaked down adjacent Warren Avenue.
“The potential for drawing really, really large crowds is there and that’s something about which residents have expressed some significant concern, particularly the residents of Warren Avenue,” said Kitchissippi councillor Jeff Leiper.
“My feeling is that, after an initial period of weeks or months, things are going to calm down and it will be just another popular store on a very popular retail strip.”
In the weeks leading up to the grand opening, the store made an effort to put locals’ worries to rest. Mimi Lam, co-founder and CEO of Superette, sees the business becoming a welcome part of the community.
“There’s been a lot of excitement around the neighbourhood. Local businesses are keen to see what this can mean for their business, and residents have been curious and some have raised concerns regarding issues such as parking and traffic,” said Lam.
“We held an open house, not because it was mandatory but because we want them to feel comfortable and we want to be a positive addition to the community.”
Along with the novelty of finally being able to shop for cannabis in a brick-and-mortar store, some customers said they were most intrigued about the possibility of seeing the product before making a purchase.
Stephane Tremblay and Cyndi Leavitt were also among those in line and said they had been anticipating this day for some time.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store already, I’m so excited — like a kid on Christmas morning,” said Leavitt with a laugh. “I’m hoping that I’ll be able to ask questions, but there’s a lot of people here today.”
Once in the shopping area, customers can indeed both ask for help and smell samples of various strains.
Anyone who wants assistance from an employee has the option of taking a number from a ticket machine and waiting for it to be called, or grabbing a colour-coded basket. A green basket signals you want help, while a red one indicates: “I’m good.”
Not everybody came away impressed by the price point at Superette, however. Tremblay felt that “the quality of the product was not for the price that they were asking,” noting that seven grams of one strain was priced at $106.99, plus tax.
“Might as well order online from OCS, it’s half the price,” he said.