Oct. 17 marked the first day of medical cannabis sales in Missouri, and the state’s two operational cannabis retailers, N’Bliss and Fresh Green, have had quite the journey to serving patients in the nascent market.
N’Bliss, a subsidiary of Nirvana Investments, opened its first two stores in Manchester and Ellisville on Oct. 17, while Fresh Green opened for business in Lee’s Summit on Oct. 19.
“It was exciting—the energy is real,” N’Bliss Managing Partner and CEO Bradford Goette tells Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary of opening weekend.
Goette says the dispensary could have opened earlier, but the N’Bliss team took their time to ensure a great experience for its first customers.
“Your first sale and transaction should be memorable, but it should be right,” he says. “You should be doing this for the patient, and we want that to go smooth. We know with all the software systems, moving parts [and] compliance, there’s a lot of room for error. We wanted to test things and make sure things were working prior to opening.”
On opening day, the N’Bliss team focused on making the retail experience as seamless as possible for their patients, according to CMO Rebecca Reardon.
“While, yes, we had lines of two hours plus at some points, we were doing our best to get them in and out, [and] we were doing our best to overcommunicate,” she says.
“Regardless of the lines, we handled it amazingly well,” he says. “Everything we set out to do from a standard operating procedure to make it work, worked.”
Among Fresh Green’s first customers were cancer patients and one with multiple-personality disorder, and Bianca Sullivan, the company’s co-owner and CEO, says she was surprised at the wide range of patient demographics, as well as customers’ willingness to wait in line, sometimes up to seven hours, to be served.
“It was awful weather, and with COVID, I couldn’t let them in the waiting room,” Sullivan says. “I could only have about 10 people [inside at one time].”
Fresh Green supplemented its THC offerings with CBD products, and the Fresh Green team tried to keep those waiting outside apprised of the dispensary’s product selection as items quickly sold out, so patients weren’t waiting for products that were already gone.
“At the end of the day, when people had waited five, six, seven hours in line, in the cold, they were so happy to be in the dispensary,” Sullivan says. “I was shocked.”
Helping Patients Find Bliss
N’Bliss holds five total retail licenses, as well as a manufacturing and infused products license that it is currently building out under the 5150 N’Fusion brand. The company also holds a transportation license under a separate entity called Bold Lane Logistics.
“Part of our mission is giving back to communities and the places that we serve,” Goette says. “I grew up Ellisville, which is one of the dispensaries that we have open, and then Manchester, which is only about three and a half miles away. [It’s] a very central corridor area, but we have some roots there [and] we also know from a demographic standpoint, there [are] people of varying age groups, varying income [classes], and unfortunately, like a lot of areas, the opioid [epidemic] is prevalent in the state of Missouri.”
N’Bliss’ retail locations, both spanning roughly 3,000 square feet, offer CBD-only products, which customers can access without a medical cannabis card, as well as additional THC-based products for registered patients.
“[The] front end of our locations … are CBD, so any customer can come in without a medical marijuana card and … understand a little bit more about the plant, the hemp plant, the non-THC side of medical marijuana,” Goette says. “And we have a store within a store, if you will. … You have to have a medical marijuana card to go back into our dispensary.”
The CBD-only side of the Manchester store opened in June, Reardon adds, and CBD sales launched at the Ellisville location in August, which allowed N’Bliss’ staff—called “wellness specialists”—to practice using the POS system, loyalty program and other standard operating procedures (SOPs) ahead of the company’s foray into THC sales.
N’Bliss’ main focus is continuing to educate both its wellness specialists and customers on medical cannabis and the dispensary’s specific products, Goette says, and while supply is limited in these early days of the market, the company plans to have a full suite of products available as it moves forward.
The Manchester location is meant to be a welcoming space for patients of all ages, Reardon says. The dispensary’s wellness specialists have been educating guests on how to obtain their medical cannabis cards, and the company has partnered with telehealth platform NugMD to help qualified patients register for the program.
“The fact that we do have CBD and medical marijuana, our goal is just to help everybody in the wellness space and our positioning is to help individuals find their path to bliss,” Reardon says.
State law requires dispensary staff to work one-on-one with patients all the way through the retail experience, from the time a customer enters the store all the way through the check-out process.
“We really take that to heart, and we want to truly make this an experience for the patient—it is about the patient journey,” Reardon says. “It’s not a transactional approach to business. You’re welcome in the dispensary, and we stay with you as we walk you through. At this point, we take you through … the products are that are coming soon, … when manufacturing is up and running and we have edibles and concentrates and things like that.”
A Family Operation
Fresh Green, owned and operated by Sullivan and her husband, the company’s co-owner and president, applied for and won two dispensary licenses in Missouri, and while the team originally planned to apply for cultivation licenses, as well, they ultimately decided to stick to retail.
“We thought at the beginning we would do cultivation, as well, but the further along down the line we got with it, it was just overwhelming,” Sullivan says. “We want to keep it small, just us, and then hire some people who knew what they were doing, but not turn it over to somebody who would just do the growing for us. … So, we decided to just do the dispensaries, which I think was a good idea.”
Sullivan’s eldest son works at the dispensary, and her younger son plans to join the company after he completes his college education.
Born and raised in Kansas City, Sullivan then attended University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she majored in biology. As part of her coursework, Sullivan volunteered with an AIDS clinic that was active in the fight to pass California’s medical cannabis initiative, Prop. 215, back in 1996.
“Then, I moved back here to Missouri and never thought I would see legal marijuana again, ever,” Sullivan says. “About eight years ago, there was some talk of it, and … I kept my ears open. When I really thought it was going to happen, I was trying to convince my husband. [I said], ‘I really want to do this.’”
The COVID-19 Curveball
While opening a dispensary in a brand-new market is never easy, N’Bliss and Fresh Green faced a new set of challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In St. Louis County, where N’Bliss’ two operational dispensaries are located, stores can only operate at 25% capacity.
Goette says N’Bliss put patients first when crafting the company’s SOPs and strategies for customer engagement. N’Bliss has a station outside its dispensaries where customers are asked to sanitize their hands and take a complimentary mask—if they don’t already have their own—before entering the store.
All of the company’s wellness specialists also wear masks, and everyone’s temperature is taken before they enter the dispensary.
Sullivan reveals that she was terrified by two things when Fresh Green opened its doors—COVID-19 and navigating Metrc’s seed-to-sale tracking system.
“We had a line of hundreds of people when we opened on Monday, and out of the hundreds of people, there were like 20 without masks,” she says. “We tried to do social distancing, but we had hundreds of people in line—we couldn’t do it. So, somebody called the health department and they showed up 20 minutes after we opened.”
Supply Chain Challenges
As with any new market, Missouri is currently experiencing its fair share of supply chain challenges. Archimedes is the only fully operational cultivator with product available at this time, and a second cultivator, BeLeaf Medical, is currently undergoing testing with product likely available in the coming days, although Sullivan speculates that BeLeaf will supply their own dispensaries before wholesaling product to others.
“I think they’ll be a supplier in January, just not right now,” she says.
Both N’Bliss and Fresh Green have nearly sold out of flower during the first week of sales, although they do still have pre-ground flower available.
“It’s going to take a little while for the industry to catch up for biomass,” Goette says.
N’Bliss has received many questions from patients about why other product categories, such as edibles and concentrates, are unavailable in Missouri, and Reardon says the company is trying its best to communicate the supply chain hiccups to its customers until the state’s medical cannabis manufacturers get up and running.
“Our only ability is to try to purchase from cultivators, and we feel like over time, things will normalize,” Goette says. “Our structure and our focus is to keep the actual plant as affordable as possible, given this current environment.”
Sullivan says her second biggest fear—working within Metrc—has presented inventory management challenges for Fresh Green on top of the supply chain woes. During the dispensary’s first two days of sales, she said “something seemed a little off,” prompting her to shut down sales for an hour or so to ensure seed-to-sale compliance.
Sullivan’s husband was stationed in the dispensary’s vault for the first two days of sales, bringing product out so it could be counted manually.
“Even though we had it in the system, he was telling me what we had left just to make sure what I showed [in Metrc] was what we had, just so we didn’t oversell something,” Sullivan says.
Fresh Green received its flower in pre-packaged eighths and has been limiting patients to one eighth of flower per customer.
“I felt really bad, but I knew I’d feel worse if I only helped like 30 people and they could get as much as they wanted to,” Sullivan says, adding that if customers traveled a long way to the dispensary, she made an exception and let them have two one-eighth packages.
Fresh Green is currently selling four different varieties of flower with varying levels of THC, and Sullivan says the dispensary’s highest THC offering sold out first.
Continued Growth and Expansion
N’Bliss currently employs 25 to 30 staff members at each of its two locations, for a total of roughly 60 employees. As it moves forward, the company will look to hire passionate people who are looking for not just a job, but a longer-term career in cannabis, Goette says.
“You’re not looking for just a lot of just ‘yes’ people, you are looking at people that will challenge [themselves] and will do a really good job with those roles that they’re put into, that are leaders of the company,” he says.
Sullivan is looking ahead to bringing on more employees, as well; while the dispensary employs more than the staff members currently working in the dispensary in these early days of sales, she is keeping some team members home due to COVID-19 restrictions that limit the dispensary to 50% occupancy.
But, she adds, the future in Missouri is bright, with roughly 70,000 patients already enrolled in the medical cannabis program.
“We are definitely here to stay,” Sullivan says. “Our long-term goal is just to help as many people as we can."
Editor Cassie Neiden contributed to this story.