Not by Design

The fixtures at Common Citizen utilize black, white and natural wood. Courtesy Photo

When Flint, Michigan-based Common Citizen set out to transform a dilapidated former sports bar into a dispensary, it didn’t anticipate becoming the first cannabis retailer to receive a prestigious design award. Yet in December, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), a retail real estate association with 63,000 members in more than 100 countries, awarded Common Citizen its 2019 Gold Award for, among other attributes, “open sightlines” and “minimalist” decor. There’s even a cafe inside the premises.

In announcing the award, the ICSC noted the 5,000-square-foot dispensary “features a predominantly black-and-white design palette balanced with warm wood accents and paneling, clean-line furnishings, textured wall treatments and (customized) lighting fixtures.”

But landing such kudos was not top of mind for Common Citizen’s lead executive.

“We didn’t design with the intent to win anything,” said Mike Elias, co-founder and CEO of Michigan Pure Med, the vertically integrated medical cannabis company that owns Common Citizen. “We just kept the patient in mind.”

 

‘Human-Centric Blueprint’

Elias is referring to the company’s “human-centric blueprint,” a strategy he said defines everything the company does in the context of the patient/customer.

We put the patient “at the center of the entire universe,” he said, describing Common Citizen’s focus on providing needs-based products and services in an environment that prioritizes consumer comfort, education and accessibility.

“Common Citizen, at its core, is a movement,” Elias said. “It’s cannabis for humanity. We are not a product-centric environment. We are a very customer-, needs-based environment. We are not pushing product, we are pushing education. We’re pushing a connection. We are educators before we’re retailers. So everything that shows up in the design is based on that core principle.”

 

Balance of Form and Function

The ICSC pointed out that “the innovative space incorporates a welcoming lobby entry leading to freestanding, high-top counters equipped with mounted tablets, display units containing branded merchandise and related paraphernalia and a variety of seating and lounge areas.”

According to Elias, the dispensary’s “balance of form and function” is driving increasingly positive online reviews and generating approximately 56% more revenue per customer visit than before the remodel.

Inside the facility, customers can enjoy a variety of spaces that serve different needs but are all integrated into the open-concept retail floor.

The dispensary, for example, offers several private rooms where—when the sliding barn doors that enable confidential consultation and browsing are open—patients recovering from serious illnesses can relax on roomy couches that provide a view of the retail floor.

“We’ve used these with patients who may not be able to walk because they just went through chemo and radiation, and they’re completely depleted,” Elias said of the rooms. “We bring product to them, and if they want to talk about their illness, they can do it in this very comfortable, private setting.”

 

A Cafe for Newcomers

The dispensary also includes a cafe that’s separated from the retail floor by a glass partition, enabling customers to sip a familiar brew while viewing products and activity on the floor itself.

“Many people were surprised at the cafe,” Elias said, “because it’s designed to slow people down.” But it provides a way to “engage-at-a-glance” and enables the store’s budtenders (or “citizen advocates,” as Common Citizen calls them) to sit down with customers, “connect, educate and build rapport.”

Elias touts the cafe as being an especially important attraction for clientele who aren’t yet acquainted with cannabis—the market segment that comprises the bulk of Common Citizen’s visitors.

“The entire design of the store,” he said, “is designed to cater to the 88% of folks that do not consume (cannabis) today.”

He also credits the cafe, along with the budtenders, for Common Citizen’s increasing sales and favorable reviews.

 

Addressing Challenges

Common Citizen occupies Flint’s former Raincheck Lounge, a once-popular sports bar that had long been a staple in the community. The building was, however, past its prime.

“Aside from the existing exterior walls, our Flint location (needed to be) completely remodeled and reconfigured. … This included everything from new flooring to a new roof,” Elias said.

Consequently, the city was “very accommodating” when the company approached it to ask about acquiring redesign specifications. However, Michigan Pure Med did encounter some challenges during the design process, including the project’s six-month timeline and planning the build while simultaneously designing the interior and creating specifications for the custom-made mill work.

Additional hurdles included state and municipal limits on where cannabis dispensaries can be located. For example, Michigan requires dispensaries to be located no less than 1,000 feet from K-12 schools and designed in accordance with electrical, engineering and health-care requirements.

“Some of those constraints are driven from the architectural design perspective, but we’re also limited in some cases with land. Also, municipalities play into the specs. And that varies from one city to the next,” Elias said.

Consequently, Common Citizen will not be able to provide cafes and private rooms at all of its planned facilities, although they will mimic the Flint redesign as much as possible. The company owns nine retail licenses, has three open dispensaries and plans by the end of this year to build seven new facilities, some of which Elias said will be built from the ground up and some of which will be “extensively renovated” redesigns of existing buildings.

“The problem with Michigan,” Elias said, “is that you can’t really pick your retail location. There are so many constraints that prohibit you from finding the ideal location, so that you don’t compromise your architectural design. And if you wait too long, you … lose the opportunity.”

In Michigan, only 8%-9% of municipalities have opted into medical cannabis, and they’re allowed to restrict usage, Elias noted. “So they pass these ordinances that … create separation requirements. And they’re often pretty significant. By the time you get all the separation requirements, there’s only a handful of locations that you’re allowed to buy and (conduct) retail. And then there’s this frenzy of people who are all going after locations that are not ideal. Sometimes they put them in these very weird zones that are not really suitable for retail.”

Common Citizen, for instance, is half a mile from the nearest retail corridor and therefore receives only about 9,000 vehicles traveling through the area daily—or about half the traffic seen in other retail corridors.

“If you looked at it purely from a retail standpoint,” Elias said, “you might raise an eyebrow. … But because it was the Raincoat Lounge … there was a historical response to it. …There’s a lot of stories that the locals bring in when they come. A lot of fond memories.”