WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – As the first restaurant in the U.S. where you can openly smoke cannabis, Lowell Cafe had a few things to sort out.
First off, they came up with the term “Flower Host,” a sort-of sommelier for cannabis. This employee, who’s separate from the server, typically has budtending experience and can recommend different strains of indica/sativa from Lowell’s vast menu of flowers, pre-roll packs, vapes and edibles.
Then there’s the $30 “tokage fee,” like a corkage fee if you BYO weed. Customers who choose to get high on their own supply can pay for a Flower Host to roll their joint at the table.
However, there’s still something that Lowell Cafe needs to resolve: How to turn over tables faster.
“We definitely have to figure out a process of gently getting people to leave,” says executive chef Andrea Drummer, who sees lines out the door of her restaurant and reservations nearly fully booked a month out.
But it’s challenging to interrupt guests’ positive feedback loop.
“I have food, I have cannabis, I’m gonna want to order more food,” Drummer says. “They just want to hang out.”
What makes a cannabis cafe special?
Were it not for the cafe’s herbal scent and smoky atmosphere (made less so with fans, ventilators and air-purifying plants), at first glance Lowell Cafe is just like any other scene-y rooftop restaurant in Los Angeles. It has dozens of hanging plants, collages of vintage photographs, wooden accents, high ceilings and an altogether Instagramable rustic/chic vibe.
But spend some time there and you notice differences. The clientele is so diverse that it becomes hard to imagine people of so many ages and races gathering together at any other place. The staff is so extraordinarily approachable you might mistake them for new best friends. The noise of conversation and music is relatively low considering the place is at capacity with a line out the door. Oh, and people are smoking out of ornate glassware.
In short: America’s first restaurant to open with a cannabis consumption license is chill. And it also happens to serve a mix of trendy comfort food such as fried chicken sandwiches, banh mi and vegan nachos that are meant to complement the THC (Flower Hosts can recommend pairings) and satisfy even the worst cases of the munchies.
Restricted by confusing marijuana laws
In order to legally sell food and cannabis, Lowell Cafe’s had to get creative.
For example, there’s the California rule that only dispensaries may sell cannabis products and paraphernalia, so Lowell Cafe is technically a dispensary at the state level while operating as a “cannabis consumption lounge” on the city level (cannabis is still illegal under federal law). In order to abide by the laws, Lowell Cafe technically keeps their farm-to-table kitchen and dining area separate from its cannabis consumption area, though guests seated at either location can order cannabis and/or food. Checks for food (which is considered distinct from infused edibles) and cannabis are separated. And since there are laws against alcohol and cannabis being consumed at the same location, the bar is dry.
There are other things Lowell staffers do to follow the rules, such as requiring customers to finish cannabis product on premises. They also request cash for cannabis purchases because federal prohibition makes some financial institutions wary of processing state-legal cannabis transactions.
The restaurant has short-term plans to open an outdoor section for non-smokers. And in the long-term, Drummer hopes to infuse cannabis right into the entrees.
“Once the laws evolve and there is some sense of levity and normalcy brought to the experience for the masses,” Drummer says. “It’s definitely something that I would love to see happen, and hopefully it does sooner than later.”
More weed-friendly restaurants are on the way
Lowell Cafe was the first of eight businesses to be granted cannabis consumption licenses in West Hollywood, the only city in the Los Angeles area that allows for on-site consumption. That means seven more cannabis-friendly properties could open in the area soon.
Elsewhere in California, pot lounges are legal in San Francisco and on-site consumption permits are available or should be issued soon in Oakland, Alameda and Palm Springs, according to pro-cannabis lobbying group Marijuana Policy Project’s Karen O’Keefe.
It’s not just Californians who can expect more places to smoke marijuana.
Other states that could allow for legal smoking in public include: Colorado, which will issue licenses for cannabis cafes starting in 2020; Illinois, which made marijuana legal starting Jan. 1; Michigan, which is beginning to accept marijuana business licenses in November; and Alaska, where on-site consumption is expected to begin in several cities in the coming months.
Why allow for more cannabis consumption?
O’Keefe cites a 2018 Gallup poll as a way to advocate making weed more widely available. According to the study, two in three Americans now support legalizing marijuana. (Gallup hasn’t released its 2019 cannabis poll yet.)
“Two thirds of Americans think that marijuana should be legal for adults. Allowing adults to gather somewhere socially and consume cannabis in a regulated setting is something that just makes sense to a lot of people,” O’Keefe says, adding allowing for open consumption would help to destigmatize the use of a substance that, as advocates have long argued, “is much safer than alcohol.”
Then there’s that reason to open more cannabis cafes in the U.S. that’s hard to quantify: They’d likely bring more chill vibes.