A local chef once told me, “Anybody who is growing microgreens for restaurants is either already growing weed or getting ready to grow it as soon as it’s legal.” Whether or not that’s true, there is no doubt that entrepreneurs all over are planning and developing infrastructure in advance of potential widespread legalization of cannabis.
Mike Solomon is a McMinnville, Tenn., native and a University of Tennessee graduate who moved to Southern California, where he became a licensed medical cannabis grower under a state caregiver program. The program allowed medicinal marijuana cardholders to assign their cards to a specific grower to cultivate plants for them. With a stable of 30 patients, Solomon was allowed to grow 360 plants, and he learned how to grow high-grade cannabis in his indoor operations.
Surprisingly, Tennessee was somewhat ahead of the curve when the Department of Agriculture established the state’s Industrial Hemp Agricultural Pilot Program in 2015, three years before the national Farm Bill finally differentiated hemp from marijuana. Both products come from the cannabis plant, but the difference is THC content. Hemp can contain all the same terpenes and cannabinoids as marijuana, but can legally have no more than 0.3 percent THC — the psychoactive compound that is traditionally associated with the intoxicating effects of marijuana.
Solomon saw this as an opportunity to move home and become a big fish in a small pond. The Tennessee cannabis market was still nascent and relatively disorganized when he started Tri-Star Medical & Craft Cannabis (no affiliation with the TriStar Health hospital group) to grow and process high-quality cannabis into a line of tinctures, edibles, lotions and other products.
Some companies prefer to use the terms “hemp” and “CBD” to describe their products, but Solomon is avoiding that to break the stigma behind cannabis. “They’re all cannabis,” he explains. “It’s legal to extract THC from the plant as long as it doesn’t exceed the limit. Think of it like coffee. Depending on how you process the bean, coffee can be caffeinated or decaf, but it’s all still coffee. Marijuana is like caffeinated, and hemp is decaf.”
In his large facility in Antioch, Solomon grows what he calls Craft Cannabis and extracts CBD and THC from the plants. Unlike many producers, Tri-Star uses a solventless process to extract the compounds, eliminating chemicals you probably don’t want in your final product. (“We call it ‘fresh-squeezed’ cannabis,” Solomon jokes.) With the active compounds isolated, Tri-Star adds them at legal levels to their line of products.
The next level of Solomon’s vertically integrated cannabis operation is his chain of retail shops under the Holistic Connection brand. He’s already opened more than a dozen stores across the state, offering consumer sales of the products that Tri-Star creates along with flower and dab-bar experiences. There, “budtenders” lead customers through a sampling of different products while explaining the differences between sativa-derived, indica-derived and hybrid strains.
“I wanted to create an Amsterdam coffee shop vibe,” says Solomon. “I say the dab bar is like a cannabis wine tasting.”
Even as he looks to expand The Holistic Connection via franchising, Solomon plans to maintain an end-to-end chain of custody of all the products sold from his Tri-Star facility. He’s also eyeing a delivery service for his cannabis collection to eliminate the need for customers to even get off their couch.
In August, Solomon created yet another layer to his empire with the opening of Germantown’s Buds & Brews, a restaurant revolving around cannabis experiences in various forms. “I wanted to make a legal, safe space for customers to enjoy hemp-derived products,” he explains. “If we can have a Margaritaville restaurant and country-music-star bars, why can’t we have a cannabis-themed restaurant?”
Located at the corner of Third Avenue North and Monroe Street, Buds & Brews has quickly begun to attract curious tourists and locals. The restaurant is 21-and-up, and IDs are checked at the host stand before entry. All servers are ABC-certified — an important detail since that includes training on how to determine the level of impairment among customers, although that has traditionally centered on serving alcohol.
Since the experience at Buds & Brews is so novel to most visitors, servers take guests through the various options offered. For $50 an hour, you can order the “vapor tap” experience, sort of a private dab bar at your table. After talking guests through a menu of vape options and the expected effects from each strain, servers bring a personal vaporizer to the table, preloaded with a cartridge of Delta-8 THC. To maintain hygiene, each vaporizer comes with the equivalent of a wine glass inverted over the top to capture the smoke, which patrons can “sip” at their leisure. Servers remove the device between puffs to help manage consumption. “We like to ‘shaman’ you through the process,” says Solomon.
The second Buds & Brews experience is beverage-based, with a selection of THC-infused fruit juices and mocktails garnished with cannabis leaves — in case you weren’t aware what you’re partaking in. To ensure that legal levels of THC are regulated, all food and drink products containing the compounds are produced, inspected and packaged off site, so the juices come in Capri Sun-like bags, and the sauces that accompany the food are packaged in those adorable tiny condiment bottles like hotel ketchup and mustard that come with room service.
The food offered at Buds & Brews is traditional pub-grub fare, including shareable appetizers with punny names like Nugged Out Nachos, a 420 Pretzel and Dude, Where’s My Wings? Sandwiches and wraps are pretty traditional — there’s a burger, a club sandwich and a grilled or fried chicken sandwich. Wake and Bake Tacos are a fan favorite, and an old-school pepperoni pizza is intentionally designed as a throwback to the slices served on Fridays at the high school cafeteria. Naturally, the menu also offers a simple bowl of Lucky Charms.
A couple of salads are also available, with the option of adding fried, grilled or Nashville hot chicken, and desserts are predictably decadent, ranging from brownies to a skillet chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream — and, of course, Pot Tarts. Is former Urban Grub chef Sam McGee going to win a James Beard Award for the food at Buds & Brews? Probably not, but it is pretty solid fare, a step above everyday fast-casual. Food sales definitely outstrip cannabis sales at Buds & Brews, so it is an important component of the business.
The cannabis component of the culinary offering at Buds & Brews is in the form of a host of Craft Cannabis-infused sauces that are available for $7 for a 2-ounce bottle with a “buy four get one free” offer. Every item on the food menu comes with suggested sauce pairings: buffalo, barbecue, ranch or bleu cheese for the wings; mayo, ketchup or mustard for the burger; Cajun butter or honey mustard for the grilled cheese; and dark chocolate or honey for the churros. Each sauce bottle contains 5 milligrams of cannabis-derived products, well below the 25-milligram legal limit. By combining sauces and determining how much to add to the food, diners basically determine their own dosage, and the sauces are objectively delicious accouterments. Guests are welcome to take their leftover sauces home, and the packaging is definitely designed for future widespread retail sales through various outlets that Solomon is considering.
Solomon is already looking for potential new locations for future Buds & Brews even as his Tri-Star Medical and Holistic Connections businesses grow at a remarkable rate. “When I came back to Tennessee, I saw the huge untapped landscape of the local hemp market,” he says. “I left the marijuana heaven of California for the hemp of Tennessee.”
Considering the results Solomon has already achieved and the potential growth that still exists depending on future legislative developments, it sure seems like he made the right choice.