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Sonoma County cannabis dispensaries that deliver better positioned during pandemic

Every adult in Petaluma did not get a delivery of cannabis last week. It only seemed that way to Dave Tohill, a kind of mobile “budtender” for Mercy Wellness, the Cotati-based dispensary. In a single day, Tohill had 40-plus deliveries in Petaluma alone.

One of his customers was a woman who’d spent the morning working in her yard, just off Maria Drive.

“I’ve driven past your house three times today,” said Tohill, as he delivered her package. “I like what you’ve done with the pavers.”

Cannabis, like alcohol, is thought to be recession-proof. But some dispensaries are better positioned than others to weather the coronavirus pandemic. While business spiked dramatically for area outlets around the March 18 imposition of Sonoma County’s emergency stay-at-home order, that boom lasted just a few days. Sales have since slowed. Although not hurt as badly as many businesses, cannabis retailers are still scrambling to adapt to the challenging new climate.

At Mercy Wellness, sales are now limited to in-home delivery and curbside pickup. That resulted, in the first few post-lockdown days, in traffic frequently backing up onto Redwood Drive, sometimes all the way down to Gravenstein Highway. Those backups are rarer now, in part because panic buying has subsided, and in part because CEO Brandon Levine and his staff figured out, after a bit of trial and error, the most efficient patterns for traffic in a parking lot shared with Grav South Brewing Company.

Upon entering the lot, customers are directed to one of two areas, depending on whether they’ve already placed an online preorder. Even those who haven’t preordered can be in and out in 5 to 7 minutes. Pads used by customers to enter their credit card information are promptly swabbed, by rubber-?gloved associates, with Clorox wipes.

Pandemic or not, the vibe here is upbeat. Music from Pandora’s “Funk Radio” fills the air. Employees dash from cars to a fulfillment desk, then back. Tim Rowles said he and his co-workers have joked about donning roller skates, like servers at a drive-in restaurant.

Customers are buying, on average, 20% more weed than they would on a normal visit, Levine said. But they’re visiting less, as one would expect. Many seek relief from anxiety and sleeplessness. Levine has noticed a marked uptick in sales of edibles, “partly because they have a longer-lasting effect,” he said. “And then they put you to sleep.”

He is also executive director of Doobie Nights, the psychedelic, 3,700-square-foot ganja emporium ?5½ miles north in Santa Rosa. A new business without an established, loyal clientele, Doobie Nights will suffer more than its sister dispensary during this economic downturn.

Levine sees tough times ahead for newer cannabis outlets, as does SPARC CEO Erich Pearson, whose company has dispensaries in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. Santa Rosa, Pearson said, has an “over-saturation” of dispensaries, many of which were in financial difficulty before the coronavirus arrived.

Added Levine, “A lot of those companies that didn’t have an established customer base” will now struggle even more during the COVID-19 lockdown, “and some of them won’t make it out of this.”

Despite a handful of huge days around March 18, overall sales are down at SPARC. To spread the pain, Pearson and some executives have taken 25% pay cuts. Some of his 150 workers have been shifted from retail sales to driving delivery cars. Several others have been let go.

Eli Melrod, the CEO of Sebastopol’s popular Solful dispensary, has yet to lay off any of his 20 employees. In fact, he’s increased their wages during the pandemic scare, a form of hazard pay to reward the sacrifices employees are making “just to get in to work, and being on the front lines,” he said. “It’s a lot to ask, and we want to acknowledge that.”

With the store’s “relationship-?based” operating DNA, its culture of getting to know customers personally, Melrod isn’t yet comfortable with the more “transactional” nature of curbside sales. To restore that personal touch, he and his colleagues are talking about setting up online “consultations” with their clients.

Another shift: the company, which does not deliver to people’s homes, is gearing up to do that.

Delivery service is booming at the Alternative dispensary in Santa Rosa, which remains open. To enforce social distancing in the store, management has set up a sequence of waiting stations, consisting of bricks. “We’re thinking of painting the bricks yellow,” owner Karen Kissler quipped.

Weeks ago, to prepare for April 20 - an unofficial holiday for cannabis enthusiasts - she’d placed some unusually large orders with vendors. Those orders arrived just in time to satisfy the intense demand ushered in by the county’s shelter-in-place order. What will the store do on 4/20? For Kissler, that’s a worry for another day.

In the meantime, she’s been gratified by, well, the gratitude of customers thankful that the store is still open.

“Cannabis is excellent for anxiety,” Kissler said. “And, yes, boredom.”

Deliveries at Alternatives have roughly tripled since March 18 - as they have at Mercy Wellness, where demand for his services “exploded overnight,” said Tohill, one of the latter company’s three full-time drivers.

Cruising north on Petaluma Boulevard on Monday afternoon, Tohill spoke of how much he enjoyed chatting with his older clients, who sometimes ask if Mercy Wellness offers a senior discount.

“We prefer to call it a ‘wisdom discount,’” he replies with a smile.

With his dual degrees from Tufts University in environmental and geological sciences, and his decades of experience in the cannabis field, Tohill enjoys educating customers, but also just simply connecting with them.

Since the virus arrived, he said, “People want to have a little more of a conversation. You might be the first person they’ve seen in two days.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ausmurph88

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