What To Expect When Ottawa’s Legal Pot Shops Open On April 1

Photo: Jean Levac/Postmedia News

Nearly six months after Canada legalized pot, people in Ottawa will be able to walk into three stores on Monday and buy some.

The shops in the ByWard Market, Centretown and Wellington West Village are among only a handful that will open across the province.

The province had wanted 25 cannabis stores to open by April 1, but many won’t be ready on time.

Ontario residents have been able to buy online at the Ontario Cannabis Store since Canada legalized recreational marijuana on Oct. 17. But bricks-and-mortar shops will bring the still-novel experience of legally purchasing weed to another level.

Expect lineups.

The proprietors of Superette on Wellington Street West have promised a staffer will monitor whether customers are blocking the entrances of neighbouring businesses or parking illegally on adjoining streets.

At Fire & Flower York Street Cannabis in the ByWard Market, plans are afoot to entertain people waiting for the doors to open Monday morning with games and prizes. They expect a flood of customers from nearby Gatineau, because there are no bricks-and-mortar stores there yet.

A spokesman for Hobo Recreational Cannabis Store on Bank Street near Gladstone Avenue says they hope to attract 1,000 people a day. That’s about the same number of customers who patronized the illegal dispensary that was the last tenant.

All three stores are designed with a key goal in mind: making people feel comfortable shopping for a substance that still carries a lot of stigma.

“Very clean, bright and modern, but it will have some warmth and approachability,” says spokesman Harrison Stoker, describing the Hobo store. Expect blond wood and Japanese-influenced touches.

“We want to make it feel like a boutique home store you might wander into in San Francisco,” says Stoker, the vice-president of brand and culture for Donnelly Group, which created the Hobo brand.

Clean lines, open spaces, warmth and natural lighting, says Isaac Watson, a spokesman for Fire & Flower, describing the store in the ByWard Market.

Think modern Canadiana, with wood and metallic copper accents, says Watson, who is vice-president of product development & retail experience for the Alberta-based Fire & Flower chain.

Some cannabis users have felt stigmatized and “in the closet” for years, says Watson.

“We want the customers to feel they are in a very safe place to make a selection.”

Operators may be trying to bust stoner stereotypes, but the regulations governing the stores reflect both caution and a desire to prevent the promotion of pot, especially to young people.

Stores must install high-definition video surveillance systems. ID will be checked at the door, and no one under 19 will be allowed entrance.

The merchandise will be sold in plain-ish packages.

No browsing, either. Customers aren’t allowed to touch products until they buy them.

However, all the stores will have locked display cabinets.

At Hobo, the pre-rolled joints, cannabis oils and capsules will be nestled in glass cases built to look like terrariums.

Customers will also be able to sniff samples of weed in jars on the top of a lush “greenhouse” case. The plants in the greenhouse, unfortunately, will be fake. There won’t be enough sunlight for real ones, even though the store has floor-to-ceiling windows. Provincial rules stipulate that passersby should not be able be able peek into a store and see cannabis.

Hobo will have diagonally slatted wooden blinds to let in as much light as possible, says Stoker.

And in a nod to the Donnelly Group’s roots in the hospitality industry, the checkouts will feature bar stools, he says.

Donnelly is a British Columbia company that operates pubs, cocktail bars and barber shops in Vancouver and Toronto. Like Fire & Flower, Donnelly eventually hopes to open a string of cannabis shops in Ontario.

Hobo will feature an “express” area in the basement for customers who know what they want and can order quickly.

The store plans to offer 36 strains. Stoker says they don’t want to overwhelm customers. They will be classified into five categories: Rest, Calm, Balance, Lift and Move.

At Fire & Flower York Street Cannabis, the old meat smoker was hauled out and the interior walls torn down in the heritage brick house that once housed the Smoque Shack barbecue joint.

It was a frantic five-week construction project, says Watson. “it’s been quite a hustle.”

The store will feature giant TV screens in the foyer displaying information about products. Eventually courses and seminars could be held there, says Watson.

About 130 different products will be on sale, mainly dried flower and pre-rolls, he says. A “strain wall” will have cards with information about the strains. Customers can take them home, like paint chips.

As for prices, store operators are only promising they will be “comparable” to the government’s online store.

Sales at the government’s online store have been flat since legalization, but observers expect the stores to do brisk business. Many customers prefer to shop in person.

Stores also help erase stigma, says Watson. In Alberta, when the first Fire & Flower outlets opened in October, there were lineups, he says. “But you would definitely see some customers kind of lingering in their car, waiting to dash in and out.”

At first, many customers tended to be guys, he says, speculating that some women sent their husbands or boyfriends to shop. That has changed, he says.

“Now we get more couples coming in and single females.”