WEST HOLLYWOOD — Like any good chef about to open a restaurant, Andrea Drummer wants to get her pairings just right. But her lamb chops with plantain-mango salsa won’t be matched with wine or beer.
Instead, a “budtender” — some in the industry call them ganjiers, as in ganja sommeliers — will help guests at the soon-to-open Lowell Farms cannabis cafe pair their farm-to-table meal with the perfect strain of farm-to-table marijuana.
“A kush is a little more pungent, so it pairs better with a stew, or something like a beef or a meat product. A lighter lemon profile goes nicely with a fish,” Drummer said. One of her favorite strains, Blue Dream, “pairs well with both savory and sweet. I’ve done it with ice cream, and with bread puddings, but I’ve also done it with octopus.”
When the rustic, plant-filled 220-seat space opens, it will be the first of its kind in America: a place for locals and tourists to have a high-quality meal and smoke a joint in public. Other restaurants are soon to follow. But if they want weed on the menu, restaurateurs in the famously progressive city — which in 2017 approved an ordinance allowing business licenses for this purpose — will still have to navigate a complicated patchwork of regulations.
“With cannabis, we are building the boat as we’re on the water,” said Jackie Subeck, who plans to open a cannabis spa, clinic and cafe and serves as the chairwoman of the cannabis legislative subcommittee for the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
States that have legalized recreational cannabis will be watching how the city pulls it off. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed a bill in May allowing cannabis lounges. If legalization continues apace, cannabis restaurants might eventually become as normal as wine bars.
“Whatever West Hollywood does now,” said Sean Black, co-founder of Lowell Herb Co., the cannabis company opening the cafe, “the rest of the blue states, at least, [do] three years later.”
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Proposition 64 legalized cannabis in California, but consuming it in public is still prohibited. When the West Hollywood City Council held a study session on the topic in 2017, it determined that access to places to smoke was a social-equity issue.
“A lot of people in this city are renters, and they may not be able to smoke in their apartments,” said John Leonard, the city’s community and legislative affairs manager. “They’re forced to smoke in public places or smoke in their cars, and they face a greater risk of being arrested for that.”
However, that wasn’t the only reason the council approved an ordinance allowing public consumption lounges.
People “enjoy the nightlife of West Hollywood. So we thought this was kind of a natural evolution that, you know, you can stay in West Hollywood in a hotel, you can go out to our bars and our restaurants, and now you can go to a cannabis consumption cafe as well,” Leonard said.
There are public cannabis consumption areas elsewhere in California and in Colorado, but many are lounges attached to dispensaries or vape clubs reminiscent of a dingy basement. They are pretty different from what West Hollywood had in mind when it opened up applications for 16 on-site consumption licenses (with 24 additional licenses for dispensaries and delivery) in May 2018.
The process drew more than 300 applicants, who were scored on factors such as innovation and social equity. The top eight in each of five categories were allowed to proceed.
Drummer’s application, among the highest scorers in the category for consumption lounge (smoking, vaping and edible), outlined a “bright and airy oasis” with tableside “flower” service — cannabis buds hand-rolled into joints. It also called for a menu of infused food, which Drummer has been making for years as a private chef whose clients have included comedian Chelsea Handler. The business has several partners, but its main support comes from Lowell Herb Co., with its rustic branding and celebrity following.
But as soon as the licenses were approved, the compromises began.
The first problem was the discrepancy between city and state licensing. Although the city allows licenses for consumption lounges that aren’t attached to dispensaries, “there is no such thing as a cannabis cafe license from the state,” which will license the businesses as dispensaries, Black said.
The next problem was the food. Although West Hollywood permits it, California prohibits cannabis businesses from selling anything other than cannabis, with the exception of accessories such as bongs and pipes, and branded merchandise such as T-shirts. The purpose “was to make sure that dispensaries did not become convenience stores and start selling Reese’s peanut butter cups and Doritos and Coke,” Subeck said.
But folks in the cannabis industry are finding loopholes, which West Hollywood has encouraged. Lowell’s strategy is to put two separate businesses under the same roof: a lounge to smoke cannabis and a restaurant. Guests who order food and cannabis will receive separate bills. The plan was approved by the West Hollywood Business License Commission in July.
Another compromise: Drummer originally had planned to serve freshly infused food, with cannabis butters and oils incorporated at various doses. But that will have to wait, because under state law, all cannabis products have to be prepackaged and tested, making it logistically impossible for a restaurant kitchen that wants to serve fresh food. She’s now focusing on making uninfused food to pair with cannabis — including a dessert “flight” that features a Fruity Pebbles ice cream sandwich, and a s’more with a housemade marshmallow.
It’s trickier for restaurants that planned to infuse food but applied for an edible consumption license. They cannot fall back on making money from joints and vaping, like Lowell, but they, too, have found a creative solution. The team behind the Antidote, which plans to open an upscale cannabis restaurant in the spring, also plans to open a commissary kitchen to produce sauces and dressings infused with THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. Guests would purchase a sauce, which would be presented alongside the meal in a sealed container, open it themselves and dose appropriately. (The sauce also would have to be purchased from a separate business - which, as at the Lowell cafe, could be under the same roof as the restaurant.)
“Think of, like, butters and oils and broths,” said Kirk Cartozian, a Los Angeles-area restaurateur and partner in the Antidote, which might spin off into a separate business. “We have a lab and essentially the potential setup to supply our own, and maybe supply others, with business-to-business” infused ingredients.
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The first time Drummer smoked marijuana, as a 13-year-old in south Florida, she got into a fight that sent her to court. After reading the anti-drug book “Go Ask Alice,” she became a youth counselor who encouraged students to stay away from marijuana. But after a few years, her thinking changed.
“I just thought, I can’t do this,” she said, “because I don’t know if this is wrong anymore.”
She abandoned social work, went to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and later started using cannabis to treat sciatica, caused by long days standing in the kitchen. She founded Elevation VIP, a private cannabis dinner company, and briefly lived in her car while she was getting the business off the ground. It paid off after appearances on the former late night talk show “Chelsea Lately” and the Netflix show “Cooking on High.” Drummer said her dream was always to open a cannabis restaurant.