The first thing visitors notice upon entering Atrium in Woodland Hills, California, is the strange absence of the classic dank dispensary waft. With freshly brewed coffee hanging in the air, copies of local lifestyle magazines Hidden Hills and Calabasas Style strewn neatly across sofas, and budtenders wearing polo shirts and earpieces, the genial reception area is more akin to a health spa than the average pot shop.
“We wanted to create a dispensary that didn’t feel like a dispensary,” explained Chris Berman, chief operating officer for SoCal Building Ventures, the holding company behind the 5,250-square-foot dispensary and many other touchpoints along the cannabis supply chain. “There are some cannabis-specific elements, such as the check-in and a highly visible security presence, but other than that, we really wanted the feeling of shopping at Atrium to be like any other high-end retail experience.”
Surrounded by drab strip malls deep in the San Fernando Valley, the Atrium building is a commanding presence. Built in 1972, the space most recently housed a boutique gym and sits at the busy intersection of Ventura and Topanga Canyon boulevards, crouched beneath the 101 freeway. Framed on its south and east sides by beautiful tall windows, its unassuming sign reads “Atrium: an elevated cannabis experience.” Visitors quickly learn the tagline is, if anything, an understatement.
Inside, Atrium is a serene oasis. The chatter between staff and customers resonates lightly around the open space as abundant natural light pours into the room. The open-plan salesfloor is replete with modular glass cabinets with drawers that encourage consumers to explore and pick up the products, always accompanied by a budtender with an iPad.
“Every customer is matched with a sales associate before they enter the floor so we can guide them around and answer any questions they have,” said Berman. The strategy is imperative, as there is still a “substantial amount of [consumer] education that needs to be done.”
If some dispensaries are “a shrine to the plant,” as Green Growth Brands Chief Executive Officer Peter Horvath told mg in February, Atrium is an altar to the brand. Inside the cabinets, each company is given free rein to develop allotted real estate and present its products, with brands like Canndescent taking a whole cabinet to themselves. (One cannot help thinking that when Canndescent’s creative team envisioned a utopian retail context for their elegant, forward-looking packaging, they imagined something like Atrium.)
“The look, smell, taste, and touch are all such important parts of the experience,” Berman said. Many among Atrium’s clientele, he explained, are middle-aged and older, and many of them simply wouldn’t have ventured into the average dingy Los-Angeles-area dispensary. “For them, cannabis is still a bit of a taboo subject,” he added.
To disarm the lingering stigma and bring an “elevated cannabis experience” to life, SoCal tapped L.A.-based interior designer Julia Wong. Wong’s portfolio largely is composed of luxury residential properties and hotels. Despite Atrium being her first dispensary project, she was spurred by the prospect of rethinking the retail experience and “[challenging] the perception of cannabis through design.”
Inspired by opulent nineteenth-century Parisian apothecary Buly, Wong said she sought to develop a space with “authentic origins and roots, with modern lines, using natural materials.” The sleek, elegant interior focuses on amplifying products on the brand-specific shelves and in the wheeled glass display units inspired by luxury jeweler Tiffany’s.
“I focused on the high ceilings and controlled the light with motorized shades, allowing the space to be flooded with natural light, which is in such stark contrast to the traditional dispensaries in strip malls,” she said.
All the natural light plays to the aesthetic strengths of Atrium’s carefully selected stock. Significant space along the walls on the south side is allocated to marquee brands like Kurvana, Select, and Bloom, while heavyweights dosist and Pax have deployed permanent brand ambassadors to stand by the door and scoop people as they enter, a testament to how much they covet Atrium’s prized yet elusive demographic. The synergy of elevated, open design, compassionate customer service, and tightly curated product selection makes Atrium an appealing concept for the high-end community it serves.
When cannabis first unshackled the minds of America’s youth in the 1960s, Topanga Canyon was known as a secluded hippie enclave, home to the likes of Neil Young and Charles Manson. Today, more than half the residents are 45 or older, and the median home value is $1.3 million. “Woodland Hills is a reasonably affluent city, and there are a lot of super-affluent areas close by,” Berman said. “We’re the closest legal cannabis store to Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Westlake Village, and Thousand Oaks, and we have a lot of customers come in from Malibu, as well.”
With several millions of dollars invested in the buildout alone, the Atrium team was confident the concept would resonate with the surrounding community. “We want our customers to feel safe, and we want them to be comfortable in the store,” he said. “The best way to do that is to create a space that feels familiar, like walking into a high-end department store.”
According to Marketing Manager Melinda Gonzales, “On 4/20, we had three generations of the same family here: the grandmother, the mother, and the daughter. The grandmother just couldn’t believe this is where cannabis is today.”
The Atrium team is acutely cognizant of the store’s pan-generational demographic. By the time this mg issue hits the street, they expect to have launched a wellness area in the far corner of the shop floor. With specialized staff, a massage table, and an emphasis on CBD products, topicals, and education, Atrium is responding to an unmet need for in-depth product knowledge, science-backed recommendations, and wellness experiences consistent with the plant’s projected virtues.
SoCal Building Ventures owns several other active dispensaries, and many more are in various stages of development. In June, the group was one of only six successful applicants for a retail license in Pasadena, California. Assuming they find a property matching the “wow factor” the Topanga location commands, that shop will be the next iteration of the Atrium brand. “Atrium is a high-end concept we will only repeat when we find the right mix of real estate and local demographics,” Berman said.
With demographics closely mirroring the Topanga location and some of the most beautiful architecture in Southern California, Pasadena is a perfect fit for Atrium, the open, airy, sunlight-bathed concept which is defining the “right light” for cannabis retail.