Spiritleaf’s Emotion-Driven Model Is Franchising Its Way Across Canada

Calgary, Canada-based dispensary chain Spiritleaf aims to franchise nationwide. With eight locations open in Alberta, Ontario, and Saskatchewan and another thirty-six expected to open soon in those provinces plus British Columbia and Manitoba, the company is well on its way to achieving its goal. All stores celebrate Canada, from the country’s unique spirit to its storied landscape.

The flagship store sets the standard. Rugged floors combine gray tile and dark, distressed vinyl plank—not only for aesthetics, but also because the materials provide durability during harsh Canadian winters. A sleek mix of track and pot lighting voguishly highlights product cabinets and display benches, which in their previous life served as kitchen tables in ski chalets. The tables do more than add charm: By law, shops may display only fifteen flower jars at a time, so the tables provide spots where groups of customers may experience the look, fragrance, and feel of the strains.

Sleek shelving units display products and accessories.
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Photos, murals, and utilitarian items like canoe paddles punctuate eggshell-colored walls, and nests of arty sconces display top brands. Dozens of custom tablets allow consumers to review product details and read previous purchasers’ reviews. A massive Spiritleaf logo behind the checkout desk anchors the shop.

“We have created a brand and a modern retail model that offer legitimacy, reputability, professionalism, and confidence.”  —Darren Bondar, president and CEO, Spiritleaf

“Our stores celebrate Canadiana in many forms,” said Spiritleaf President and Chief Executive Officer Darren Bondar. “Our design encourages customers to explore and is an open-spaced opportunity that reimagines the typical retail environment of a dispensary. This concept uses contemporary motifs but balances the inherent starkness with personable illustration as well as accenting greenery. We wanted the design to take customers on a journey—an experience that leverages consumers’ existing assumptions of what a dispensary should feel like.”

In a previous life, display benches served as kitchen tables in ski chalets.

Bondar is no stranger to the retail world. Twenty years ago, he started his own retail company and scaled it to a thirty-store network across Canada. As a longtime advocate and medical user, he decided to apply the same model to the cannabis space. All Spiritleaf franchises have the same look and feel but are not exact replicas. From experience, Bondar knew maintaining design unity while allowing local identity can be tricky, so he turned to two firms that frequently work together: Seven Point Interiors and Tricarico Architecture and Design. “Tricarico is a phenomenal design studio that has worked with some of the world’s top brands,” he said. The firm’s international client roster is impressive—Levi’s, Rag & Bone, Valentino, and Footlocker, among others—but willingness to collaborate with Spiritleaf’s internal creative team was the deciding factor.

According to Tricarico Design Manager Jessica Archeval, the attraction was mutual. “Upon reviewing the brand package and meeting with the team, I immediately felt a strong connection and couldn’t wait to tell the Spiritleaf story,” she said. “We wanted to create something completely unique, so when a customer walks inside they immediately feel the positive energy and are embraced by the natural feeling of the dispensary.

“Within the confines of the walls, a new community is established where all are welcomed,” she continued. “The crisp white walls help brighten the space and create an extension from the fresh outdoors. Distressed woods and metals were carefully selected to add unique character to the space. We wanted to allow the walls to tell the stories of the brand, so Spiritleaf’s community members will always embrace their journey and never forget where they started.”

Bondar added, “It was all about working jointly to evoke emotion and bring customers together in an inviting, engaging atmosphere where people can gather, share unique experiences, and ascertain knowledge about the products.”

To accomplish part of its objectives, Spiritleaf leverages a partnership with Up Cannabis, which is backed by popular Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip. Every Spiritleaf location features an Up Cannabis lounge showcasing the history of cannabis and the Canadian music scene. According to Bondar, the Up Cannabis lounges enable customers to experience how weed, music, education, and community can come together and have a positive impact.

The company also collaborates with visual artists. One of the first things Bondar did during the concept stage was commission an Alberta artist to hand-draw a very detailed, six-foot cannabis plant. “She spent over 100 hours on the details, and it turned out beautifully,” Bondar said. In fact, he liked the work so much the company not only uses it in stores but also features the design on carry-out bags and custom rolling papers packaging.

Not all design details will appear in each shop. For instance, Bondar and his team wanted to outfit all the stores with cabin-like wooden ceiling beams but soon discovered differences in ceiling types and local environments made chain-wide incorporation impractical.

Rugged floors combine gray tile and dark, distressed vinyl plank—not only for aesthetics, but also for durability during harsh Canadian winters.

One thing that will not change: A subtle pattern on the walls mimics Spiritleaf’s logo. “The origin of the logo is simple,” Bondar said. “The name Spiritleaf came from our ‘spirit’ and from the experience cannabis gives, and ‘leaf,’ from the plant. Our symbol was created by turning the initials into the texture of a leaf, and then [offsetting them] slightly to represent a change of perspective.”

But it’s not all about cosmetics for Spiritleaf. One thing Bondar learned from his many years in retail is the coolest, hippest store on the block will fail if it isn’t a people-first, customer-service-oriented organization. “All we’ve done so far would not be possible without our amazing staff,” he said. “Cannabis is a revolutionary industry, and our people on the front lines are some of our biggest assets in navigating this journey.”

With that in mind, Bondar and his creative team worked exhaustively to make sure they got the checkout process right from the start. The idea hit late one night: multiple point-of-sale stations throughout the shops. In addition, cash-wrap fixtures were designed to provide employees and customers with easy access to product. “This makes for a seamless process from assembling the order to taking payment,” he said. “It’s been a huge asset in providing a quick and enjoyable checkout experience.”

According to Bondar, Spiritleaf’s parent company, Inner Spirit Holdings, has signed more than 100 franchise agreements across Canada. The company was the first retail cannabis entity to be granted Canadian Franchise Association membership and the first recreational chain to close an initial public offering on the Canadian Stock Exchange, where it lists as ISH. All this has Bondar excited about the journey ahead.

“We have created a brand and a modern retail model that offer legitimacy, reputability, professionalism, and confidence,” he said. “Many of our competitors don’t have any retail experience or come from a medical cannabis model and are just now pivoting their brands to appeal to the recreational market.”  

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