Urbn Leaf was among the first cannabis retailers to recognize the outsized role sharp interior design would play in the burgeoning adult-use market. The chain of stores opened its first San Diego location in March 2017, nine months before California’s Proposition 64 legislation opened the floodgates on the world’s largest legal recreational market.
At the time, Urbn Leaf’s sexy industrial aesthetic made it a stark outlier among the first generation of crusty pot shops to which medical consumers were accustomed. But the owners could see the enormity of the opportunity just around the corner. The dispensary’s gleaming modern decor was uniquely inviting to the emerging class of “cannacurious” consumers, who represented a much broader demographic than what then existed and hadn’t felt the plant’s allure strongly enough to seek a doctor’s permission to get stoned.
Urbn Leaf’s big bet on that consumer group was rewarded handsomely when the Golden State went fully recreational on January 1, 2018. “We got the right mixture of timing and luck,” said Will Senn, the 35-year-old founder and president. “It just went gangbusters. We hit the nail on the head right out of the gate.”
The first year of adult-use sales saw the company rake in more than $30 million in revenue, making the now-flagship San Diego location on Buenos Avenue among the state’s busiest stores. For Senn, an active cannabis entrepreneur for the better part of a decade, this was the proof of concept he needed. He saw vast potential to scale his elevated retail concept into the less competitive markets outside Los Angeles and San Francisco and promptly reinvested the company’s profits into additional locations across the state. Today, Urbn Leaf owns and operates seven stores statewide, developing an ironclad grip on its native San Diego County and an established presence further up the coast in the towns of Seaside, Grover Beach, and San Jose.
Repeatable, impeccable design has been a central tenet of Urbn Leaf and a major component of the brand’s enduring success. All the stores display a sleek organic-industrial aesthetic, which was developed in tandem with the overall company branding by San Diego commercial architecture firm Heleo.
“We wanted the feel of the interiors, lighting, materials, and colors to echo the brand pitch and what it represented,” said Carlos Hernandez, Heleo’s co-founder and principal. The mission, he said, was to “evoke something modern and metropolitan with a bit of an edge, yet not highly polished,” while avoiding the ubiquitous green leaf and its generations of baggage and prejudice.
“From the beginning, we wanted to have the best-designed store in San Diego,” added Senn, “but we didn’t want to go super-high-end or luxury. That was an important part of the brief.”
The result is a timeless aesthetic that hinges on the material tension between slabs of natural walnut and rugged blackened steel. Luxurious hardwood and glass cabinets present carefully curated products with respect, while industrial light fixtures drip discreetly from exposed ceilings. Around the periphery, indented wooden shelves display accessories and fly Urbn Leaf merch, lit as if showcasing off-menu cognacs in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.
Identifying an absence of dispensaries that reimagined a company’s brand guidelines as a retail floor, Hernandez sought to establish a visual and tonal symmetry across every touchpoint. On Senn’s insistence, Heleo avoided the sparsely merchandised fashion boutique aesthetic that tends to alienate regular folk and instead drew references from skincare, eyewear, and upmarket confectionary stores.
Senn also insisted the interior design be flexible, as his ambition to scale statewide would mean reconfiguring the brand framework into a menagerie of floorplans in different jurisdictions with different rules. To execute the challenge while maintaining optimal customer flow, Senn turned to retail veteran Chris Crouch. Urbn Leaf’s vice president of retail operations joined the company after two decades in leadership positions for Sears, Kohl’s, and action sports apparel brand Volcom.
Calling Urbn Leaf the “opportunity of a lifetime,” Crouch introduced his meticulous understanding of customer behavior into the unruly cannabis retail environment. “You must put yourself into the guest’s shoes to get a true understanding of the store layout,” he explained. “We know how busy our guests are and how valuable time is these days, so it is all about creating an experience that flows but isn’t rushed.”
The Urbn Leaf team prefers to keep products—a scrupulously selected assortment of reputable heavyweight brands—on full display behind the cash wrap. The merchandising decision was designed to “give guests the ‘wow’ factor when they walk in, but [ensure] they still get the educational experience from the budtenders.”
While education standards for staff and consumers are improving rapidly industry-wide, Urbn Leaf went several steps further, creating an “online university” for the staff of 400. “It’s a module-based system that takes our staff through different aspects of the business and provides in-depth information and knowledge about different products,” Senn said.
While Urbn Leaf is expanding its statewide footprint at an average of two stores per year and exploring farther-flung markets, Senn insists the chain always will be a San Diego brand.
“In my opinion, [San Diego] is one of the best cities in the world to operate a business in,” he said. “The local political landscape here created an opportunity to open these stores, and the local council has really been on the forefront of this change.”
A staunch believer in political engagement, Senn is behind four different cannabis trade organizations and was active in shaping policy at a local level. “We wanted to make sure [local officials] did it right the first time, and I think they really nailed it,” he said. “San Diego is a robust market with a huge permanent market base and a massive tourist industry.”
Although he has every reason to be bullish about the success he and his team have found up and down the state, Senn is modest about Urbn Leaf’s position and cautious not to expand prematurely or too aggressively. “We want to make sure we solidify ourselves among the top retailers in California, and I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
Crouch echoed the sentiment. “It’s not about having thirty-five stores throughout California,” he said. “It’s about having a healthy number of stores that represent our brand, are profitable, and can remain profitable in the toughest of times.”
Senn pointed to Los Angeles and northern California as gaps in the chain’s current portfolio, hinting there may even be an out-of-state play in the future—but not until the company is completely vertical and Senn is comfortable with the chain’s position in its current markets. Despite the lofty ambitions once more filling the industry airwaves after a couple of extremely difficult years, Senn is keeping his feet firmly planted in the county Urbn Leaf calls home.
“This is the best city for cannabis in the country if you ask me,” he said. “We have great weather, fantastic people, and cannabis has created a lot of jobs for local markets. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.”