As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Bend has a surplus of dispensaries. When marijuana became legal in Oregon, the novelty of just being able to walk into a store and come out with cannabis was cool enough to keep many dispensaries going—even the hollow Tin Man ones, basically empty on the inside with crappy customer service and a poor selection base.
But now after a few years, the cream has had a chance to rise and Tokyo Starfish continues to prove why it’s consistently one of the most popular dispensaries in Bend. Even as tastes change and customers keep searching for whatever is the new-new, Tokyo realizes the delicate balance it needs to tread to keep people coming back.
When looking at what’s important for a dispensary to offer in 2020, Director of Marketing Jason Shurtz explains the Tokyo philosophy. “Providing consistent, friendly and welcoming customer service,” says Shurtz. “Also providing a product selection that isn’t directly catered to people with a lot of previous cannabis experience. Make things easy and comfortable for customers; coming into a dispensary for your first time can be a daunting experience for some and you don’t want anyone to have a bad experience for their first time.”
Thanks for being gentle with us, Tokyo. It’s always nice for pot shopping to feel fun instead of like a chore, and the Starfish always keeps it light and green.
Tokyo Starfish’s brand story began almost twenty years ago. During a snowboarding event in Japan, Jason McAlister, Kale Gray, Keith Legum, and Gary Bracelin bonded while exploring the kaleidoscopic city of Tokyo. They were especially captivated by the view from their hotel, which looked out on a cross-section of five roads crawling with cars and neon lights. If they squinted, the vista looked like a gargantuan, psychedelic starfish.
After the trip, the four remained good friends. And they never forgot that view. Fast forward to 2013: Legum and Bracelin were attending a school fundraiser when Bracelin suggested they start a retail cannabis business. Legum proposed they recruit McAlister and Gray. Then, as if sent by the cannabis and snowboarding gods, a location presented itself. “It was a turn-of-the-century cottage that had become a dog grooming place and antique shop,” said Gray. “We completely opened up the space and remodeled from the ground up.”
The Bend, Oregon shop became a strange and alluring phenomenon, like the city in which the group met. Both locals and tourists took notice of the new retail establishment with its bizarre name and echinoderm logo.
Roles to play
Each of the four founders plays a specific role: Legum, who always has been fascinated by architecture and design, was charged with building out the space. Gray handles marketing and branding. McCalister, in charge of operations, is the details dude, while Bracelin oversees buying and distribution.
DID YOU KNOW… ABOVE TOKYO STARFISH IS A TWO-BEDROOM, ONE-BATH, CANNABIS-FRIENDLY BUD ’N’ BREAKFAST APARTMENT[THE ONLY ONE IN CENTRAL OREGON] THAT CAN BE RENTED.
During construction, Legum’s driving concepts were “homey,” “friendly,” and “bucolic.” Those three words still define the experience. “From the second a customer walks in the door until they leave, customer service and the shopping experience are number one,” said Gray. In addition, he noted, the owners insist the shop reflect their love for the outdoors, action sports, and hanging out together. The quaint, snow-cabin-esque aesthetic Legum created exudes coziness and warmth. Flourishes like extracts displayed on skateboards, neatly folded apparel and coffee table books stacked in custom-made wood racks, vintage SnoPlanks snowboards here and there, and a mountain bike station on the porch gave Tokyo Starfish a singular vibe.
“He [Legum] did a great job of taking all of our insane ideas and spitting them out into one cohesive-looking place,” Gray said with a chuckle.
The dispensary’s signature attributes aren’t confined to the first floor. Located above the shop is a two-bedroom apartment the partners had intended to turn into an office. Instead, at Gray’s suggestion, they created Bend’s only bud ’n’ breakfast. The spot has been a big hit, he said, and rentals add extra revenue.
“It was an opportunity to expand the experience of the shop,” noted Gray. “People who stay there love it. Many want to move in permanently.”
Although Bend hosts a smattering of professionally run and well-stocked dispensaries, with more on the way, Tokyo Starfish has become not only a local favorite but also a must-visit tourist spot. Many local guidebooks encourage tourists to stop in. Located near mountain biking trails, fishing pools, and snowboarding peaks, the shop has become a sort of ground zero for the action sports crowd to stock up before a day playing outdoors.
As for products, Tokyo Starfish places priority on growing its own flower with an emphasis on potent CBD strains. After all, a day on the slopes or cruising the rugged, snaking trails can leave active folks with aches and pains. In addition to stocking flower from most of the local farms, Tokyo Starfish also offers what Gray called “connoisseur CBD strains” exclusive to its in-house grower, TG Industries. Extra-potent flower like Blue Shark, Harlequin, and Harle-Tsu fly off the shelves, he said.
He also said business growth has exceeded expectations. Between retail, wholesale, and grow, the company now employs thirty-five people. Gray is particularly proud of that. “Being able to create jobs for people is pretty awesome,” he said.
The shop sees nearly 400 customers a day; more during tourist season. While flower composes 50 percent of sales, cartridge and edibles sales are growing rapidly. That makes perfect sense to Gray: Both items are on-the-go-friendly. “Pre-rolls are picking up steam, too,” he said.
A ‘secret weapon’
Tokyo Starfish’s secret weapon may be its brand ambassadors and buzzy event sponsorships. Professional snowboarding star and friend to the owners Max Warbington tops the list. Tokyo Starfish sponsors Warbington’s sold-out Quarterpipe Campout weekend, which takes place May 20-21 annually. Warbington’s signature showdown brings together some of the top riders and ancillary characters for a non-stop weekend of riding, partying, and catching up with old friends, all of which is filmed by cinematic master John Stark. Tokyo Rose also participates in the Dirksen Derby 10, river surfing with ambassador Jorma Nagel, and Mount Bachelor hiking excursions with a who’s who of the action sports world.
“We all come from the action sports world, and most of our employees do too,” Gray said. “Warbington is a local pro snowboarder who is a big advocate of ours, as we are of his. He’s one of the best because he goes out and makes things happen for himself. It’s really cool to have an advocate who brings things to the table that we can help with.”
More likely than not, the cannabis lover in your life already has their favorite dispensary—and dispensary products—well in hand. Putting a container of edibles or flower under the tree this year will be sure to make them smile, but if you’re looking for something besides product to wrap up and give this year, here are a few ideas available at local dispensaries.
A Night at the “First and Only Bud and Breakfast in Bend,” courtesy Tokyo Starfish. Average cost: $160/night (seasonal variance)
Have friends or family who want to come to Bend and experience all the wonders of legal cannabis? Book them a night at the Bud and Breakfast, located above Tokyo Starfish, which is a two-bedroom plus loft that is cannabis friendly. Guests even get a gift card to Tokyo Starfish with their stay. Bookings available at: vrbo.com/1135822
“Bong Appetit Cookbook,” available at Dr. Jolly’s. $30
Sure, you might already know how to slap some ganja butter into a boxed mix of brownies—but for those looking for a more elevated experience, this book delivers. Featuring 65 sweet and savory dishes, and cocktails, that can be made with cannabis.
“A Woman’s Guide to Cannabis: Using Marijuana to Feel Better, Look Better, Sleep Better–and Get High Like a Lady” book, available at Dr. Jolly’s. $16.95
Have a hesitant or new cannabis user in your life? Let this book help them explore the ins and outs of using weed for pain relief and more.
Both of these books are available at Dr. Jolly’s online store at Dutchie.com, where you can even get your goods delivered to your door.
ReStash Jar from Oregrown. Medium size $25.
Love the buds, but not the smell? Give the gift of a stash jar adorned with a super-cool logo and choose the colors your gift recipient loves most.
Look for the “square tumbler” at Oregrown’s store.
The Bend marijuana shop Creative Crops has faced nearby competition for the duration of its two-year existence, and now, the business and its Scott Street building are for sale.
Co-owner Denise Drazil said her customer base is increasing, despite the fact that a large chain, Mr. Nice Guy, bought out her competitor around the block on Davis Avenue late last year. Drazil and her partners — her three grown children — decided to list the shop for sale because of unexpected changes in their lives. “If we do keep the business, we’re going to do OK,” she said.
Marijuana business owners say a dwindling supply of eligible locations and a backlog of applications before the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has created an opportunity for shop owners to sell.
It’s been almost four years since the Oct. 1, 2015, start of recreational marijuana sales in Oregon. Since then, more than 600 shops have sprung up around the state. By now, those pioneering retailers can see that “things are going well, or they’re not,” said Kale Gray, co-owner of Tokyo Starfish, which has three locations in Bend [and one in Salem]. “We’re seeing consolidation in the marketplace.”
Yet marijuana’s retail footprint is expanding in Bend, which is home to 24 shops, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. A new store is under construction in the former Riverbend Brewing sports pub building at 2650 NE Division St., just up the road from The Herb Center. Frye of Bend LLC applied for a retail license at 2650 NE Division, but it has not yet been issued, according to the OLCC.
Entrepreneur Jacob Jenkins said he hopes to open his first store, CannaVida, at 325 NE Franklin Ave. by Sept. 3. The location is the former home of the medical marijuana shop Garden Kings.
“There’s still a lot of people that think you can make a lot of money at it, and you can,” said Josh Kelleher, a Southern Oregon real estate broker who works with cannabis businesses, including Creative Crops.
While some shop owners who’ve been in business from the start of legalization are looking for an exit, plenty of entrepreneurs still want in, Kelleher said.
There’s an advantage to starting a marijuana business at this stage of the industry’s evolution, Jenkins said. “Now, there’s some actual statistics to base your future on.”
The CannaVida store on Franklin Avenue will be part of a vertically integrated business that includes production and processing, Jenkins said.
Jenkins hopes to set CannaVida apart from the competition with a technology-centered sales floor. The store will be equipped with iPads where customers can learn more about the inventory and see suggestions based on past purchases, Jenkins said.
As with other types of retail, location is key to marijuana stores’ performance, Kelleher said. A store with “decent” performance will have gross sales of $1 million per year, he said.
In Bend, there aren’t many places left where one could legally open a store, said Nick Harsell, former owner of High Grade Organics on Davis Avenue, just east of the Bend Parkway. That made it easier to market his shop, which he sold to Mr. Nice Guy for an undisclosed amount.
In May 2018, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission declared it was too backlogged to process new marijuana license applications of any kind after June 15 that year. The “pause” only added to High Grade Organics’ value, Harsell said.
The OLCC does not allow marijuana retailers to transfer licenses, but the agency will facilitate the surrender of one license and issuance of another for an existing business, spokesman Mark Pettinger said.
“It was definitely a leveraging play,” Harsell said of the licensing backlog. “There was no other way to get a dispensary.”
The “pause” that OLCC enacted is still in effect for retail businesses, Pettinger said. “You may remember that we had a surge of applications in the run up to that date,” he wrote in an email. The agency is still assigning those applications to investigators, and until that’s complete, it won’t work on anything that was submitted after June 15, 2018.
Separately, the state has placed a moratorium on processing new applications for marijuana production. That could be in effect until Jan. 2, 2022.
Bend’s larger marijuana businesses are looking to expand in other parts of the state.
Oregrown Industries, which has a store downtown, will open three locations between Labor Day and the end of the year in Cannon Beach, Portland and Eugene, CEO Aviv Hadar said.
Buying out existing stores might have been quicker, but Hadar said the company and its investors wanted premium locations. The Eugene store at 211 W. Sixth Ave. is near the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, he noted.
Oregrown intends to pair the high-traffic locations with expensive interiors.
In Portland, the vaporizer company Pax Labs will build a store within Oregrown’s store at 1111 NE 12th Ave., Hadar said. “That Portland location’s going to be a tourist mecca.”
Tokyo Starfish is looking for opportunities in the Willamette Valley, Gray said.
“We opened up multiple locations in town because we feel that people shop for cannabis like they go to 7-Eleven — the one they like the most, nearest to them.”
Law enforcement authorities intercepted $48 million worth of black-market marijuana headed from Oregon to 37 states over a three-year period, and officers blame the illegal exports on a statewide glut of regulated marijuana and low prices.
Some of the black-market marijuana comes from illegal growers, some diverted from legal recreational producers, processors or retailers and some comes from medical growers, acknowledged the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees the Oregon’s legal recreational marijuana program.
Most of the illegal product seized — about 14,500 pounds — was probably grown on U.S. Forest Service land, and came from Jackson, Multnomah, Josephine, Lane, Deschutes and Washington counties, according to a report from the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federally funded program that collects data from 14 counties in Idaho and Oregon.
“This could be larger in scope than the data sets show,” said Chris Gibson, executive director of the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “We have a state law that says cannabis cannot go out of state, and that’s our focus.”
Deschutes County has seen a six-fold increase in the amount of seized marijuana so far this year, said Bend Police Lt. Brian Kindel, who is part of Central Oregon Drug Enforcement team. In 2017 the CODE team confiscated about 100 pounds of cannabis, compared to 600 pounds in the first 10 months of this year, Kindel said.
“We’re only stopping a small amount of it,” he said. “There’s a lot more going out. We’re not getting all of it.”
With more than a million pounds of excess cannabis logged into the Oregon cannabis tracking system and retail prices at a record low, black market sales — skimmed product from the legal recreational market, medical growers or illegal growers — have become tempting and profitable.
In many cases, it’s as easy as loading up an SUV and driving it to another state.
Officials say it will take a multipronged approach to combat black market sales. Allowing Oregon-grown cannabis to be sold in other states could relieve the pressure caused by the surplus, said Gary Bracelin, owner of Bend cannabis store Tokyo Starfish.
Many argue in favor of tightening regulations to prevent diversion, when cannabis grown in the regulated market finds its way on the black market.
Three recent criminal cases in Deschutes County underscore the rise of illegal growing and processing sites. One of the cases was even from a Oregon Liquor Control Commission sanctioned site.
In the most recent case, two Bend residents were charged with unlawful manufacture of marijuana and unlawful possession of marijuana for allegedly exporting cannabis products out of state. They are alleged to have used picture frames to hide cannabis to mail from a farm on Back Alley Road in Bend to Massachusetts. Law enforcement officials seized 93 mature marijuana plants and 55 immature plants, 5.8 pounds of dried marijuana and butane hash oil.
In another case, police charged two Crooked River Ranch residents with unlawful manufacturing of marijuana and charges related to allegedly running a butane hash oil operation used to produce a concentrate.
“We acknowledge there may be licensees conducting illegal activity, but it comes to light through anomalous activity in the cannabis tracking system, which is especially noticeable since our monitoring and detection has improved,” said Mark Pettinger, OLCC spokesman.
“Even before the High Cascade case surfaced, we were paying attention to the unusual ‘wasting’ activity and in some instances asking for video recordings to reconcile and do compliance checks,” Pettinger said.
With one cannabis growing site for every 25 users, Oregon has the ability to produce more than 2 million pounds of marijuana per year, far beyond what it can consume, leading law enforcement to believe that the surplus is contributing to diversion into the illegal market.
In addition, prices have fallen in the legal market from over $3,300 a pound to about $330 a pound, and cannabis businesses say some enterprising people are taking advantage of the lower prices and shipping product out of state, said Kindel, of the CODE team.
“What we’re seeing now is because it’s become lucrative to ship out of state, and Oregon has a reputation for quality cannabis,” Kindel said.
“Illegal grows are still at heart, illegal,” said Bracelin. “With the legal market and the glut, prices are so good for consumers to buy legal cannabis, I would guess the local black market is actually a pretty bad business model. Black market growers probably opt to ship out of state where they can get better prices. Illegal black market growers have been doing this for years.”
Bracelin said that regulated cannabis growers and retailers take a great risk diverting legally grown cannabis into the black market. They face license revocation and criminal charges by selling to the black market, he said.
“I’m not so naive to think this does not happen,” Bracelin said. “There will always be bad players.”
Lizette Coppinger, an owner of Cannabend, a Bend retail cannabis outlet, believes that legalizing the exportation of cannabis is important and could grow the cannabis industry. Legal exportation would enable growers to sell off the surplus to other states, Coppinger said. Allowing the export of legally grown cannabis to other states where pot is also legal could wipe out black market sales, she said. As of mid-2018, nine states and Washington, D.C, have legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults over the age of 21.
Said Bracelin: “Oregon is stifling its newest bounty crop and craft industry. While we fight over counties and state’s borders and federal acceptance, other countries are moving much faster and looking at international import/export markets.”
A byproduct of export would enable regulated shops, growers and processors to showcase the best Oregon growers have to offer. Products with high THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content, unique terpenes and flavor all can be found at the corner retail outlet.
“There’s so much talent, and it’s a fun process,” Coppinger said. “You don’t get that in the black market. You don’t have any choices, just what the dealer offers.”
In Oregon the OLCC has taken steps to prevent the diversion of legally grown cannabis to the black market. This summer saw the start of Operation Good Harvest, a program that requires a growers to notify the OLCC when harvesting begins.
Nearly 70 inspections were done of outdoor grow sites, Pettinger said.
“We acknowledge there may be licensees conducting this type of illegal activity, but it comes to light through anomalous activity that comes through the cannabis tracking system, which is noticeable since our monitoring and detection has improved,” he said.
When growers identify plants as waste, they must take them off their inventory, report the waste to the OLCC, store the plants under video surveillance for three days and dispose of the plants by mixing the plants with yard debris, wood chips or sawdust and taking it to the landfill if composting is not feasible.
This summer also saw the transfer of 2,000 medical growing sites that grow for three or more patients in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program to the regulator authority of the OLCC. Those growing sites must tag and register their plants in the cannabis tracking system.
Another step the OLCC took to tighten the system came in August when it began limiting the daily purchase amount for medical card holders to 1 ounce.
Previously, the limit was 24 ounces for medical card holders. The restriction lifts in six months.
“None of us have figured out where the point of diversion is occurring,” said Carol Yann, Oregon Medical Marijuana Program section manager. “The majority of our growers are growing for themselves. We want to get a handle on the diversion.”
Amid the ongoing stress of a global pandemic, summer has arrived. Some days that might mean hitting it hard on the water or trails. Other days, it might mean coping with lingering stress and worry about finances or physical and mental health. At Bend’s cannabis dispensaries, budtenders dole out a lot of emotional support while they help people choose products that meet their current needs.
We checked in with a few local ‘tenders about what they’re recommending for these competing—and sometimes concurrent—priorities of summer 2020.
For getting out on the trails: “I’m loving the new formulas for Magic Number sodas,” said Dana Catt, a budtender at Tokyo Starfish. The sodas offer some hydration as well as a mellow high, and she says she likes to mix them with other juices to make a “cannabis cocktail.”
For summer fun: “The Cherry Vanilla soda and Ginger Beer from Magic Number,” recommended Maggie Fry of Dr. Jolly’s. “The flavor is awesome and the high is super pleasant—less hard than edibles, and perfect for hikes or taking it to the river.” The sodas, made by a local company, come in varying dosages, from 10 milligrams to 25 or even 50.
For pandemic stress: “I smoked a lot during quarantine,” Fry said, with mostly indica flower. “The Dr. Jolly’s Sunday Driver, an indica, is one I like to smoke throughout the day to calm down and mellow out. Happy to have flower there to keep me sane.”
Justin Pohll, Top Shelf Medicine
For summer fun: Whether he’s fishing, working on motorcycles in his garage or taking the dog out for hikes along the Deschutes River, Justin Pohll of Top Shelf Medicine enjoys sativa-dominant hybrids. “You get that uplift and drive to go out and do things,” he said. “Durban Poison is one I really like—a great flavor, great effect that is overall euphoric.”
For pandemic stress: “Hybrids or indicas,” Pohll recommends. “There’s lots of flower being smoked right now—lots of edibles, too. Now that people have time at home, they’re getting creative with their baking and experimenting with other types of cannabis products—trying their own recipes. I also like the Highland Provisions gusher gummies—great flavors. What’s really cool is they’re using an agave tincture as the liquid, so your body is going to feel the effects more quickly.”