For those of you who don’t know my own professional background in Food and Beverage, all you have to do is spend the better part of several decades working your way from the bottom up. In my case, that meant starting as a pots and pans “engineer” better known as a pot-scrubber, then graduating to the exalted place known as the dish sink. After languishing in front of a soapy sink full of greasy dishes for a couple of months, my path to the line… (That’s what we call the actual place where cooking is done in the professional kitchen…) And then, if that wasn’t enough education after college, I took it upon myself to become a bartender, from bar-back on up. Thank you to Chris James for seeing to my education become something actually tangible.

To really learn the food and beverage business, it’s essential to make yourself as well-trained as possible so you can do anything that needs to get done. From taking out the trash to making drinks, this is the way that you become essential to your employer. Otherwise, you’ll be washing dishes for the remainder of your restaurant career. And no… When you graduate from culinary school you are not a chef. Period.

The grunt labor thing in a restaurant was not where I wanted to be for very long. Fortunately, the dish sink was a short-lived adventure into doing really hard work. Manual labor if you will. Which framed the next forty or so years of my life into the person I am today. Working hard, doing something I love. That’s the key to life in my opinion. But that’s just my path, the one of Sara Stewart is quite succinct and I know she is going places. Read her words, Sara is a success story waiting to be discovered, yet again.

Warren Bobrow: Please tell us about your journey into cannabis and how you got into cannabis hospitality. 

Sara Stewart: My initial journey into cannabis started in 2019 at Lowell Cafe, the first true cannabis restaurant in America, serving cannabis alongside food, coffee, juice, etc. I had been in the restaurant, nightclub, and event space for almost 15 years, working for some of the most successful companies in Los Angeles, and I was ready for a change. Although I had been a cannabis consumer for most of my adult life, I was unfamiliar with the legal market. I learned METRC from a hospitality viewpoint, which was incredibly unique. I had also been documenting several of the pain points this kind of business underwent, and I wanted to help others avoid some of these headaches in the future.

Upon leaving Lowell Cafe, I started Highspitality to consult for other lounges and eventually joined Green Thumb Industries full-time as a lounge specialist. My time with GTI opened the door for me to help lobbyists and public officials create some of the regulations in new markets, such as Las Vegas. In October of 2021, I opened my second lounge in Mundelein, Ill., making it the first licensed cannabis lounge east of the Mississippi River.

Sara Stewart
Photo: Sara Stewart

Warren Bobrow: Why do you think consumption lounges are the future of cannabis?

Sara Stewart: We know Americans are consuming more cannabis than ever before, and taxes from the sales of Cannabis are surpassing alcohol in many legal states. As someone who is incredibly passionate about hospitality and customer service, I believe that what we are experiencing now is prohibition 2.0.

In my opinion, cannabis lounges will play an important role in normalizing cannabis use, just as bars did for the reintroduction of alcohol post-prohibition. They will provide a social place for safe cannabis consumption and educational opportunities for curious consumers. Although cannabis usage looks much different than alcohol, I hope onsite consumption will elevate the cannabis industry by implementing hospitality-driven operations that create a familiar environment replicating a social club or lounge.

Warren Bobrow: What concepts do you think will define cannabis hospitality and lounges?

Sara Stewart: I believe the defining concepts in lounges will be hospitality-driven first and cannabis second. Most cannabis companies buy retail buildings with additional square footage and assume they can just “build a lounge” attached to it. Imagine buying a liquor store and then trying to build a cafe or restaurant out the back — you simply wouldn’t do that.

Many lounges that aren’t open yet are grappling with how to make money, struggling to build out unique customer experiences, and aren’t working with their local governments to create and implement appropriate and necessary regulations. This is a major issue, and in my opinion, the concepts that will win won’t just focus on cannabis as their main offering.

Warren Bobrow: What do you want people to know about visiting a lounge for the first time?

Sara Stewart: Start low and go slow — you can always take more, but you can never take less.

If the rules or process seems unnatural or different, it’s most likely a regulation that the company has to comply with (for example, we don’t want to charge cannabis and food on separate checks, but we have to).

Lastly, do some research on the lounge you’re visiting. Every lounge is different; some allow you to bring your own products while others prohibit it and require reservations, so you should know what to expect upon arrival. Keep in mind these models are new and destined to change often.

Warren Bobrow: What are your top 3 favorite cannabis products and why?

Sara Stewart: I love flower, and I’m typically a Sativa diva, so I have to say Lemon Trill by Lumpy’s in California. I also can’t live without the Snoozeberries Chocolate Bar from Incredibles and my long-time love, Cereal Milk by CBX.

Feature photo credit: Sara Stewart