Pot Shop Primer: A design lover’s guide to Ottawa’s legal marijuana stores

Pot Shop Primer: A design lover’s guide to Ottawa’s legal marijuana stores

While cannabis stores are strictly regulated — no sightlines from the street, no exposed product, and absolutely no use of the word cannabis — the three stores that opened this spring in Ottawa haven’t let those rules restrict their creativity when it comes to design, atmosphere, and experience.

Some things are ubiquitous: there’s a staffer at the front checking identification; ‘scent pods’ offer customers the chance to view (and smell) the various marijuana strains. And while all three seem to have abandoned the decor associated with pre-legalization marijuana — no pot leafs or Bob Marley flags to be seen — each have their own approach to merchandising their government-licenced stash.

The bright, clean cashier at Hobo — though it’s rare to find it this empty

391A Bank St.

The name: Simple, memorable, and short, the name Hobo is meant to convey the idea of leaving material possessions behind to head out on a trip — physical or metaphorical. Yes, some thought it crass to use a synonym for a homeless person. However, Harrison Stoker, a vice-president with Donnelly Group, the company behind the Hobo store, stands by it. He says the company, which owns pubs and barbershops, knew about the potential for negative feedback but insists it works as a conversation starter.

Inspiration: The Donnelly Group team looked to Jack Kerouac and laid-back SoCal styles — as well as their barbershops, Barber & Co. — for inspiration. The result is a beachy, open-plan space complete with essential oil diffusers and modern furnishings. With its sparse decor and tablet stations, Hobo has been called an Apple store for pot. Stoker doesn’t object to the comparison. “We’ve put all that frictionless technology in the stores. You come into our store and there’s a bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure feel to it.”

The layout: The front doors lead to a waiting room of sorts, where the host/security staff checks identification. Even this area is a welcoming space, however, with a modest-sized couch — for busy days when those in the queue get cranky, or a space for friends who would rather stay out of the shop? Either way, it’s a cool foyer. “It’s redundant for sales, but we wanted to connect people with that sense of comfort,” says Stoker. “It’s meant to be like your cool friend’s living room and connect to the walk-by traffic. It was a huge risk, but nobody walks by without looking in.”

Modern furnishings and natural fibres infuse Hobo with a Southern California style.

Inside the store, the look is minimalist. Think handmade gift boutique meets independent bookstore. Woven rugs hang from the walls (they’re not for sale). A ceramic can-pipe catches the eye, carefully placed alongside an elegant grinding tool on a pale wood shelving unit. In the middle of the room, there are two long glass-topped islands topped with scent pods and tablets with information about the strains and forms available. At these stations, each type of marijuana on sale that day is identified for THC and CBD levels. Each strain is also labelled for its effects, using Hobo’s own categorizing system — Move, Lift, Rest, etc.

At the back of the store, a massive couch, a record player, and some Kerouac books create a space reminiscent of dealer’s apartment — a very accomplished dealer with good taste.

There’s also a basement that serves as an express station — it’s more akin to a pharmacy, and it’s only open during high-volume times. Here, six point-of-sale cashiers offer a pageantry-free experience. Access the express route through a door in the foyer, under the neon sign that reads, “I know what I want”.

The location: The Bank Street locale informed Hobo’s decision to build an express station. “Those folks didn’t need education. They know about the strains,” Stoker says, suggesting people were already coming into that strip of Centretown to get cannabis, pre-legalization.

The colour palette and prominent placement of tablets have made commentators compare Hobo shops with Apple stores.


1306 Wellington St. W.

The name: Superette is a retro name for a convenience store. (Not a common one, and one with unique etymological character — ette is meant to convey that it’s a smaller version of a supermarket, which means superette is actually a word composed of a prefix and suffix but no stem word. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.)

In any case, Superette leverages nostalgia to create a comfortable aesthetic and, hopefully, reduce the stigma of buying pot, says Drummond Munro, president and founder of Superette. They want to position the shop as a neighbourhood standby that also offers all the things that complement the pot consumer’s lifestyle.

The bright booths continue the retro theme — and give shoppers a place to pause and consider the high they’re after. Photo courtesy of Leafly

Inspiration: Honest Ed’s, corner stores, hardware stores, and retro diners. “Many shops have taken the high-tech approach, with tablets and everything behind glass,” says Munro. “We thought that made for a somewhat stale environment. We want to be something that’s part of your ritual and not too precious.”

The layout: Upon entry into Superette’s foyer, and after presenting ID, the host presents a menu: a sheet in a plastic sleeve, which instantly recalls greasy spoon breakfast offerings. Then you’re faced with a stack of colour-coded shopping baskets — red for “I’m Good”, green for “Let’s Talk”. They stole that idea from a hardware store. “You can’t always read body language,” Munro says. “We know that there’s a buyer who doesn’t want to talk to anyone; others who want to talk for an hour.” In the store proper, abundant displays of matches, lighters, rolling papers, and even high-end vapourizers are in boxes on shelves and in playful displays throughout, waiting to be handled by curious shoppers. It’s all very touchable, like a candy store or The Bay. A tasteful playlist enlivens without interfering — not too loud, not too retro.

The pot itself is displayed in scent pods on a small island, as well as closer to the cash, where a display case — more akin to a deli than a jewellery store — holds the product in all its various forms.

Abundant displays make for a very touchable environment

At the front, shiny red booths line the windows that look onto Wellington West. It’s retro, and it connects the store to the neighbourhood, and it gives customers a place to take a break from the tiring effects of information overload in the new world of legalized pot.

Freezers — the kind that holds Freezies and Popsicles at the local Quickie — work as props to further the theme, while serving as display cases for accessories. Bowls of fake fruit, vases of plastic flowers, and colourful milk crates brighten the space and continue the retro vibe.

“The atmosphere is a big one for us and is definitely supported by the abundance of natural light,” says Mimi Lam of Superette. “As a cannabis retail establishment, windows must be covered at street level, but the tall ceilings let us have exposed windows at the top, which greatly impacts the overall energy of the store.”

At the back, there’s a vintage arcade game and a diner-style counter space perfect for talking terpenes, or whatever hot cannabis topic is creating buzz that day.

With a retro approach and multiple places to gather, Superette aims to create a friendly environment with lots of opportunities for one-on-one interactions — either with staff or among your co-consumers. And there’s an express aisle that allows customers to skip the normal line and grab a number (again incorporating a deli tool) to go straight to the express point-of-sale terminals.

The location: Situated in the bright former home of Terra20, the shop came equipped with a big open space, lots of natural light, high ceilings, and of course the bustling community vibe of Wellington West. “The neighbourhood is filled with interesting retail, bars, and restaurants, as well as residential,” says Lam.We wanted to make sure that a cannabis retail concept would be a positive addition, which would elevate the area and its constituents. Given that Superette literally means convenience store, being at a prominent corner allowed the store to have the type of flagship presence the brand strives for.”

The counter at the back is a place for interacting with the knowledgable ‘budtenders’ who work at Superette

Fire & Flower
129 York

The name: It’s a nod to the part of the cannabis plant that contains THC — the flower — and the accessories side — the combustion or spark that ignites. The company operates over 20 stores in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.

The inspiration: Everything from Apple to David’s Tea to Home Depot — the Fire & Flower design team went on a lot of shopping trips before crafting their look. First and foremost, they were going for a proud look that would extinguish any lingering shame associated with cannabis.

“The recreational cannabis industry has been pushed into the back alleys,” says Isaac Watson of Fire & Flower. “This was a coming out of the closet of sorts.” He points to the celebratory pops of green and orange, bright modern whites, and digital displays throughout the store as examples of the pride they hope to convey.

To display the various types of marijuana available, Fire & Flower developed a “strain wall” similar to the paint chip displays at Home Depot. And their name for sales staff — cannistas — is clearly a shoutout to the coffee shop staffers.

                                                     Fire & Flower’s ‘strain wall’ is a place to gather and discuss the different varieties — and effects — of the marijuana sold

There’s jewellery store look to the displays, with most accessories under lock and key. Watson says this was a move to “honour the thought that those companies put into it.” After all, he notes, a Pax Vaporizer goes for over $300. And if the place reminds you of Lululemon, that’s no accident — Watson spent nine years with the Vancouver-based giant.

The layout: After ID check, shoppers are faced with a digital screen — part menu, part promo — for the many sleek cannabis companies that sell through the shop. The hallway that leads to the rest of the store includes elegant displays in glass cases built into the walls. Pause, take it in, then move on and you’re met with a unique white wall composed of hexagonal shapes.

                                         The long entryway features accessory displays under lock and key.

It’s a multi-level space, so at the end of the hall there’s a short flight of stairs up into the rest of the store. On one side is the aforementioned strain wall; here, hexagonal, coaster-like cards hang on the wall, with colours relating to observable effects of the various strains on sale, i.e. Aids sleep, uplifts, inspires creativity. Mingle, ask questions, grab a few cards that describe the strain(s) you think you’re after.

The rest of the space is populated by sleek displays of product and accessories, and the “experience room” offers a table with tablets, marijuana in scent pods, and more high-end accessories in little vignettes. Those tablets will eventually be used for classes by licensed producers.

“Classes will become more important as edibles and concentrates become legal later this year,” says Watson. The company, which owns the entire building earlier, has plans to open the second floor to the public later this year.

The location: Watson says their ByWard Market location means plenty of tourists are coming in, and that means people new to cannabis. (Or at least new to legal cannabis.) Watson says they want to be a “safe space” for newbies.

“We’re hoping to get more in-depth conversations going, so we know why they are using the product,” says Watson. “As we are building the social norm, there’s a sense of social responsibility around it.”

                            Eventually, Fire & Flower’s “experience room” will be a place for classes and workshops.