Although the laws vary from state to state, legal marijuana is already an enormous industry. Arcview Market Research estimates that sales of legal pot hit $9.7 billion in North America in 2017.
With so many legal users, including tourists who may choose destinations based on legalization of marijuana, some restaurants are trying to get in on the scene – some quietly, and some not so quietly. While the legal pot industry is still new, trends are already starting to emerge.
Just in time for 4/20, here are some early Do’s and Don’ts for restaurants extending their welcome to pot users.
Do know your audience. Studies show that fast food is very popular with people who use recreational marijuana. But fine dining establishments don’t need to make pizza rolls and curly fries to reach cannabis consumers, and many chefs are exploring “pairings” popular with pot users, and also pop-up shops imaging a future when cannabis cuisine will be legal in restaurants.
Do use humor. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shops have long offered Half Baked and Phish Food offerings all year long and sell limited-time-offerings on 4/20 like the Chill-aco, an ice cream and fudge “taco” dessert. Chipotle marketed its burrito bowls on 4/20 in 2017 with: “Sometimes, you need a huge bowl to get you through the day” to catch the attention and get a laugh out of marijuana users.
Don’t alienate those who have no interest in pot. While the majority of Americans now favor legalization policies, that doesn’t mean they’re all using it. Even fast food restaurants can over-play the munchie market, which is why a lot of chains are playing it safe with cheeky advertising but not assuming that 4/20 is a “holiday” for all diners.
Don’t ignore differences in regional taste. A McDonald’s franchise in New Mexico – where recreational pot is not legal – erected a billboard near the Colorado border touting a breakfast burrito. “Usually, when you roll something this good, it’s illegal!” didn’t go over well with corporate, which said it didn’t meet their standards.
Incidentally, marketing missteps aren’t the only challenge legal pot poses to the restaurant industry. Already under pressure with low unemployment, dining establishments in states with legal pot are facing a major hiring crunch.
The legal marijuana industry pays well – in some cases double what a line cook or dishwasher would make - which chefs and restauranteurs have said makes it a challenge to attract and keep kitchen staff. Some restaurants are exploring enhanced pay options for those non-tipped workers, and special training programs to help keep the back of the house humming along.
The marketing and recruitment challenges and opportunities are a feature of this burgeoning legal pot landscape. As it matures, restaurants will gain more clarity on best practices – which will make it easier for restaurants in communities late to the legal-pot party in the future.