Starting not only a new business, but also a new niche, has taught some bold Southwest Florida entrepreneurs an important lesson: from cops to clients, customer education is an ongoing task.
The road to open the first cannabis café Florida wasn’t always smooth. The founders of Seed & Bean Market in Fort Myers — Cole Peacock, Bruce Wendorf, Kyle Scheid and Ron Greenstein — began working toward that goal in 2018.
The founders had previous experience in the cannabis industry. That includes involvement in efforts like the 2016 amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida and the state-level legislation establishing a hemp program in Florida in 2019. That was made possible by the passage of the federal Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (known as the Farm Bill), which removed hemp from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act and made it legal to grow cannabis and derivatives of cannabis containing no more than 0.3% THC (the compound that produces a high).
Seed & Bean Market then received Florida’s first license for a cannabis café. But it took some diplomacy before the business could open its doors. The founders met with everyone from the Fort Myers police department and state attorney’s office to the Fort Myers city manager and staffers at Sanibel Captiva Community Bank to explain their concept and approach.
‘I can tell you that I get phone calls, and the other partners get phone calls, weekly if not daily about putting a location in Denver, Birmingham, Nashville. There’s people all around that visit us, and the minute they come in they want to be a part of it.’ Cole Peacock, Seed & Bean
“We wanted to make sure we had everybody on the same page so we could do this,” says Peacock, 48, who worked in corporate communications and governmental relations at Fort Myers-based women’s retailer Chico’s FAS for a decade before starting his own consulting firm. “What was great about it, was it was a learning experience for everybody. You don’t often hear how government and businesses can work together; you hear just the opposite. But this was a hand-in-hand great relationship from the state level to the local level.”
Seed & Bean Market officially started welcoming customers in 2019, offering a range of food and beverage items made with and without hemp and/or CBD, as well as a CBD marketplace stocked with everything from tinctures and topicals to products for pets. (CBD stands for cannabidiol, which is derived from the cannabis sativa plant and is used by people to help alleviate things like pain, anxiety and insomnia.)
But the education component of the business remains ongoing. “Outreach is still important today,” says Peacock. “One of the things that we pride ourselves on is having CBD specialists, and everyone on our staff is being educated constantly. We educate community leaders and government leaders but also everyday consumers….It is such a new industry that we have to educate people consistently.”
Seed & Bean had to navigate the pandemic as a young business. For a period of time during 2020, it stocked groceries and other household essentials, in addition to its wellness-focused CBD products, to provide a one-stop-shopping opportunity for customers. The founders decline to release revenue figures, but Peacock says the business has seen an increase in sales and profits despite the pandemic. “Everything is relative when you speak of COVID-19, but one great thing is we have not seen negative sales numbers,” he says.
Things are going well enough that Seed & Bean Market is opening a second location, this one in Venice, south Sarasota County. Though it’s known for its retiree population, company leadership liked Venice’s potential. “It’s an established community that also has a younger family base moving in,” says Peacock. “And it’s the right size downtown marketplace to introduce something new and be able to educate the community.
Additional locations throughout Florida are likely. Peacock says the team would like to get four or five locations open to firm up company protocols and procedures. “Then we’d look at some large growth models, whether that’s franchising opportunities or we really push and start to expand outside the state,” he says. “I can tell you that I get phone calls, and the other partners get phone calls, weekly if not daily about putting a location in Denver, Birmingham, Nashville. There’s people all around that visit us, and the minute they come in they want to be a part of it.”
Seed & Bean is also working with a local brewery to create Florida’s first hemp beer; it currently sells a popular CBD-infused seltzer through its in-house line of CBD products called PureNative, which also includes items like dog treats, lotions and vitamins. Whether it’s because of a desire for wellness or the anxiety and uncertainty created by the pandemic, a lot of people are giving these kinds of CBD products a closer look.
“One of the things COVID-19 did, is it reset people’s mind frames,” says Peacock. “When people could not go to their regular doctor or see their chiropractor, they looked at alternatives. They looked at what was something they could understand and wrap their hands around and really get educated on. So I think that there’s two shifts taking place. There’s a wellness shift, and there’s an acceptance of cannabis as a part of a wellness lifestyle. And then we had COVID-19, that pushed that to the forefront.”