Desmond Chan, Randy Simmen Want To Make Timeless Dispensaries

The co-founders behind COFO create aesthetically pleasing dispensaries with their fellow artists and builders at SevenPoint Interiors.
Courtesy of SevenPoint Interiors

Randy Simmen is the head designer and Desmond Chan is the creative director for SevenPoint. Right now, they’re bringing their creative eyes back to Illinois, where they brought to life 50 Sunnyside storefronts along with Cresco Labs. Together, Chan and Simmen find creative solutions within any county’s different, sometimes ridiculous rules and regulations about what dispensaries can and can’t do.

Recently, the duo told us how they work with companies to not let restrictions hamstring creativity, as well as their incredible work on the Grateful Dead-themed Scarlet Fire Cannabis Co. 

High Times: How did everything with SevenPoint Interiors begin?

Randy: To take a step back, our parent company is called Visual Elements. The primary focus there is high-end retail manufacturing. So we build stores for clients like Nordstrom, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Kate Spade, Hermes, right? My dad actually started the business, and he’s been doing it for 30-plus years. And we started Visual Elements, I think, in 2010. I guess over the years I’ve been working for my dad since I was a teenager. Des and I have been friends for a really long time and we have this amazing manufacturing facility, so we thought, how do we utilize it to do something a little bit more creative and a little bit more direct-to-consumer facing? So that’s when we started the COFO brand, which was targeted to highlight emerging designers locally in Toronto.

With the cannabis side, SevenPoint Interiors started in 2017. With the legalization federally in Canada, it became legal all at once and we wanted to be able to offer our design and manufacturing services to that industry. But understanding that the customers are not our typical… They don’t have retail experience. They don’t necessarily know what it is to operate a retail store, but they won the lottery and they want to open a dispensary as fast as possible, right? So we kind of grabbed that opportunity by the horns and started SevenPoint Interiors, so that we were super focused on cannabis and there was no question about what we did.

Desmond: It was an odd rush because it was a lottery system here in Canada where X amount of licenses were handed out by month. Everyone was just like, when can we open as soon as possible? That led to a modular system that we’ve created to help with quick turnarounds. So, it’s a pre-engineered store fixture system that’s modular, it can expand, it can contract and accommodate retail spaces of many different sizes. All while, really we have a lens on creating a fixture that was specific to the cannabis industry. So everything that came from, what’s your experience when you’re looking at flower? We created our flower global system. We have our capsule, which again, it’s magnifying.

Randy: Yeah, when we realized how quick these turnarounds were, we were like, “You know what? We need a fixture system to support all of these projects.” Because we can’t design brand new fixtures for every client who comes to the door, who needs to open in 12 weeks or whatever it is, right? So that fixture system has been great. It’s budget-friendly. Because we’re vertically integrated, not only are we providing the interior design piece of things, but we’re also managing the budget. I think that’s where we actually have a leg up because we’re vertical. We manufacture for other design firms too, but sometimes a design firm doesn’t necessarily know what it costs to build the thing that they designed.

So a lot of times by the time the design is done and it comes time to price the store, that’s when the client realizes, “Oh shit, I actually can’t afford this. What can we do to value-engineer it?” And so, that’s sort of something we do too, right? Offer other options that try to bring the same aesthetic and design language but in a more cost-effective way.

Desmond: Our leg up is pretty much, we design towards a budget. So if you came to us and said you had a hundred thousand dollars to spend on store fixtures, we can work towards that budget because we build it in-house. We have a team of engineers. The whole production team is here, estimating and everything. We all share our thoughts and build and get a budget that works.

HT: Is that a draw for companies, that it’s more in-house? There’s more quality control?

Randy: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And it’s a bit of a smoother process between the design and to manufacturing because we’re handing it off internally from our design team to our estimating team, to our engineers, to our production staff.

Desmond: We’re all under one roof, which makes things easier.

HT: Now having that experience of knowing how to go fast without sacrificing quality, when it comes to working on stores for Chicago, what are some lessons learned you want to bring to that city? For example, how to handle regulations?

Randy: Oh, a hundred percent. Even just living and working through the last five years of legalization in Canada, when it first started. A lot of the rules and regulations that you’re seeing roll out in the States that have now almost come and gone in a way, when dispensaries started opening in Toronto, it was like, okay, we need a barrier to entry. So, you can’t see anything from the street. We don’t want to see any product or any transactions. Every store either frosted their windows or put some sort of divider wall at the entrance and a check-in desk that’s dedicated for a security person to stand there and check IDs all day. 

Reality is, now most of the check-in desks are empty because they don’t want to pay for an employee to sit there all day to just check IDs. Now, there’s a sign that says if you’re under 21 you must show your ID. And then it’s up to the budtenders inside to make that judgment call of whether they’re going to check you or not.

But it started as a very hard and strict rule that everyone was being very careful to follow. And now, you can see it’s relaxed a little bit. As it should. I think some of the regulations were a little over the top. But now, for example, we’re working on some projects in Ohio and they want man-traps for entrances and exits that are—

Desmond: Yeah. From the waiting room to even the sales floor. And then we’ve seen all this happen, all these regulations that are just over the top. I mean with Canada being federal, it is a lot easier because everyone has mostly the same regulations, but state-by-state is different.

Randy: County-by-county is different.

Desmond: County-by-county is different now in the U.S. So yeah, we’re just learning all this on the medical side. We have one client in Ohio. Anyone that receives their license, they have to be open before, I think … February 23rd. And so, everyone’s rushing to get the design in the works, but then a lot of times it’s just educating our clients to say, “Hey, you know what? Design takes time and isn’t a push of a button.” And then production time is this, build the work back, we got to set weekly meetings. We need to hit certain milestones, we need to have certain decisions made, otherwise everything gets delayed.

HT: Do you guys ever find some of those regulations or restrictions creatively limiting, or do you think of them as chances to get more creative and find solutions to them?

Randy: I think a little bit of both. Working inside a box is always, I don’t know, it comes with its pros and cons. One example we can give you, I don’t know if you saw the Project Scarlet Fire—

HT: For the Grateful Dead theme store. Great work.

Randy: You probably saw the photos of that tunnel, that series of walls. So that store, we didn’t frost the windows. We did create some dividing walls, but through that tunnel from the outside of the store, you can see all the way to the back of the store. You can see people move between the panels but you don’t see the product and you don’t see any transactions. It was a way for us to create some visual interest from the exterior but also working within that box of hiding the sight lines.

Desmond: And when you’re in front of the store, you have to see it in person because it automatically wants to attract you and it looks like an optical illusion of some sort. Or people that are like, “Is that a mirror or something happening?” It makes you just draw clients in to experience the space.

HT: How did that design for that store come about?

Desmond: Every client is different, but Dave in particular, being the deadhead that he is, he is a passionate Grateful Dead lover. He goes and travels far distances to go to the shows and he wanted to have fun with it. We sort of agree, you’re selling weed, why not take the opportunity to up that retail experience because you can?

HT: What would you say are some usual essentials for a retail experience? 

Desmond: Well, lockable fixtures. You definitely need to have lockable fixtures. If you’re showcasing any cannabis products on the floor, they can’t be open shelves so that people can take them or anything like that. Efficiency at point of sale. So at the cash desk, something that we have established as how we plan the space is so that usually the vault is right behind the POS … And we’ve created this pass-through system where you can drop, from the vault, your product in, close the drawer and then from the sales floor side, open up the drawer, grab the product, turn around, give it to your client. It’s just quick during rush hour and things like that. But lockable cases are one key thing. A lot of people want to see the experience. Some people want to see the actual flower. Depending on the client, a few like the whole deli-style kind of look where you can open up your mason jar and let your client select the nugget they want.

Randy: And that’s state-by-state too. Not all states allow that. In Canada, there’s no open-sell in Canada. Everything’s packaged and it’s got a government seal on it, right?

HT: What are some common aesthetic choices you or your clients respond to?

Randy: Our first step when we approach a new client is we send out a questionnaire. It’s a detailed questionnaire. It forces the customer to think about some questions that they probably hadn’t thought … about before reading the questionnaire. But the first thing we hit on is your brand. What’s your brand about? What’s your brand story? What’s your identity? Because the aesthetics are all driven by that. Who you are and who your target audience is and what’s your aesthetic as a brand.

Where are they at right now, if they’re an existing brand? And where would they like to go or where would they like to be? We really want to convey that message, what their strengths are as a brand. Definitely carry through their brand story and color story. So that really dictates it. For example, we have one client that’s called Lake Effect. They’re out in Michigan. Their store is currently blue. So blue is definitely a heavy color within the space that we redesigned for them. 

Desmond: They also wanted 1500 SKUs or something like that.

Randy: So based on the way those questions are answered, we know we’re going to need a lot of shelving. We know from a brand standpoint it’s going to be a lot of blue and then Des pulls together a mood board of different materials that complement each other. It all depends on the brand. I don’t know that there’s an aesthetic that we necessarily lean toward. 

Desmond: We’re definitely kept in-the-know with a lot of forecast resources that we look into. So we know what’s, for example, we know what colors are trending 2023, ’24, ’25. Really, it’s just paying attention to what’s happening, I guess, globally and following market research. Resources to think, okay, you know what? To build a store that’s kind of future-proof, right? That’s an important factor for us. Timeless. Something that’s trending right now, but it’s going to be timeless for the next couple of years. 

HT: Creatively, how does cannabis help the both of you in creating?

Randy: Obviously during working hours, if we’re at the office, we stay away from it. But we definitely, both Des and I like to smoke some weed, put our heads down, get creative, and just problem-solve. It’ll help me zone in on one thing. 

Desmond: [The] ideation phase, I think for both of us, is smoking weed. We start thinking about ideas. Then when we sober back down, it’s, “Let’s get her done.” We tally up what we’ve explored and then put it to work. But for me, it’s been my lifetime with smoking. It’s always been part of my creative process, and I think for Randy as well.

HT: Before we wrap up, any subjects you want to stress the importance of for the both of you, the company, and your general field?

Randy: We covered the module system, which we continue to expand on. The importance of branding, we can’t talk about that enough. There are so many clients that come to the table. Not that it should, but obviously if someone comes to the table who’s got their branding figured out, it just makes, we know the process is going to be smoother.

Desmond: And not only that, but in Canada here, the cannabis stores are extremely oversaturated. Our government just kind of gave free reign. Whoever wants to open up a cannabis store can go ahead. And we’re seeing many close now.

Desmond: That didn’t pull up their socks to do their work on how to operate a cannabis store, we’re seeing it, right? But that also shined a light on how important brand placement is in the cannabis industry. Education is key.

Randy: Yeah, customer service.

Desmond: Customer service and education. You want to walk into a store and you want to talk to somebody that not just knows what they like to smoke, but what’s good for you, for whatever effect you need, be it for health reasons or for recreation. That’s such a key, important factor, we’ve noticed, with the oversaturation of all these different stores here. The ones that are succeeding are… It’s either a price war, if not that, then it’s education, customer service. It’s like once you find your hairstylist, you kind of stick with it, right?

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