Far & Dotter, the franchise business launched last year by Maryland-based Curio Wellness as part of its retail rebrand, announced this week that it has signed its first franchisees out of over 800 reported applications. “The inaugural class of franchisees include Sederia Gray (Mississippi) and Haider Rizvi (New Jersey),” said the company in a prepared statement. “Each candidate participated in an extensive, mutual vetting process and demonstrated their drive, community leadership and commitment to wellness. Far & Dotter will assist these franchisees with the dispensary licensing process in each state.” Far & Dotter is Swedish for Father and Daughter, which the company also notes is a “nod to Curio Wellness’s founding father and daughter team, Michael and Wendy Bronfein.”
Based on the operational and philosophical foundation of Curio’s store in Timonium, Maryland, Far & Dotter represents a reboot for Curio’s retail ambitions. “The new Far & Dotter brand pulls from the Scandinavian egalitarian and cooperative culture, with their commitment to community, self-care, and an integrative approach to wellness,” said Curio in an August 2021 release. “The stores will continue Curio’s commitment to wellness and generational advancement, serving as holistic pharmacies and wellness hubs devoted to empowering local entrepreneurs and providing products and services that enhance patients’ quality of life.”
What set Far & Dotter apart from the beginning was the establishment of the independently managed Curio Wellness Investment Fund – called The Fund – which was founded with the original goal to “support up to fifty applicants, providing them up to ninety-three percent of the capital needed to open a franchise,” per Curio. “Diverse entrepreneurs will repay the startup loans with their portion of the dispensary earnings, resulting in 100% ownership as a franchisee over time.” States originally targeted for franchise and investment fund expansion included Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
While rising prices and uncertain state politics have played with the original numbers, the overall strategy is unchanged and well underway, according to Far & Dotter President Greg Miller, a veteran of the franchise industry, including 18 years at McDonald’s, who joined the company this May. “The values and the strength of Curio and then frankly I firmly believe in the franchise model, of which Far & Dotter is a gold standard example,” he said when asked why the move into cannabis. “And then I think the final point for me was the brand’s focus on diversity and trying to be a company that puts words into action. I believe in franchising as a model very deeply as it is, but being able to provide a vehicle to help people build generational wealth and build something that’s great is something I’m very passionate and excited about.”
With four months under his belt, had Miller’s expectations been met? “Well, like you said, our industry is so regulated. Curio was very explicit with me before I came on board what I was coming into, as well as some of the challenges,” said Miller. “And I had done a ton of research on my own. That’s just how I’m built. I don’t want to sell or be involved with something that I can’t really get behind. With that being said, obviously, when you really get in there, and not unlike any other business, you go, ‘Oh, okay. I wasn’t quite sure it was going to be like that.’ There has been an immense amount of learning, both through my training coming on board as well as just experiential learning, which has been incredibly helpful. And as we expand into other states, the regulations are unlike any other industry – in other words, not federal – so that’s a whole other level of barriers. But business is business, and most of the foundational elements of business are there. You just have to look at how do we apply this in this space, and that’s been a lot of what I’ve worked on with the team. So, I’ve been here close to four months, but it feels like I’ve been here four years.”
I asked Miller how the franchise deals are put together. Is there a preferred order? Does the company vet applicants first and then go for a license and/or location?
“Good question,” said Miller. “’I’ll tell you how we’ve handled it so far, and then where we want to be aspirationally, because like we just got done talking about, it’s a very dynamic business, always changing. That being said, so far, the candidates that we have approved or are in the process of approving have already either achieved a license or a conditional license. That conditional license is based on their ability to get funding and have a location, and that’s all state-specific, each state being different. But so far, our current or prospective franchisees have a background of having a license or access to one.
“Now, we’re also getting ready to hire a real estate professional, because we think there’s a lot of wisdom in us finding a market or a mini-market, if you will, first, and then finding the right franchisee to open that specific store,” he added. “Those are two parallel paths. We don’t know the time or place that we’ll get to that second more aspirational goal, because we’re a maturing business. So, that is where we want to be, but probably over the next year, year and a half, it’ll very much be potential franchisees that have licenses.”
Regarding the original Far & Dotter list of targeted states, Miller said it has changed a bit. “For example, New York is now the state that we’re very active in,” he said. “And Mississippi, where we actually have a franchisee that is signed, Sederia Gray. Now, we don’t have the land yet, but she has a license.”
No state is off the original list, but one has an asterisk next to it. “Florida, because of the way that it is built as a vertically integrated state,” said Miller. “We obviously don’t have a manufacturing license there, so even though it’s on the list, that’s probably more aspirational for us right now.”
Original estimates also put the cost of opening a franchise in the range from about $500,000 to $1 million, including a $40,000 franchise fee and $10,000 construction management fee,” reported Franchise Times in 2021. “That initial investment range does not include the cannabis license, which in its franchise disclosure document the company estimates will cost between $20,000 and $70,000.”
That estimate, which was always going to vary according to the situation, has also changed. “Obviously, in the last year, the supply chain and the economy has blown up, so we’re probably on the higher end of that number right now,” said Miller. “But it’s irrelevant whether somebody comes in as a Fund candidate or as a candidate that doesn’t need funding. We don’t charge a premium if somebody is a Fund candidate. The beauty of the program is that whatever the cost of going into businesses is, we give a loan and then over time they pay it back. I think everybody knows how costs have gone up over the last year, so we’re definitely on the higher end. I wish we were seeing the lower end but even with that, it’s a financially viable and very strong business model. It’s a very lucrative industry to be in today, but over time it will be even more exciting.”
Regarding Fund and non-Fund applicants, ‘It’s definitely a mix,” said Miller. “We’ve got several that are non-fund candidates. Obviously, we are proud of what we’ve done with The Fund, so we really broadcast that, and we certainly get a lot of candidates that are interested in The Fund, but absolutely, we’ve got a good mix.”
In terms of how many people they will realistically be able to fund, it all depends. “We have a managing partner that manages the fund with a small board,” explained Miller. “Our targeted commitment is about 30 million, so it will depend at any time or place on how many people we’ve got that are leveraging money from that fund. We may be able to raise more money, but right now that’s our targeted commitment. We’ve currently got three fund candidates signed, and we’ve got another eight or so that we’re in a very serious process with. So, it really will depend on what costs we’re looking at as we start building, but additionally, as folks in The Fund start to pay money back, then we’ve got more money to play with, and over time there will be additional money for people that want to come in.”
The third signed franchise was not named because of issues in the target state – Connecticut – whose “license process is very, very, very difficult,” said Miller. “We do have somebody signed there, but it’s pending approval of their license. We should know in the next couple of weeks.”
Even with the other two signed franchisees, there is a lot of groundwork to be done. “With the two candidates that are approved and have a license, we are actively looking for real estate,” said Miller. “We have a real estate approval process where we look at several pieces of information that we know will fit our model and will allow our franchisee to be most successful. We also consider ourselves a higher-end brand, so we look for other brands that are in that area, and then layer on the regulatory side. We have a very beautiful prototype and where we go is important to us; not just the location, but the building and the place that we go into. So, we are currently looking for those two for the best sites to maximize both their success as well as ours, but also to meet regulations. We’re pretty close in New Jersey and a little further behind in Mississippi.”
Far & Dotter has two store prototypes. “We have a 3000 square-foot prototype and a 5000 square-foot product,” said Miller. “Obviously, when we go into Manhattan, we’re going to have to do some things differently, but by and large our franchisees will either build the three or the five.”
What about the products available in Far & Dotter-branded stores? “For each state we would have an approved supplier list, and we won’t have the luxury of Curio products in every state,” explained Miller. “We are pretty excited about some inroads that Curio brands will have in the future, but most of the states that we go into originally will not have Curio products. So, we’ll have a supply chain process where when we go into each state, we’ll vet all the different products and vendors, and decide for each state which are the approved products. But, for explanation purposes, a local franchisee could have, say, up to 20 percent of the products be local favorites or products they are specifically passionate about, or whatever.”
Franchisees with vertical licenses could potentially grow for sale if they have been vetted and approved, said Miller, but it would be a one-off situation and, with the various state standards and approval processes, not a given. “We’re really proud of and in Maryland certainly have done this, but we intend to build a reputation of excellence across the country, and because of that, we’re pretty emphatic about having a strong vetting process with anybody we work with,” he added.
Will Curio Wellness also operate its own non-franchised Far & Dotter stores? “That is a great question,” said Miller. “Our Maryland store in Timonium will remain a corporate store. It is a Far & Dotter and we consider it our flagship store and right now it’s our only store, but it’s also where we test everything. That’s where, on behalf of the franchisees, we will incur the costs of different things that we’re trying to look into or a new process or even people systems. And that’s not unlike great franchisors anywhere, it’s certainly not novel, but it is a commitment that we’re making to our franchisees. Obviously, right now, we’re very heavily focused on franchising, but we will have other corporate stores across the country as well. We believe in that model. Having come from franchising, I thoroughly believe in the need for companies that franchise to run their own stores. I think if you’re not doing it every day and you don’t understand the pain that the franchisees are going through, you cannot relate to what they’re experiencing.”
A similar ethic goes for franchisees. “Our franchisees are owner-operators,” explained Miller. “We believe in the model of a franchisee working his or her business. That’s really important to us, and there are a myriad of reasons why. But the franchise models that work best is where the franchisees are owner operators. They’re engaged in their business; they’re not sitting in an office somewhere reading a report. That being said, we have non-Fund candidates that come in and they’re building everything out, and obviously they’re following our footprints and all that, and not being funded by The Fund at all. They’re an owner-operator, and a Fund candidate is also an owner-operator. In other words, they have a level of ownership in the business. The partnership in our eyes is the same no matter what. We don’t look at a Fund candidate as, ‘Hey, you’re not an owner,’ or, ‘You’re not there yet.’ They are our community leader, they are running that store, and they are picking their people. Now, if a store does exceptionally well and if they’re a Fund candidate, they can pay back the fund sooner. That’s actually our goal for them, because then that allows us to support somebody else with the funds, but they are a full-fledged franchisee-owners no matter which path they end up going down. The big difference is that financially once they’ve paid off The Fund, all of those profits go directly to that franchisee.”
Funded or not, franchisees enter into a typical franchise relationship where the owner owns the store entirely, but is obligated by the franchise agreement to run it according to Far & Dotter standards and regulations. For that, they pay a royalty of six percent monthly or annually, said Miller. “Part of that royalty is how Far & Dotter makes money,” he added, “but out of that royalty comes a lot of services – training, real estate support, supply chain operations. There are also a lot of people that help that franchisee be successful. We’re a very disciplined brand. We have SOPs for anything you can imagine. How do you greet a patient or a guest as they walk in the door, but without being mechanical? We get down to the nuts-and-bolts of how we expect our stores to be run, and so a part of that royalty is how we make money, but it’s also how we support and help franchisees accelerate their growth.”
The rollout of franchises is supposed to target medical cannabis states, but Far & Dotter also aims to please. “This is the way I explain it to people,” said Miller. “We are very passionate about the medicinal uses of cannabis, and our model is medicinally based. We understand there are people that use it recreationally, but our model will not change. In other words, we call our customers patients because we’re focused on meeting their needs, whatever those needs are. So, while our model will not change, we will acquire recreational and or medical licenses for sure.”
As to when Miller thinks the first Far & Dotter franchise will see its first customer, it depends. “I’m going to use the word hope,” he said. “I won’t even hazard a guess. But we’re hopeful that within the next six months we will have our first franchise store open. Again, it’s the states and the cities, and sometimes people say, ‘Oh, it’s so hard in cannabis,’ but I can’t tell you how many times in restaurants the city held up a project. You thought it was going to be open in six months, and it ends up being a year. So, I think once we get to that point, it really is just how cities run. They’re inefficient sometimes, but I’m very optimistic and hopeful that within six months we’ll be able to get something open, especially because right now we’re intensely focused. My Far & Dotter team is intensely focused on getting our stores out.”
And as far as the franchise model and cannabis go, Miller is convinced they are a match made in heaven. “As I was looking into this job, the biggest thing that excited me is that I believe in the franchise model when it’s applied correctly,” he said. “I think there are some companies that go awry because they don’t manage it correctly, but I believe it helps people to achieve more than they would otherwise, and it also benefits the parent company or the franchisor.
“In cannabis, I believe in it exponentially more, and here’s why,” he added. “We know that cannabis consumers value community and really value the local connection. But at the same time, consumers love predictability. No matter what industry you’re in, consumers want to know that whatever brand they’re buying, whether it’s a carton of cookies at the store or it’s going to a Far & Dotter, they want to know that what they’re going to experience is the same as it was the last time. So, with Far & Dotter and specifically in cannabis, this allows us to create a model that is predictable and comfortable and excellent, but allows the leadership and ownership to be local. That local economy is benefiting that local community, they’re able to be in tune with my store and my customers. That’s what excites me about franchising in cannabis. I believe especially at this time and place that it’s unequivocally the right way to go. I think a lot of times the MSOs, as good as they are, sometimes lose that local connection that cannabis consumers appreciate. So, I think in cannabis the franchise model is the right way to do business, and it’s just really exciting.”
I thought that was the perfect place to end, but Miller had a last thought he wanted to add. “Just that we are a franchisee-forward company,” he said. “In other words, we want them to be the stars of the community. Far & Dotter is there so you’re going to be able to come in and expect a great experience, but our franchisees are the community leaders, they’re the star. We don’t want people to view Far & Dotter as a large conglomerate that’s coming into town. We want them to view Far & Dotter as a locally focused brand. Like you, I believe that’s going to be a nuance in our industry for a very long time, if not forever.”
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