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June 10, 2024

One of CT’s only local cannabis companies seeks growth in recreational market

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER Still River Wellness Creative Director Keith Farrell (left) and founder Thomas Macre stand in the waiting room of the company’s Torrington cannabis dispensary.
At A Glance: Still River Wellness/The Harvest Corner
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After several years operating in the state’s medical marijuana market, tucked away in the northwestern corner of Connecticut, Torrington-based Still River Wellness is diversifying to serve recreational customers, with one new dispensary already open and another expected to debut around the end of the year.

Still River Wellness, founded by Connecticut native Thomas Macre in 2018, remains one of the only locally owned and operated cannabis businesses in the state, with most other companies having either been bought out or financially backed by multistate operators.

Macre and his team won a state license several years ago to open their first medical marijuana dispensary in Torrington, which debuted in 2019. The dispensary has since converted to hybrid operations, serving both medical and adult-use customers.

The company is now pursuing an equity joint venture partnership strategy to open standalone adult-use dispensaries. In April, it opened its first new location in Colchester under the brand name The Harvest Corner.

The company expects to open another recreational dispensary by the end of the year in the southern part of the state.

“I think that we have a unique operation, not only because of our size and our local ownership, but because of our location, and how that really affects how we have to compete, and who we’re competing with,” said Still River Wellness Creative Director Keith Farrell.

Local growth

Macre hired Farrell as creative director in late 2023, as a way to build Still River Wellness’ brand.

The company has enjoyed a stronghold on the market since its 2019 opening. It was the only dispensary operating in Litchfield County until just this week, when the Higher Collective on June 8 debuted an adult-use cannabis retail store at 53 McDermott Ave., in Torrington. That increases the importance of raising brand awareness.

“We expect to lose some business, but I think we’ve developed relationships,” Macre said. “I mean, every person that walks in the door, we know their first name. I think that being first to market, our expertise and our budtenders have built these relationships that I’m hoping (we can) sustain, and keep our customers here.”

Still River Wellness’ Torrington dispensary, at 3568 Winsted Road, debuted in 2019 and was the only cannabis retail store in Litchfield County until June 8, when a competitor opened in the same town.

Still River has taken several new steps to market itself and better understand its customer base, including by hosting several community events. In April, the company collaborated with Torrington-based Bad Dog Brewery on a 4/20-themed celebration — called “Roaring four20s” — that included food, drinks, raffles and a costume contest.

“We have to find ways to try to get customers to not only come here but to buy into our brand and our mission, and to really feel loyal to us in the long term, and to see what the benefit of coming here over going to the black market or Massachusetts,” Farrell said. “That’s the challenge we have. Radio jingles and stuff can only go so far, you’ve got to try to get out there and connect with people.”

Still River was originally going to pursue a micro-cultivator license to pair with its dispensary, Macre said, but the company’s leadership and capital investors decided to stick with retail operations only to start, after considering all the hurdles that go into a grow operation.

The company is also exploring options for delivery services that would be run internally, or through an outside vendor. If the state eventually opens up a second round of licensing, Macre said he’d still like to build a grow facility to become vertically integrated.

The new Colchester dispensary and future retail storefront in southern Connecticut, which will be operated by Still River’s social equity partners Isaak Lazarou and Jimmy Romano, put the company in two other regions from which to expand.

Macre declined to disclose his 28-employee company’s revenue figures.

Thoughts on Connecticut’s market

Looking more broadly, Macre and Farrell said the key to the cannabis industry’s growth is having more cultivators come online. There are only five cannabis producers currently active in Connecticut, with several more companies building out new facilities that are expected to open over the next few months and years.

Still River recently conducted a customer survey with almost 1,000 responses that found pricing and product selection are top concerns.

Farrell said “there has to be a balance” between weighing companies’ concerns over product oversaturation that could lead to race-to-the-bottom pricing, and what customers want — cheaper product and more variety.

“Oversaturation we don’t want, but we also don’t want monopolies,” Farrell said.

Macre said his team has been following regulatory changes by the state legislature, including a recently passed law that allows THC-infused seltzers to be sold in package stores outside of the legal cannabis marketplace. He called it a “slippery slope” to begin to allow certain cannabis products to be sold outside dispensaries, but said he understood both sides of the argument.

“I was actually unaware that it was such a large market to be honest, because I didn’t see it in my package stores,” Macre said. “We’ll have the opportunity now to also provide the THC beverages.”

Farrell said it bothers him that dispensaries have a much stricter set of rules and regulations to comply with than their package store counterparts, which can now sell these cannabis products.

“It’s hard for me to parse those two standards,” Farrell said.

Another part of the new law essentially bans recreational cannabis promotional pricing, which Farrell said restricts how the company can compete with its cheaper competition over the Massachusetts border. Macre compared it to liquor stores being allowed to have signs in their windows advertising the lowest prices on certain products, which is a prevalent tactic.

“We already struggle so hard to get information to our customers and to promote sales to compete with the black market in Massachusetts, and now they’re limiting our ability to do that,” Farrell said. “It doesn’t seem like rational regulation.”

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