Tuesday, October 4, 2016

From Seed to Sale: Meet Robert Watson of Dutchman's Flat

Robert Watson founded Dutchman's Flat medical cannabis dispensary in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood. His clean comfortable space offers a wealth of knowledge to buyers. 
We hadn't yet checked out Dutchman's Flat -- the medical cannabis dispensary -- recently opened on Third Street (across from Smokestack Restaurant -- how fitting) so when neighbor Susan Eslick introduced us to owner Robert Watson as he left Reno's one evening, we were quick to ask him if we could stop by to chat and check out his new spot.  After all, with the guard at their front door it wasn't exactly a place you could just stroll into without the appropriate paperwork.

We didn't know what to expect but the modern, airy brick loft space that looked like a loft in the Esprit Building or a hip retail space in Jackson Square was a bit of a surprise.  But then again, so was Robert Watson.  Then I realized that I hadn't exactly ever interviewed anyone in the cannabis industry -- well, not one who actually was licensed by the city of San Francisco to open a legal business dispensing cannabis so all expectations promptly went up in smoke (sorry).

What we discovered was that cannabis has a lot in common with other artisan businesses like the wine, chocolate or coffee industries with similar rituals and nuances.  And we discovered that Robert Watson is a farmer at heart.

Why do you do what you do?

Most of what I have done in my life all come together in this business.  My engineering, farming and art background made it possible.  I enjoy figuring out how to to breed different strains to help with different medical conditions.  That is the farming and engineering part and the art part is presenting something I made to the public.

I grew up in Modesto in farm country -- many of my relatives were farmers.  My grandparents had a dairy farm and a cousin had an organic walnut farm.  Many of my summers and after school time was spent working on the farms.  At home, my mom had my siblings and I plant and tend a salsa garden. Later I realized that many of the salsa garden plants had the same growing season and soil pH as cannabis! My mom taught me how to make fish fertilizer which I hated doing as a kid but that knowledge ended up being very useful to me later.

My dad was a contractor and I also helped him out doing construction work -- working with his badass workers certainly toughened me up.

I wanted out of Modesto so went to UC San Diego for college.  I wanted to study something that was as completely different from farming as possible so I picked the visual arts. My parents weren't too thrilled about me studying something that they couldn't see would lead to a job.

I had injured my back from the construction work and it only got worse while I was in college.  My doctor had me on Vicodin and other pain medication but nothing worked to alleviate the pain and I didn't like the side effects.  This was in 1998 and at that time most medical doctors wouldn't give you a prescription for medical marijuana so I decided to grow my own.  California had passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996 (Proposition 215) so I could legally grow it for my own medical use and for others who were part of my collective.

I roomed with a chemical, bio and electrical engineer and I was an art major and together we nerded out on how to grow it in our apartment and on plant genetics and what medical conditions each type of plant would work well for.  I would go to a local plant nursery to learn about soil -- I loved the smell -- it smelled like home.  I spent tons of time with a local hydroponic gardener asking him all kinds of questions about how to grow my "tomatoes."  He mainly grew orchids and he answered my questions and spent a lot of time with me even though I didn't have any money to buy anything from him.  He probably knew why I was asking so many questions but he never asked me details!  I had my hydroponic garden in my closet -- half the plants died and my girlfriend wasn't too thrilled about the situation.

I moved back to Modesto after graduation and worked with my dad who had changed careers and was now a real estate appraiser.  I knew my mom wouldn't approve of my hydroponic garden so my brother and I set it up in a crawl space in our house.  Unfortunately our dog kept following us and gave us away! My cousin let me set it up on his walnut farm.

Led Zeppelin III is one of many vinyl LPs that entertain customers at Dutchman's Flat Medical Cannabis Dispensary in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood.
I decided I was interested in criminal law so I interned at a law firm in Modesto with the idea of going to law school.  It was exciting -- I was in court every day. I moved to San Francisco and got a job as a part-time law assistant and a job as a part-time building engineer.  I quickly learned that not all lawyers spend time in court but mostly behind their desks.  That wasn't for me so I went full time working with a guy named Donald as a building engineer.  So my life then consisted of watching Latin soap operas with Donald, fixing things in the building and cultivating my garden in my apartment.

I then went to work with a commercial contractor as a project engineer. I was there for about five years.  One of the building managers we worked with wanted to get their multi-tenant building LEED certified and I volunteered our company to figure it out for them -- much to the dismay of the owner. It was extremely complicated and I learned a ton but we successfully got them LEED certified.

I then went to work for Lynn Simon -- she founded Simon & Associates (now called Thornton Tomasetti) one of the first sustainable engineering firms in SF.  I was there for seven years and I actually just left there three months ago. I loved it and learned so much there.

Meanwhile, I was still cultivating my plants.  I was gaining more and more plant knowledge now that I was in SF and had access to cannabis clubs where I could buy plants and experiment.  In 2004, California passed SB420 further clarifying the regulations for medical marijuana.  I really wanted to participate in cannabis competitions like the Cannabis Cup and you have to own a dispensary to participate.

I would go to Amsterdam every three years or so to gain more plant and technical experience.  I rented five acres in Sonoma from a farmer and built a greenhouse to increase my production.  We also have production in SF.

I finally reached the point where my back was getting worse and I needed a job where I wasn't sitting down all day.  I worked on opening Dutchman Flats while I was still at my full time job and about three months ago made this my full time job. Sean Devlin is my business partner and given his experience in managing restaurants and bars -- operates as the front of the house manager.  I'm more comfortable with the details of growing the plants and he is much better at customer relations!

We grow everything we sell -- seed to sale. All of our staff is well versed in what to recommend to customers with various medical conditions.

I'm looking forward to the cannabis competitions but also to offering courses in sustainable gardening to the public. Now that we have been open for a few months we know what the community likes and we are working on a special strain for Dogpatch that might be called Dogpatch Haze.

Why Dogpatch?

We looked for two years for just the right spot.  I had gone to college with two of the owners of the Dogpatch Saloon and they encouraged me to look at Dogpatch. They said it was an amazing and supportive community.  I already knew about Dogpatch from my trek from my Sunset neighborhood to Serpentine for their burger and had spent more time in the neighborhood since the Dogpatch Saloon opened.  

The owners of this building are the people behind N.I.C.E Collective.  They had used the space for their clothing business but they had decided to open a retail spot across the street in the American Industrial Center.

I really appreciated how organized the neighborhood association was and how upfront they were about what they needed and expected from our business. We knew there would be concerns about a business like ours opening in the neighborhood so we spoke at the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, held open houses and addressed all the neighbor concerns that came our way.  

So many of the other business owners have been supportive and given us guidance on how to open a business in the neighborhood.  We tried to use as many local resources as possible -- we were fortunate that the folks from Lundberg Design just down the street agreed to work with us as did others in the community. 

The winning coin from the Flip that won the name Dutchman's Flat is in the bathroom floor at the Cannabis Dispensary in Dogpatch.
What's with the name -- Dutchman's Flat?

Our original choice for a business name was Dogpatch Collective but our landlords, N.I.C.E Collective, thought it was too similar to their business name and that it might be confusing.  When we found out that another nickname for Dogpatch is Dutchman's Flat we couldn't believe it.  I couldn't type fast enough to check if that name had been registered with the city.  I was so excited when it wasn't taken given the connection to Amsterdam because much the inspiration for our shop comes from the Amsterdam Coffeehouses (AKA Cannabis Clubs) as well as so much of our technical and agricultural knowledge.

Unfortunately, even though it wasn't registered there was another person who had started the registration process but hadn't finished it.  They contacted me and we agreed to flip a coin for the name.  We met at the Dogpatch Saloon and we agreed to flip a coin just one time to decide who would get to use the name.  Well, I won but then they asked me to flip again -- I won -- they asked again -- I won.  I won all of them -- tails won!

If you look in our bathroom you will notice that we have tiled the floor using pennies except for one coin -- the winning coin and it is tails up!

Much of the design is inspired by Amsterdam.  The big sliding door bears three vertical crosses honoring the Coat of Arms of Amsterdam.  Touches of the color orange -- the color of the Dutch Royal Family -- is used throughout the space and our logo is a boat.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

If it hadn't been so hard on my back to sit all day I would have stayed at my last job. Great people and I loved the work.  Great view of Alcatraz from the office!  So I would have stayed there and I most likely would have pursued a degree in Environmental Engineering.

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