Driving down Mission Street, you might just miss Barbary Coast.
There are no flashy signs or eye-catching graphics to mark this swanky SoMa dispensary, but unlike the Prohibition-era speakeasies from which it draws its aesthetic, Barbary Coast has nothing to hide.
On the contrary, Executive Director Jesse Henry has set out to create an atmosphere that evokes places like the popular 1920s cocktail joint Bourbon and Branch far more than it does the 1960s counterculture iconography of tie-dye and free love. Sleek countertops, plush leather couches, and lacquered wood are the preferred décor for this dispensary, which opened four years ago at 952 Mission St.
“We wanted to make people feel comfortable when they’re coming in,” Henry explains. “We want people to feel like it’s OK to be in here, and it’s OK to come back. With this style, it reminds you of going into the old Bruno’s on Mission or the old Original Joe’s or the old Alfred’s Steakhouse. They have those old leather booths, and it’s big and comfortable. We wanted to really grasp that feel and that look when we designed it.”
Barbary Coast takes a patient-first approach to its operation, lab-testing everything on the menu even though current regulations don’t require it. For Henry, it’s all about setting a standard he hopes will become the norm. It is, in essence, innovation by integrity.
“We feel it’s important to provide that service and quality not only to the patients, but also to the city,” he says. “I have kids, and when they grow older, I’d hate for them to be subjected to medicine that’s dirty. I think self-regulating to ensure quality is just the common sense thing to do.”
A born-and-raised San Franciscan, Henry says he’s long been enchanted by the city’s history. It’s why he opted to pay homage with the name Barbary Coast, and it’s also why his dispensary is now home to a smoking lounge unlike anything else you’ll find nearby.
Featuring four booths and a dozen tables — each with its own vaporizer — the lounge has yielded plenty of positive feedback from patients since opening in March. Add in a bar and remove the televisions mounted toward the rear of the room, and it’s easy to see the happy-hour tech crowd jostling for stools. However, Henry seems quite content with the clientele he has already.
“It’s a hospitality industry,” he says. “I think it’s always been one, but that’s what’s happening now. As you see more and more places open, you’re having that restaurant- and hotel-style of service.”
Patients at Barbary Coast certainly enjoy the amenities, such complimentary use of lighters and rolling papers in the lounge, a selection of bongs available for the borrowing, and an adjacent dabbing station. To enter the lounge, one must simply buy something on-premises, a change from when the space initially opened and required a minimum purchase.
“We wanted to take the long approach,” Henry says, “so instead of just breaking the doors down, we had a lot of different rules at first, just to make sure that patient safety, as well as the safety of our neighborhood, was at the forefront. Now that we’ve seen how it’s worked out, some of the more stricter rules have been pulled back a little bit.”
A commitment to the neighborhood is a big part of the equation. Respecting fellow businesses is why anyone caught smoking cannabis within a certain proximity of Barbary Coast will not be welcomed back. It’s part of what Henry describes as being “an anchor tenant” on their block.
Other efforts to that end include regularly donating to youth groups across San Francisco and playing an active role in the city’s gun buyback program. While Henry may be happy to share an aesthetic with the city’s younger days, it’s clear that Barbary Coast shares little in common with the gin joints of yore.
“We wanted to establish ourselves as a part of this community,” he says. “I think, for us, as far as taking the time to do it the right way, that’s been part of our philosophy as a whole since we opened. San Francisco is really important to me, so making our dispensary look like the old-school San Francisco — it’s an homage to the old times, but also an homage to the old commitment to quality.”
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