editor’s note: When we first talked with 253 Farmacy this past January, we discussed kosher cannabis, their organic farming practices, and adjusting retail to the pandemic. But we thought the dynamic vertically-integrated company merited a deeper dive.
Craft cannabis is a luxury good that’s beyond the reach of many everyday people. But if you find yourself at 253 Farmacy, prepare to witness the miracle of premium cannabis being sold for and by working people. Located in Turner Falls, Massachusetts, the dispensary is a farm-to-table operation. According to co-founder Seth Rutherford, elegant and affordable cannabis is no contradiction in terms, but a natural result of designing a business model rooted in a small town ethic that has sustained rural New Englanders for centuries. As Rutherford puts it, “if you take care of the people around you, they take care of you.”
For Rutherford and co-founder Chris Gallant, 253 Farmacy is a dream job, but the sweat it took to build it is real enough. When Rutherford reminisces about starting up the company in 2018, he sounds like a textbook example of New England’s Protestant work ethic come to life.
“I grew up working on a farm,” says Rutherford, “and I married a farmer’s daughter.” Between them, he and Gallant have decades of experience in irrigation, sustainable landscaping, and general contracting, all of which they found extremely useful when it came time to build out the perfect combination retail and cultivation space. “The grinding, the painting—all the grunt work we did ourselves,” he says with pride.
They continued to keep investment costs and overhead low by joining forces with fellow co-owners Alan Shorr and Marcia Wagner, whose backgrounds in entertainment and law rounded out the team’s professional tool kit. When COVID-19 hit right after their first harvest, they would need the diversified portfolio of expertise to make it through.
“We weren’t allowed to cultivate—we were only able to maintain our canopy, and our mothers took a little bit of a beating,” Rutherford says. “The upper management team came in every day. We did everything ourselves, and we were able to squeak through.”
Thanks to their ability to pull together, the team emerged from the darkest days of the pandemic with the business intact and a determination to project the company’s collaborative ethic outwards into the broader community. The vertically-integrated company primarily communicates community care through an obsession with quality.
“We’ve developed strict standards in every department so that the customer has that top-notch experience every single time,” Rutherford says. For example, at 253 Farmacy, a quarter of the high-grade flower grown on the premises has to include twenty carefully selected buds, and the less aesthetically pleasing “popcorn bud” gets sold at lower rates. They apply the same principle to their robust concentrate menu; the less presentable parts are discounted, and they always make a point to keep a high quality $30 vape on the menu. Such attention to detail furthers their reputation for excellence while creating opportunities to offer multiple price points without compromising the product. “There has to be that wow factor,” says Rutherford. “We want to go above and beyond to make sure we are giving the customer the same quality at different price ranges.”
It’s company policy to extend the same care to employees. “We’ve always had our starting pay rates well above minimum wage,” Rutherford says, adding that they increased wages last year in response to the sharp rise in cost of living. The company philosophy is to encourage employees to express their opinions and concerns throughout the production process. “There’s no monarchy here. All of us in upper management go into each department every day to make sure everyone feels like part of the company. When I walk into the trim room I don’t just speak to the person in charge—I ask for the thoughts of everyone in the entire room.”
In his mind, this practice makes good business sense in an agricultural context where many modern shortcuts are unavailable.
“Indoor farming is extremely difficult,” he says. “Most farmers can use many different methods to alleviate mold and bud rot, but we are restricted to spraying with things like cedar oil, so you have to have a very clean environment. You need a lot of smart minds to solve these types of problems.” The company’s inclusive approach to making decisions has attracted top knotch cultivators who were frustrated with the strictures of red tape that can dominate a corporate farm. Rutherford thinks that viewing problem solving as a team building exercise is equally good for business and morale. “Sometimes problems are a good thing, because you learn a lot through fixing them,” he says.
For CFO Bambi Rawlings, the sense of camaraderie is one of the biggest perks of the job. “There’s a lot of mutual respect here,” she says. “Speaking as the oldest person in the room, this is the most supportive environment I’ve ever worked in. My last job gave me a heart attack, and this one keeps me happy.” She recalls the monthly cookouts spearheaded by co-founder Chris Gallant, whom she says is an excellent cook. “A good barbeque helps bring all the different departments together.” Such gestures pay off long term; employee satisfaction spares 253 Farmacy the time and resources they would otherwise have to devote to the revolving door of an uninspiring workplace. As Rutherford puts it, “turnover can cost your company a fortune.”
253 Farmacy’s sensitivity to the needs of customers and employees alike is important in a town with one of the highest poverty rates in the state, and it immediately endeared them to residents. “In a small town word will spread fast if we do something wrong,” says Rutherford, who having grown up in the next town over is speaking from experience. But conversely, a little love for the community goes a long way towards creating a loyal customer base. While the dispensary attracts plenty of visitors from far and wide, they are careful not to take their homebase for granted. “The licensing agreement requires us to do 150 hours of community service, but we did 200 hours—we try to take that attitude to everything we do,” he says. “The town has really been an important partner to Chris and I.”
As early license recipients—the twenty-fifth dispensary to open in Massachusetts—the 253 Farmacy team has witnessed the full trajectory of the state’s rapidly evolving cannabis industry. In a market flooded with green prospectors, many fear shrinking profits. “We are seeing some saturation and price compression,” says Rutherford. But from his perspective, the biggest companies have the most to lose. Between community support, top-of-the-line products, and a committed team, 253 Farmacy has built-in protections from the vicissitudes of the market. “A competitive market is healthy—it gives customers a better experience,” says Rutherford.
Since a better experience is what 253 Farmacy is all about, the team knows they’re sitting pretty. “We’re hard working guys, and we’ve been fortunate to find people with the same passion and work ethic,” he says. “After working in construction our whole lives, we know the key is building on the right foundations.”