A group of five entrepreneurs from different backgrounds who became friends by supporting each others’ businesses decided one night over a steak dinner: let’s go for it.
After making significant investments of both capital and sweat equity, plus a lengthy regulatory approval process, the partners behind The Social Leaf, the first – and so far only – recreational cannabis dispensary in Ocean County, have pulled it off. Having opened just a few days after the busy July 4 weekend, passersby on Route 9 in South Toms River have likely noticed the fresh, bright-white building and, most times of the day, a busy operation.
The first place to which one might compare The Social Leaf: an Apple Store.
“A lot of people have actually said that,” said Thomas Marino, one of the co-owners of The Social Leaf, located at 334 Atlantic City Boulevard (Route 9). “We wanted it to look clean, sleek and modern. We didn’t want to look like a head shop. We wanted to stand out – clean lines, ambience, a fresh atmosphere. People have said it feels like a combination between an Apple Store and a lounge, and that’s exactly what I was going for.”
The Social Leaf blasts apart stereotypes of what many would think a cannabis dispensary would look like. Similar to its early counterparts in Las Vegas, the interior of the building is spotless, IDs are checked by a hostess and an off-duty police officer provides security. The lights are bright and fresh. Huge LED television screens feature menus, ordering is digitally-assisted with tablets, and each customer is provided with personal service from a salesperson who answers questions and shows off products in transparent cases with granite countertops.
“When we got pretty close to opening to doors, people would stop by and they were a little shocked,” said Bill Hall, another one of the co-owners, with a chuckle. “They told me, ‘I thought there’d be tons of pictures of the Grateful Dead and tie dye.’”
The reality couldn’t be more different, but while the store’s ultra-modern look – largely designed by Marino and much of which was physically built by Hall – may smash through the first level of stereotypes and misconceptions, the business as a whole is one where the owners say they intend to foster a sense of community, bring more investment into the area, and actively help local organizations and give back.
The Local Touch, A Local Commitment
Marino got his start in business running barber shops, including one he owned in Toms River and another in Lacey. He also owned a shop in Puerto Rico. Hall has experience in the cannabis industry, and fellow partners John Earp and Jennifer Forsdahl own The Beanery coffee shop in downtown Toms River. Frank Guzzi, the fifth partner, brings the expertise he’s experienced by running a successful masonry and paving business.
Everyone is a local – from Toms River, Lacey, and so on – and the group has a unique strategy for reaching out to the community, easing concern over the taboos that remain about recreational cannabis sales, and growing the business in the long term.
The shop features competitively priced flower, vapor cartridges, edible items and pre-roll offerings. The staff guides customers through the selections – Sativa strains of the plant are known for their energizing and invigorating properties, while Indica strains are known for their relaxation and calming aspects. There are also hybrid strains, and some that are known for best assisting with medical conditions such as stomach issues. The Social Leaf sells to both medical and recreational customers, with medical customers receiving their own pricing levels under state laws.
On a weekday afternoon when Shorebeat visited, a melting pot of clientele gathered around the counter as a few people waited in line. Even the owners have been surprised at diversity of their customers.
“We’ve seen a lot of our elderly neighbors coming in, trying this later in life for the health benefits,” said Marino. “We plan on reaching out, going out in the field, including the adult communities, and educating people on it.”
Hall is a cannabis educator and will be responsible for much of that outreach.
“He makes it his duty to know everything about cannabis and give people the right information from someone who knows what they’re talking about,” said Marino.
“I still think a lot of people are a bit taboo about it, but we see literally people from all walks of life in here,” said Hall, heading into the third week of business. “The plant really does bring people together.”
As many in the industry have predicted, cannabis will likely, one day, reach some level of equivalency with fine wine or craft beer in terms of strains, varieties and flavors.
“It’s still brand new, and I’m sure right after prohibition there was a stigma about alcohol, and then one day it was pretty much forgotten,” said Marino.
The Social Leaf hopes to not only reach out to the community about legal cannabis, but support local organizations, especially those that benefit veterans, first responders and youth sports, and donate both time and monetary support to worthy causes.
“We want to give back to the community, build a park or a field, and want that to be a big part of our business,” Marino said. “It’s our kids playing in these parks, we’d love to help Little League and other organizations, not only with money but with volunteering. We also really appreciate our police officers, firefighters and EMTs, public works workers, and we want to do well by the communities we’re from.”
Room to Grow
The Social Leaf is more than just the name of a store, its owners said, it’s the brand around which the business is built. Convenience is part of that. The store began accepting pre-orders online last week and will eventually be hosting a delivery service. A long-term goal is to actually invest in land to grow cannabis plants locally.
“Right now, we have a retail license, and there are 11 licensed [cultivation] vendors in the state,” Marino explained. “There are some mom-and-pops like us who are doing their build-outs and getting approved over the last few months. They’ll have their harvests ready soon, and that’s good news.”
“For us,” he continued, “we want to grow our own brand, sell our own brand – and then you’re in charge of your own destiny. You can really stand behind it.”
While Ocean County voters overwhelmingly supported the legalization of recreational cannabis when it was placed on the ballot in 2020, and is home to the largest number of medical marijuana patients in the state, many municipalities almost instantly adopted “opt-out” ordinances that banned its retail sale.
“A lot of towns said, ‘we know how you voted, but we’re going with no,'” said Hall. “South Toms River has been just great, though. They’ve been great to work with.”
Setting a good example, therefore, is part of the company’s business plan as well; perhaps with positive experiences, the market will grow in acceptance and create more opportunities for The Social Leaf and other cannabis entrepreneurs. That, the owners say, starts the second someone walks into the store.
“As far as trying to break taboos, when you talk to one of our advisors, we want you to be comfortable with what you’re buying,” Hall said. “Nobody is rushed, and you leave with a good understanding of what you purchased.”
“The one thing about our brand is that we’re from the community – we’re here, our kids are here, we expect every customer to come in and feel welcome,” added Marino. “And if we can do that, it’s probably our biggest advantage.”
The shop is open seven days per week, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.