BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Each of the new licensed pot shops in the Downtown Manhattan area has its own personality and niche.
Union Square Travel Agency, which opened in February as one of the state’s first legal dispensaries, combines a stylish interior, along with an emphasis on education about the various properties and possibilities of cannabis, plus an impressively wide variety of products.
It’s a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color)-founded company. They’re partnering with the Doe Fund, which gets 51 percent of the place’s profits for use for transitional and permanent housing, as well as employment and support services for formerly homeless and incarcerated persons.
“We believe legal cannabis has the power to reverse the damage caused by the war on drugs,” says a statement on the company’s Web site.
USQTA also hires the formerly incarcerated and cannabis “legacy” operators — as in people who worked in the pot business before legalization — plus carries L.G.B.T.Q.-, BIPOC- and women-owned product brands.
Arana Hankin-Biggers, the company’s president and co-founder, has a background in real estate. She said the store syncs with the area’s tradition of cannabis culture and creativity. (The store shuns use of the word “marijuana,” feeling, like some others, that it has a racial history.)
“Union Square and Greenwich Village have a historical connection to cannabis culture and have been a backdrop for cannabis advocacy and events,” she said. “The neighborhood embraces alternative lifestyles, artistic expression and progressive values, all of which align with our mission and the team here at Union Square Travel Agency. We’re thrilled to be a part of this community’s storied history.”
Paul Yau, the company’s other co-founder and C.E.O., comes from the financial field.
There are a lot of reasons why locals looking for cannabis products would want to shop at USQTA. For starters, all of its products are tested and safe, as opposed to some fly-by-night, illegal pot place.
The in-store experience is also inviting. The interior of USQTA, at 835 Broadway, at the corner of 13th Street, has a sleek and clean, futuristic design, with subdued lighting, almost like something out of the classic sci-fi movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
USQTA actually first opened in another space next door, but in August reopened at the prime corner spot, which, as well as being a better location, is larger. They are keeping the other space, though, and plan to use it for events.
As for the shopping experience, it’s convenient, unpressurized. No one is pushing a hard sale — customers can browse at their own speed.
Shoppers can conveniently make their orders on touch screens located throughout the space. The products — from pre-rolls, gummies and vapes to cannabis gear, including stylish, colored-glass water pipes — are tastefully displayed in cases along the wall and on tables running down the middle of the store. In New York State, weed shops cannot let customers sample the product — smell or hold the flower, for example — and packages must remain sealed until purchased; as a result, some of the displays show individual pre-rolls, for example, outside of their packaging, to give shoppers a better idea of the offerings.
Beyond its classy, welcoming and professional vibe, another thing that sets USQTA apart is what you’ll find in the rear of the space. Dubbed the Flower Lounge, it’s a room where consumers can learn about and find just the right strain of pot for them and for what they want to achieve from their experience. This goes beyond the simple indica (relaxing) versus sativa (energizing) split that most pot users are familiar with — or the knowledge that terpenes — the tiny, translucent globs on pot leaves — also contribute to the effect.
Basically, there are more than a half-dozen different categories of pot displayed in the Flower Lounge, each with a distinct name describing its main effect or use: Sleep, Daydream, Balance, Chill, Focus, Create and Energize.
Each category includes a sample of the specific plant behind a window, plus some infused “rocks” in cups with small, clear, removable domes, which shoppers can lift off to sniff to see if they like the various strains’ aromas. Of course, just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge pot by its smell alone: Fragrant pot does not necessarily mean a good high, whereas awful-smelling weed could be great.
The precise strain in each category could change from week to week, since the store is constantly getting in new product.
The store’s most popular cannabis categories, per the Flower Lounge, are Sleep, Chill and Energize, according to Jill Conforti, USQTA’s marketing manager, who recently gave The Village Sun a tour of the store. She said the Flower Lounge and the store’s budtenders are all about “education” — with a special focus on helping inexperienced pot smokers — or at least ones not familiar with the dispensary experience — find the right product for them.
“The biggest issue is education of New York City consumers who haven’t been to a dispensary before,” Conforti explained.
That “schooling” actually can be as basic or as deep as the customer is interested in going. As the “budtenders” section on the USQTA Web site states:
“You might know the difference between Indica and Sativa, but do you know what your preferred terpene profile is? Can you tell the difference between a Linalool and a Limonene? Whether all of this is making sense to you or none of it is, our in-store budtenders are here to help both beginners and experts alike.
“They receive 40 hours of cannabis classroom training and ongoing weekly education to be able to match you with the right cannabis experience. So if you need a little guidance while getting started or you want to nerd out, think of our budtenders as your highly attuned sherpas, ready to guide you through your cannabis journey.”
As Conforti explained it — and as outlined on helpful information panels and Venn diagrams on the walls inside USQTA — there is an “entourage effect,” in which the numerous cannabinoids, terpenes and other compounds in cannabis flower combine and overlap to produce the effects special to each strain. This is where the USQTA budtenders’ knowledge can come into play, helping customers find the perfect product for their needs. There are up to 100 cannabinoids in a pot plant, and it’s still an evolving science, with more still to be learned.
In another interesting mixture, you can also buy THC-infused espresso beans and drops.
What unifies all the products, though, is that the cannabis is all grown in New York State.
Conforti is part of the wave of young entrepreneurs who are forging careers in the new legal weed industry here. She became familiar with the pot scene while in college in Colorado, where it was already legalized. A marketing major, after graduating, she spent five years working at a series of cannabis-related companies, including LeafLink, Shift Cannabis and Green Dream Cannabis. After legalization, in turn, hit here, she struck out for New York.
Yet, there are also challenges to working in this new industry, as Conforti tells it — namely, because the federal government has not yet legalized reefer. This means that, for example, a special software product is needed for the touch screens people use to peruse and pay for their orders. And certain credit card companies won’t work with the store — though others will. USQTA and all cannabis businesses are frequently flagged on social media due to federal regulations. Basically, under law, 90 percent of viewers of any advertising the store does must be at least age 21.
Nevertheless, Union Square Travel Agency is reportedly doing well, actually very well. They must be doing something right.
The store’s hours are 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays and until midnight Friday through Sunday. They also deliver.
For more information about Union Square Travel Agency, visit their Web site, unionsquaretravelagency.com.