Photo of Anna Bran Leis and Victoria Harris by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Anna Bran Leis and Victoria Harris by Darrow Montgomery

Local chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, and other hospitality professionals lived through the rapid ballooning of the D.C. bar and restaurant scene, and now they’re poised to apply the lessons learned to another sector growing with explosive speed: cannabis. 

Some strive to place products on shelves at medical dispensaries for patients, while others are navigating the gray markets that emerged after Initiative 71 made recreational use legal for D.C. residents 21 and up in February 2015. 

Many see it as an extension of the city’s hospitality industry, and their reasons for diving into the green economy range from recognizing the potential for profit to personal reasons. 

Anna Bran Leis, who owns Taqueria del Barrio and DC Empanadas, felt called to it because of her ongoing battle with cancer. “I know a lot of people through my illness that I met in treatment that I could directly help,” she says. The American Cancer Society cites studies showing marijuana can mitigate nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. 

To help bring relief to others, Bran Leis launched DC Taste Buds with longtime restaurant employee Victoria Harris and Warren Brown of the local jarred cake company CakeLove. They make everything from cannabis-laced caramel popcorn to infused sauces and salad dressings. They even developed a drink recipe that was printed in Snoop Dogg’s magazine Merry Jane.

The partners pride themselves on creativity. “In the past, there were just some dirty bong water brownies,” Bran Leis says, adding that culinary craftsmanship deserves more attention because palates have matured. 

But there’s no place to try DC Taste Buds’ goods because they’re still navigating the onerous product submission stage of getting their edibles into medical dispensaries. Bran Leis isn’t willing to sell to the public online, deeming it too risky. “Warren and I have a hell of a lot more to lose than we have to gain by selling things on a website,” she says. 

But getting edibles into a dispensary is a difficult process overseen by the Department of Health. DC Taste Buds got a product approved, denied, and rep-approved but the Health Department’s suggested tweaks made the product impossible to scale.

Snipping the red tape is where Harris comes in because she has helped food truck operators, including CapMac, maneuver around a similarly complex regulatory climate. “If I hadn’t done food trucks, I would have said, ‘Fuck this,’” she says. “It’s like a big puzzle. It’s kind of fun.”

Charles Newsome and Torie Wallace, the duo behind We Baked, were similarly inspired to enter the industry after a terminally ill relative was struggling amid treatment. “Torie was able to get some medicinal to her,” Newsome explains. “It was like an immediate change. She started eating. From there, we decided to champion the cause and started a nonprofit based on education and responsible usage.”

Newsome currently works for a popular D.C. brewery, and Wallace has worked in catering. Through their nonprofit, they teach people how to home-medicate, and they also produce edibles for gifting—everything from fried chicken to fruit roll-ups. “We’re not looking to get into the retail market,” Newsome says. “Some of the laws are confusing or lacking.” 

Initiative 71 allows “home grow” and “home use,” meaning adults can grow a certain number of pot plants at home and can possess two ounces or less of marijuana. Cannabis cannot be sold or consumed in public. But you can gift or transfer one ounce or less to another adult. It’s this last provision that delivery services are creatively interpreting to get product to people’s doors, much like Domino’s Pizza

With these businesses, people typically purchase paraphernalia, T-shirts, juice, or myriad other items and then receive a “gift” of a couple of grams of marijuana.

Connor Pennington, who has worked at Firefly, Ripple, Daikaya, and Haikan, quit all of his restaurant industry gigs to start one such business, Joint Delivery, with his partner, who works at Mirabelle. “I could go back and bartend somewhere and make more money than I’m making now, but there’s something about this,” he says. “I know there’s money.”

Pennington, who donates some of his business proceeds to charities and supports local artists, has lofty goals to go national. “It’s going to grow into a cannabis lifestyle brand,” he says. To get there he hopes to rely on the biggest lesson he learned from working in restaurants and bars.

“We pride ourselves on hospitality,” he says. “If you can provide the customer service people can get in a restaurant into this business, that’s breaking us off from the rest.” If a client isn’t happy, for example, he sends along something gratis, much like a restaurant manager buys dessert for disgruntled diners. 

Pennington makes the deliveries himself for quality control, especially because of review websites. The Yelp of the cannabis industry is called “Where’s Weed,” and there’s even a Tom Sietsema of sativa. Like the Post food critic, Joe Tierney reviews local canna businesses on his blog, “Gentleman Toker.” 

Coming from a restaurant background has another perk, Pennington says: Restaurant workers are heavy users. “We have it in with a lot of chefs,” he says. “At Marcel’s, a lot of those guys love our product. I get a rush delivering to those guys.” 

Business is steady, but Pennington knows his operation is tricky. “People are still very wary,” he says. “We see people filling up carts [online] and abandoning them. …The stigma still exists but, yes, we’re in a city where it’s legal.” 

Nikolas Schiller, one of the Ballot Initiative 71 authors who is a co-founder of DCMJ—  a community group fighting for equal rights for D.C. cannabis users, growers, and their families—is unconvinced about the legality of these donation-based delivery services. “These patriots are trying to fight an unjust system—Congress preventing stores from opening up—but the idea that you can buy something and get something in return, that’s a transaction.” That said, he calls delivery services a gray, not black, market.

Wake n Bake Goodz is another such service led by Kevin White, who was a restaurant server and bartender for 11 years, including at Carolina Kitchen in Hyattsville and BlackFinn Ameripub downtown. He quit restaurants 11 months ago to commit to his edibles business. 

He gifts baked goods like cinnamon rolls with cannabis-infused icing and is a frequent flyer at cannabis events across town. “You wake up in the morning, eat them on an empty stomach, enjoy your coffee, and then you’re good to go,” White says. “It’s not an overpowering type of high.” 

To stand out from the pack in a saturated market, Wake n Bake products are tested for potency in local laboratories. Like restaurant customers who want to know ingredients, customers appreciate information about dosages. No one wants to end up like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who once found herself “curled up in a hallucinatory state” after overindulging in a special chocolate bar.

But ask 10 people whether edibles are legal in D.C. and you’ll get 10 different answers. That’s because Initiative 71 only addresses buds, not the extracted concentrates required to infuse products with the THC compound that makes you feel high. Schiller says the short answer is, yes, edibles are legal at home. 

Jessica Brown, a pastry chef who owns her own business, Piped Pastry Shop, says she has made edibles in the past, but her experience illuminates why having a professional culinary background doesn’t always meld with marijuana. 

The first time a supplier asked her to make edibles, she agreed to use their cannabis-infused butter to bake a fixed amount of treats. “The way pastry chefs work versus the way they want their cannabis distributed in treats doesn’t match up,” Brown says. Suppliers often put chefs in a position where they have to sacrifice their cooking methods in order to yield edibles with the highest potency.

A second try in the business didn’t pan out either. Brown says she was snubbed payment after making edibles for an event, so she now recommends signing a contract. “The industry is very sticky right now,” she says. “It’s easy to get caught up with the wrong people.” Despite how cutthroat the industry can be, she hopes to stay involved. “I hear it all the time: Elevate the city. Let’s put a smoke cloud over the city.” 

But whether the industry is stable enough for chefs to leave restaurants in the rearview mirror is an open question. Some say the market is wide open with enough loopholes and plenty of money to go around, while others say wait. 

Then there are people comparing D.C.’s fledgling cannabis industry to the beginning of the craft beer boom or the early days of making wine because there’s room for trailblazers to make their mark. “You can come up with stuff that no one’s come up with before,” Taste Buds’ Victoria Harris says. 

But she also cautions those hoping to stay in restaurants while cooking up a canna-business on the side. “Investors might not be cool with it,” she says. “They might be more conservative. That’s why larger restaurant folks haven’t come out to advocate for it.”

DCMJ’s Schiller says that until Congress allows stores to open in D.C., everything is on ice. “It’s a great opportunity to experiment and try new things, but if you want to take it to market, you need to move [elsewhere].”