By Robert McCoppin Chicago Tribune •Feb 02, 2023 at 9:43 am
The first store in Illinois to combine marijuana and alcohol sales opened Wednesday in Wheeling, with its owners hoping to make it a place for customers to hang out and relax.
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Okay Cannabis is unlike any other business in the state, hosting licensed cannabis sales under the same roof with West Town Bakery, which serves beer, wine and liquor as well as bakery goods and other food.
The majority owner is Charles Mayfield, who is interim chief operating officer for Chicago Public Schools, while former Chicago 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar and others are minority owners. They formed a partnership with West Town Bakery to include a cafe and an event space that can be rented out for birthday parties or other occasions.
Through Mayfield, who is African American, the owners qualified as among the first social equity dispensary owners to open in the state, and in the suburbs specifically.
The massive 12,000-square-foot space, on the site of a former Twin Peaks in Wheeling’s restaurant row on Milwaukee Avenue, is far larger than most dispensaries.
The cafe with its bar is separate from the cannabis sales area. The owners hope someday to add a cannabis consumption area.
The store had a soft opening Wednesday, with workers still painting and putting on finishing touches. The grand opening is scheduled for Friday.
The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, founded by Scott Weiner and Greg Mohr, operates the bakery, and with their social equity partners plan to open two more Okay Cannabis locations, in West Town and Evanston, in the coming months. West Town Bakery already has four locations in Chicago.
Mayfield quoted one visitor as saying the cafe was so comfortable, “I could bring my grandmother here.”
Guests must show proof that they are 21 to enter the dispensary, but children with parents or guardians are allowed in the cafe.
After a two-year delay in awarding licenses, the state awarded 192 dispensary licenses in 2022. But very few of the licensees have been unable to open due to lack of financing, and zoning and construction delays.
Rather than the buy-and-get-out experience at many dispensaries, Weiner said, the intent is for people to spend some time there. “Make it an experience,” he said. “We believe this is the next iteration of the cannabis industry.”
The initial licensing of medical cannabis companies in Illinois in 2015 resulted in wealthy white males owning almost the entire industry. The subsequent licensing process was meant to favor “social equity” applicants, generally defined as people living in areas with high rates of poverty or cannabis arrests, or those with low-level marijuana arrests.
But just six social equity dispensaries have opened, including three in downtown Chicago, plus Okay, Altius in Round Lake Beach and Ivy Hall in Crystal Lake.
To simplify the process, by eliminating applications that were hundreds of pages long, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation is holding a new online application process through Feb. 14. Some applicants have said new selection criteria based on applicants living in underprivileged census tracts has complicated the process.
Of the businesses selected through the past convoluted application and lottery process, 41% are majority Black-owned, 7% are majority White-owned, and 4% are majority Latino-owned, while 38% of awardees did not disclose the race of their owners.
Mayfield, an Air Force veteran, has majority ownership of the Wheeling and Evanston licenses. He said his full-time day job with CPS is separate from Okay Cannabis. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation could not immediately be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Pawar is Indian American and a senior fellow at the Economic Security Project, and has worked with the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations. Pawar has partial ownership in all three licenses, including with another group called Canna Ventures at the West Town site, with majority owners Dr. Charlesnika Evans, an epidemiologist with Northwestern Medicine, and Nikki Hayes, former president of the LiUNA Local 1001 chapter in Chicago.
The key to helping other licensees open, Pawar said, is to pass the federal SAFE Banking Act to allow bank financing for cannabis companies, and to reschedule or de-schedule cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.
This story has been corrected to indicate that Ameya Pawar is the former alderman of Chicago’s 47th Ward.