Area’s first cannabis store, Sunday Drive, up and running

By Tom Ayres, Senior Staff Writer

Enthusiasts from throughout the region have given a heady welcome to Sunday Drive, the Upper Valley’s first cannabis retail outlet, which opened its doors to aficionados of smokable buds and edibles on Thursday, Nov. 17.

Business was brisk on opening day, when twenty cannabis connoisseurs visited the nascent retail outlet in its first hour of operation. Sales stayed high through the weekend, including during the day on Sunday, when numerous cannabis devotees hit the road to Sunday Drive for their first purchase of their favored recreational and medicinal drug.

“It’s been really exciting,” Sunday Drive founder/owner P.J. Eames said on Sunday afternoon as she took a break from tending to the steady stream of customers checking out diverse product line the cozy, warmly decorated and welcoming cannabis emporium at 442 Woodstock Road, just across the hall from the popular Worthy Kitchen restaurant. “There was a little anxiety there in getting everything done and not knowing how it would be received. I mean, I thought it would be pretty positive, but it has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Eames said several weeks ago that part of her pre-opening jitters related to supply-chain issues and whether Vermont’s commercial cannabis growers would be fully licensed by the state and have product ready in time for Sunday Drive’s retail debut. “A lot of the growers have hit this kind of bottleneck at the testing level. There were two active testing labs in the state and one of them went down last week because one of their machines broke,” Eames offered, speaking about the labs that test cannabis from Vermont cultivators for pesticides, microbial organisms, potency and other issues.

Despite the testing woes, however, Eames said Sunday Drive was well-stocked on opening day. “We ended up with quite a bit of cannabis flower. We’re still waiting for some to come down the line. Some of our strains are selling out – we’re working with small growers exclusively in Vermont, so when something sells out that’s it until next year. But that said, we’ve got a lot of sun-grown right now and then we’re going to be seeing a lot of indoor-grown cannabis this winter — that’s a year-round operation. I’m growing indoors myself now and we’ll eventually be selling that, too.”

On the edibles front, Vermont state testing requirements are more rigorous, Eames noted, focusing more intensively on production facilities, manufacturing aspects such as the extraction processes that draw out the psychoactive ingredients from cannabis plants, and more. “For the edible part, right now we have some gummies and we’ll have some chocolates and capsules soon, and then vape cartridges, which will be a couple of more weeks out,” the Sunday Drive proprietor added.

New customers at Sunday Drive are greeted at the door by a state-licensed “budtender,” who checks identification to make certain that no one under the age of 21 enters the store. Once ID’s have been verified, budtenders escort visitors around the store, talking knowledgeably and with great enthusiasm about all the cannabis offerings on hand, helping individual fans to find the precise bud or edible that suits their particular need or fancy. 

On Sunday afternoon, budtender Jamie-Lee Fernandes guided a visitor to the Sunday Drive “Bud Bar” and chatted amiably and expertly about some of the cannabis strains offered there. By state law, all the cannabis sold at retail outlets in Vermont must be cultivated in-state. “I’m a big fan of the Mint Jelly, not just because it is grown in the next town over — Hartland — but also because of the properties I get from it. I smoke it when I’m tired, such as when I was home on Thursday night after our opening day here, and it made me more tired. I sleep for about an hour to two hours at a time and wake up a lot. And I slept four-and-a-half to five hours that first night. It was very nice.”

Fernandes told a visitor that she personally does not look for a high THC content — the psychoactive component of cannabis — in her preferred strains. “I’m looking for the terpene profile and the different flavors I get. I want it to taste good when I smoke it. You have some customers who are just looking for a higher THC level, whereas I’m looking for terpenes and taste,” she added, referring to organic chemicals that are responsible for the way cannabis and many other plants, herbs and fruits smell. And smell, as Fernandes readily pointed out, is an essential component of how something tastes.

Fernandes and fellow Sunday Drive budtender Sarah Penna, as well as Eames, all took a six-hour class with a “cannabis nurse,” Jessie Lynn Dolan, as part of the state licensing process for retail cannabis store operators and purveyors. Interestingly, the mix of customers at Sunday Drive in its first several days of operation featured roughly a 50/50 split between recreational cannabis users and those interested in the medicinal benefits of the smokeable and edible herb.

“Jesse Lynn took us through all the different properties of the plant and talked about how your body has a relationship with the hemp plant,” noted Penna, the most youthful of the Sunday Drive budtenders at 23. “She taught us about the different terpenes that are in the plant — the scent and flavor profiles — and how those have effects on your body. She really approached it from an herbalist standpoint. We learned about cannabis as a medicine, about how our bodies process it. I really appreciated that, because now when people come in and they’re telling me, ‘I can’t sleep, I can’t eat,’ I can give them educated information about what they may want to try, rather than just sending them off to get stoned,” Penna continued. “But then, of course, if that’s what someone wants, I can help them with that, too,” she added with a chuckle.

“It’s been super-fun,” Penna said of her first few days of working at Sunday Drive. “We’ve been busy all day, every day and people have been super-kind. We’ve had people come in who’ve been smoking cannabis for years and we have some come in who have never smoked. Like I said earlier, we have some people coming in who have nausea, they have pain, they need to sleep, and then there are others who are headed to a party, and they want to bring something to their friends. It’s been a very positive experience.”

Penna shared that she herself got a medical cannabis card for a chronic pain condition while attending college in Pennsylvania, which turned her into an enthusiastic user of the herb. “Cannabis is the only thing that has ever touched the pain and been able to help me,” she offered. “My experience since then has stemmed from the medicinal use of it. It had such an impact on my illness and it was helping me to sleep so much better. I came to realize that everyone can benefit from it and I really wanted to get involved in bringing it to people who might not have tried it before. Based on my own experience, it kind of smashed down all the stereotypes for me.”

Sunday Drive, it turns out, is all about breaking down stereotypes — including the one that typecasts cannabis users, cultivators, and retailers as overwhelmingly male. Eames, in fact, has stressed throughout the process of creating, licensing, and opening the retail cannabis outlet that it is an all-women enterprise. And that, she and her fellow budtenders say, is central to the store’s ethic and mission.

“Vermont is unique in that many of the dispensaries are female-owned and female-run because in most places it is such a male-dominated industry,” Eames commented. What does Eames believe a feminine perspective brings to the cannabis arena? “I think women need it more,” she answered brightly, “whether it helps with pain from your menstrual cycle or hormonal balance.” Agreeing that men seem to use cannabis less for its perceived medicinal qualities than to get high, Eames added that “it’s a very feminine plant. You don’t want a male plant in your garden. Pull that out and throw it away. It turns all the rest of the plants male,” the Sunday Drive owner quipped. “It is a very female plant,” she reiterated. “You think of the tradition of herbalists and its predominantly women that are working with plants.”

Indeed, a surprising number of the customers at Sunday Drive last weekend were women. Budtender Penna said she is delighted to be part of the all-women venture in part because of that. “I love it, I think it is really positive,” Penna enthused. “In an industry like this — just like in the craft beer industry — it’s pretty male-dominated. A lot of the growers are male, so it’s really great to see more women involved with it, both as cannabis users and on the business end. Like P.J., I find something very feminine about it – it’s about working with plants and healing, it’s about so much more than simply, ‘Hey, I’m going to rip a dab and get so messed up,” Penna said enthusiastically, using contemporary jargon for smoking cannabis simply to get stoned.

“That’s the really cool aspect of it,” Penna concluded. “I think everyone should come here and try something. I’m so grateful to be involved.”