Retail Tag

Authority Magazine Interview With Mike Bitar: How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back for More

 An Interview With Orlando Zayas

As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Bitar, co-founder and VP of Retail for the Grupo Flor group of cannabis businesses. He has emerged as a leader in the cannabis industry through advocating for sound policy that strikes a balance between a thriving business environment and safe communities. Mike has worked closely with local policy makers to help guide the industry forward. In addition to the development of commercial cannabis real estate, he has provided assistance in drafting language for several of the local ordinances and is helping to ensure that Monterey County, CA, continues to be an agricultural leader in this newly emerging industry. Prior to entering real estate and cannabis, Mike owned and operated several restaurants, and continues his love of cooking today. His family emigrated from Jordan in 1952. Mike lives in Pacific Grove, CA, where he and his wife Ola raise their six children. Mike speaks English, Spanish, and Arabic.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?



Before I entered the cannabis space in 2014, I was a commercial real estate broker for a little over a decade. Prior to that, I managed our family’s fast food restaurants throughout Northern CA. When I entered the cannabis industry, my initial goal was to help cannabis cultivators find legal places to grow. In 2015, no one did that; it was very rare. The more I got involved, the more I discovered that cannabis regulations were in a very grey area, and not clearly defined in Monterey County. I saw an opportunity to advocate for clearer regulations, so I spoke with politicians to help create ordinances that made sense for the county and local businesses alike.


As I moved further into cannabis, I started meeting all of these salt-of-the-earth people. There’s something more powerful about this plant than just real estate. I’m conservative by nature and cannabis — known in Arabic as hashih — is not a very flattering word in my family’s language, but today they take the credit for my transformation into the industry.


I became particularly interested in opening cannabis retail stores after I entered a Prop. 215 shop for the first time at the end of 2014. Over the following few months, my partners and I visited a thousand locations across six states. To be frank, we felt intimidated and rushed when entering the majority of these establishments. As a person new to cannabis at the time, I felt judged for my ignorance on the product types and I was scared to ask a stupid question. I was afraid. I realized there are many people like me who are new to this and weren’t comfortable with the ‘headshop feeling’ in dispensaries at the time. That’s when I had an ‘Eureka’ moment and realized I wanted to lift up, to elevate, the experience of purchasing cannabis.


When we designed our first dispensary, I was thinking of my mom and grandmother. Could they walk in and feel comfortable here? That’s the problem I was working to solve. When you come into our locations, you see everybody there — your mom, your doctor, your neighbor. We’ve had 77,000 unique visitors since we opened East of Eden in Salinas in 2018, but there’s only 440,000 people in our county, total. It’s like Main Street now: one in four residents have visited us.



Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?



To be honest, I was naive and innocent when it came to cannabis. Coming from a conservative background, I definitely felt a stigma around it being a dangerous drug. In 2014, I thought that smoking cannabis meant smoking the leaves. I didn’t know there was a flower. You only see pictures of the leaves. I didn’t see a plant until the end of that year and I had wondered what all the hoopla was. I was very fortunate to really have a basis before I tried it, my friend Gavin — who is now my partner — would throw mixers and we would converse about cannabis. I’ve learned from friends, family, colleagues, and consumers about the benefits of cannabis.


At least once a week a customer will come into our dispensaries with a bag of prescription pills they’re on, saying, ‘How do I get off of this stuff for pain management?’ It feels like we are making the world a little bit better with every sale. A customer is leaving with pain relief, a better way of life that they can cope with. To relieve the pain or anxiety of the consumer, is in my eyes, priceless.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors and colleagues throughout my life. But what has really helped me is the core group of our company and its founders. We come from a diverse background, and we each bring something special to the table.

My brother, Omar, has been in the industry for 20 years and understands cannabis culture probably more than anybody. He keeps us ahead of the pulse when it comes to consumer and brand trends.
My business partner, Kaz, helped me connect with different politicians and government officials who helped us draft the ordinances and legislations in the cities that we operate.

Our COO and business partner, Darren, started his first cannabis retail store five years ago. We learned a lot from his successes and pitfalls in the industry. Thanks to his guidance, we were able to avoid common mistakes because he lived through them.

And my partner Gavin has really helped cultivate our company to be something special. Having a cannabis law background, he has helped us build a foundation and maintain a defined structure. My family and I always operated our own business without living in a corporate world, so Gavin’s insight has been invaluable.


Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?



For the last 15 years, I’ve read every book written on Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Bernard Arnault. I have a routine every day, either while working out or on my drives, to listen to one hour of stories of great individuals who started off as normal people, yet they were able to create something incredible.


Today, for example, I listened to a story about why Starbucks failed in Australia and why KFC failed three times in Israel and why they’re trying for a fourth time. Business is business except with cannabis — then it’s the culture, too. A lot of Wall Street guys think they can figure it out. At Grupo Flor, we started out with a lot of those kinds of executives and thought we should stack our team with them but, looking back, we were too premature in hiring those guys. It is about customer service, value, and a value add — so that’s what we focus on.


A value add for us is something we say in Arabic — it doesn’t have to be monetary, it can be a smile. Jordanians are known to be very hospitable people, it’s in our nature. When a consumer comes into our location, we want them to feel that it’s normal. We have a lot of first-timers. We have 50 people each day who have never been to a cannabis retailer before. To counter that, sometimes they visit other stores and are amazed at how forward-looking we are. A lot of our competitors have not evolved yet. We’re constantly innovating and raising the bar.


We are shaping and creating an industry not just through legislation and regulations and product development, but also the aesthetics of our retail establishments. We are here to make cannabis the new normal, when it’s been demonized for the better part of the last century.


What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?



I think what stands out is our people. I know it’s cliche, but anybody with the right amount of money can purchase a license. Anyone can buy a building or get a location. But the fabric of our DNA is the people and the leaders who are running the day-to-day operations in the stores.

A story that resonates with me occurred at Thanksgiving. We were open that day, since we’re open 365 days a year. We pay double time on holidays, so our employees make $32 an hour. At 6pm, we closed up the shop, brought food in for everyone and were eating together. I thanked an employee named Maggie for working that day and believing in our company, and she said, “No, thank you.”
At that moment I realized we were creating opportunities and careers, which was one of the main goals we had when we started Grupo Flor. Two years ago, before her time at East of Eden, Maggie was an agricultural worker cutting lettuce in the fields of Salinas. Now, due to her excellent leadership, she’s the General Manager of our store in Salinas.

Every time we go into a community, we post jobs at all the local places. We’ll go to the local restaurants and coffee houses and watch the customer service, looking for excellence. We’ll recruit baristas and servers. Maggie had heard about us from someone who was already working with us.

When we first sat down to start Grupo Flor, we had asked ourselves, ‘What’s important to us?’ Something that resonated with all of us, being Salinas boys, was that we haven’t seen any innovative jobs coming to the Salinas Valley. None of us had friends who worked at Google, Facebook, or Apple — which are just 45 miles away. They feel like they’re 10,000 miles away. Those jobs and opportunities are not given to our area and we wanted to build something that could create careers.

A lot of people aren’t given opportunities, but in this business we create opportunities to not just have a job, but have a career and do something you believe in. When you can create opportunity for someone, they will surprise you. That’s what is important to me.


Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?


Listen. Listen to your customers, listen to your coworkers, listen to your staff. If you are able to listen to and fulfill their needs, you’ll be successful and you’ll have less pushback. One key core of our business is listening and being proactive.

Also, very simple, three words: don’t give up. Because you are going to have sleepless nights or wake up at 3 o’clock in a cold sweat. When we started, there were still police raids on businesses — we have come a long way in seven years. But if there’s something you truly believe in, you have to keep going. You have no choice but to continue. We’re not afraid of putting in the hard work to achieve our dreams.


Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?



There’s a reason some retailers are thriving and others fall by the wayside. You’ve got to keep innovating and thinking ahead. Innovation kills complacency. I can give you countless examples — take Pizza Hut and Dominos. Dominos pivoted to a retail component that was very technology-based. They developed and adapted technologies within stores and externally, while Pizza Hut stayed the course that’s served it for decades, but which suddenly doesn’t work as well.


Providing an excellent customer experience is instrumental at each one of our locations. Today, a customer can order from the comfort of their home via delivery or visit one of our friendly establishments.


But why else should customers choose us? We have many things to offer. Our stores have the widest selection in the cannabis space. That doesn’t mean just different product types but, diversity within each subcategory. For example within edibles, we carry cookies, gummies, chocolates, brownies, and more. With flower, we carry 80–100 strains. The cannabis consumer is still evolving, so the consumer experience should always be evolving.


It’s all about having a facility that is welcoming and inviting and offers education, with a diversity in products that are relatable to consumer lifestyles.


Our employees range in age from 21 to people in their 60s and 70s. There’s a reason — we represent the neighborhoods that work in and we hire 100% from those communities. Because of this, we think of ourselves as more of a Trader Joe’s than a Target.


Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?


It comes to customer experience. Put customers first. Customers are ultimately never satisfied. You have to be constantly innovating and impressing. If you look at companies that succeed, they are rolling out new features to up one another.

The Best Buys and Targets of the world did this by innovating and coming up with out-of-the-box thinking. That’s what will separate you from the competitors. Competition is healthy and makes for better products and a better customer experience at the end of the day.


Retail is a cutthroat business. If you’re not trying to constantly innovate, you’re not going to make it.



What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?



They’re not involved day-to-day. In my opinion, a founder has to get his or her hands dirty. How can you understand the consumer when there is a barrier between you and the consumer? You have to be engaged with the customer to truly understand them. Only then can you make the right decisions for the business.


You can’t just hope an executive will do your job for you. A lot of the companies in this space initially thought they could just hire the talent. Some of the talent have impressive resumes, but the founder is always going to be hungrier than anyone you hire if they have the right passion.


At the end of the day, passion is everything. If you don’t have the passion, you won’t be able to withstand the downturns and the droughts of the industry. Passion keeps you going even when no one else in their right mind would continue.




This post was originally published by Authority Magazine via Medium, which you can read here.