Sespe Creek Collective is more than a dispensary; it’s a warm, welcoming cannabis-filled experience where the employees go above and beyond to bring customers the highest-quality products, the best care and most personal attention. This Ojai-based dispensary overcame near-impossible obstacles, from raid to business resurrection, to make their dreams come true, and it’s all thanks to CEO Chelsea Sutula.
“It’s not about pumping cannabis sales all day. We treat our employees well and that reflects with how customers feel when they walk in. We’re not here to sell them. We’re here to help them,” Chelsea says.
Dubbing it the “people’s plant medicine,” Chelsea loves cannabis. She believes in its true healing powers and loves the rich, unique weed history and the groundbreaking culture it birthed.
“It survives and thrives despite attempts to suppress and deny its gifts to us,” Chelsea beams. “THC and CBD and the other cannabinoids are so helpful for keeping the body balanced and in stasis.
The Montana-born marijuana enthusiast experienced her first pot puff in college. After graduating and moving to California , Chelsea’s love of weed kicked into high gear.
“I was actually really resistant to trying it. I didn’t have a favorable impression based on which of my peers in school were smoking it.” Chelsea shares. “…I finally relented. And yes, it was a magical experience for me. Here was a wallflower talking to strangers at a party and having a good time but without that sloppy drunk feeling. So my interest was first piqued in the mid-’90s and kicked into accelerator mode when I moved out to California in 2009.”
As a new resident of the Golden State, she became a regular weed consumer and a big fan of the industry’s delivery services. In a fortuitous twist of fate, Chelsea was looking to leave her current job and earned a spot with a local cannabis delivery company. Within two years, she was running the entire operation with the original founders eventually leaving the company. When a storefront opportunity opened up in Ojai, Chelsea’s dreams of opening her own dispensary became a reality.
We chatted with the passionate pot business owner to learn more about Sespe Creek Collective.
Where did the idea to start your own cannabis store originate?
I happened to get a delivery from the owner of a startup service in Ventura while I was exploring new ventures. I was sick of my job in Thousand Oaks and needed a change. I knew I was meant to start something on my own or be involved at the ground level of something that was meaningful for me and impactful. The timing was right; they needed help and I was well qualified. Within two years, I was running the whole operation and the founders had left. Ventura County had been long opposed to any storefronts, and I was content to be a delivery service until the opportunity opened up in Ojai.
Why a dispensary?
I started visualizing what a dispensary could be for a community, beyond just a brick-and-mortar place where products are displayed for sale. Before cannabis, I was steeped in design, so that really influenced my motivation. I wanted to design a better dispensary.
Do you grow your own product?
I learned early on that, as much as I love gardening, I didn’t have the skills or patience to be a cultivator. In Sespe’s earlier days, after some initial success with a phenomenal Blueberry Master Kush (before I joined the collective), we tried and failed to cultivate many times. We had so many obstacles with cultivation. If the neighbors weren’t complaining about the odor, we were dealing with bugs, powdery mildew, theft… it was just too much. We were losing so much money trying to grow our own. So I pulled the plug and we decided to build solid partnerships with expert cultivators and focus on the delivery service. I never regretted that decision. We did attempt a few in-store products with some success. My former webmistress (female web designer) was a mad scientist in the kitchen and made some really tasty tinctures for a brief period. We also developed a whole suppository brand called Tush Kush—that was the best. RIP Tush Kush.
Once you knew you wanted to open a retail space, what were the next steps?
Finding real estate in the approved zone was the first challenge. I signed a lease in anticipation of regulations and ended up terminating early and losing several thousand dollars because the zone was slightly altered in the final language of the regulations. Luckily, I ended up getting a much better space.
Finding the right investors was the biggest challenge. That was an exercise in listening to my gut and not settling for a really bad deal. Actually applying for the license was fairly straightforward to me. I had been involved in the regulatory process from the beginning, and because I knew what they were looking for, it was easy for me to show them that my business was a good fit for the city.
Once I locked in the funding and had conditional approval from the city, I kicked into general contractor mode, which is really fun. We ripped out walls, redid floors, painted murals and installed reclaimed countertops. While the contractors did their work, I’d be in the back office designing the new menu, working on the website and figuring out staffing needs.
I read that less than a week before the election to legalize cannabis in California (in November 2016), your shop was raided. What did that experience teach you?
Wow, so many lessons from that experience. It’s not really over. They still have all the inventory they took. Personal belongings, computers and files just came back about a month ago so I’m going through all of that now. We were only a delivery service at the time, since dispensaries were banned everywhere in the county. We operated in a nondescript industrial park.
I learned I was resilient and stronger than I ever knew. I took deep solace in yoga and being with my animals. But the community came out to support me in such huge ways, which further fueled my determination to bring safe access to Ventura County.
I’m sure it revealed a lot about the surrounding community as well.
I hate to say it showed the true nature of law enforcement in our county. They were determined to undermine the industry from the beginning—no matter how open, transparent, honest and forthcoming I was. I was naive to think we could work together. I secured a face-to-face meeting with the county sheriff in his office just prior to this action. When we’d ask if he would ever come to the table and discuss meaningful regulations with county staff and community stakeholders, he kept repeating, “Let’s wait and see what happens in November.” November 2, he sent a full SWAT team to pull a bunch of office workers and drivers off their jobs, medical patients scrambling to find what they needed elsewhere. There’s no goodwill for the community in that kind of decision. They came after me based on a tip from an unnamed informant, so I also learned the value of keeping good records!
So what was next for Sespe after the raid?
So after the raid, I kept in touch with the employees in good standing over the following months and rehired them as soon as I could. I was very grateful they wanted to carry on with me despite the traumatic setback. We had to sell or store everything the cops didn’t take so we could end our lease in Oxnard. I had to open new bank accounts since the police had frozen them. I had to borrow about $70,000 to pay for lawyers, rent and food, and I had to negotiate some debts with a few dozen vendors. Everyone went to find temp work while I sought out investors to fund a build-out in Ojai.
Did you experience any other unexpected obstacles or, better yet, unsuspecting victories?
Shortly after this raid, our city of Ojai passed an emergency ordinance to expedite the process of regulating storefront dispensaries. The city really came out in a big way for us. One woman I met at a city council meeting happened to be a patient of ours. She spoke on our behalf in front of Ojai’s city council to advocate for dispensaries in the city. I really developed a deeper sense of faith in community during this time. Since my family doesn’t live close by, I really relied on them—and they didn’t disappoint.
The biggest obstacle was finding the right investors. There were some vultures circling, and I felt vulnerable given the pending charges (which the DA eventually dropped on May 31, 2018). I had to test the waters with a few different people before feeling comfortable signing papers with anyone.
When did you open your doors to the public?
We opened almost exactly one year after the raid on Nov 2, 2017, the first to open in Ventura County. In retrospect, I should have waited until the store was more stocked, but I was so anxious to open and operate for our community. We were medical-only until August 2018, which was challenging. A lot of people didn’t want to deal with getting medical recommendations and were happy to wait until we were approved for adult use. We were really well-received, though;. we’ve won “Best Dispensary” two years in a row now hoping for a third!
What cannabis products do you offer?
We carry a wide selection across product categories and just opened a whole new side room for accessories. We were one of the first places in southern California to carry a regular supply of CBD flower and ingestible or vape. At one point, back under Prop 215/SB420, we were even selling fresh raw leaves for juicing.
Do you work with local growers and farmers to cultivate your unique offerings?
It’s always been important to carry a good selection of products that are as healthy, sustainably grown and packaged and consumer-friendly as possible. We are only able to work with growers outside the county at the moment since cultivation is still banned just about everywhere in Ventura County.
What sets Sespe Creek apart from other dispensaries?
As a delivery service, we gained a strong following because of our consistent and professional service. We also lab-tested all our products before it was required. Our phonetenders and budtenders were hired based on their passion for the plant and for helping others find what works for them. And I think being woman-owned and -operated has set a different tone for the standard of service and environment. The comment we hear over and over in the dispensary is, “Wow, this looks nothing like any other dispensary I’ve been in!”
Has your business been greatly impacted by COVID-19 closures?
Luckily, business has been steady, but we did have to reduce hours for a while when we were so short-staffed. We saw a surge in demand back in March, but it’s really back to normal now, if not a bit dampened due to fewer tourists. I love my team because they have adapted so well. At one point, they were all hustling in rain or high heat to bring orders out for curbside pickup since we had closed our showroom for a few weeks.
How have you adapted to the “new normal”?
In some ways, this was a cleansing process like the raid was. A lot of staff jumped ship for various reasons. So it’s been rebuilding a team and reconfiguring our operations to make everything work. We added a second Prius to the delivery fleet and expanded our delivery routes. We’ve rearranged our front office to function as a pickup order hub.
What has opening your own business taught you about yourself?
I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was seven, selling tickets to “performances” and offering to do chores for neighbors. In my early twenties, I had a successful dog-walking business. So I know that drive is in me. This time around, the lesson has been on how to manage teams most effectively, how to avoid burnout and how to use my voice and perspective to advocate for change.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to open their own dispensary market?
It’s really not for the faint of heart. If you don’t have a serious passion for cannabis beyond getting high, and if you aren’t prepared to suffer setbacks and disappointments at every turn, try something less complicated. If your primary goal is to get rich, you will be disappointed. Just ask the cops who dug up my back yard looking for buried piles of cash!
What’s next for you and Sespe Creek?
Sespe has a local presence and I have been reluctant to apply for licenses anywhere else. The process of applying for licenses in cities that have never done it before can be frustrating and expensive. I never saw myself wanting to have a cannabis empire. I considered getting a microbusiness license, which would allow us to make our own infused edibles and topicals, but the constraints on what we could do in the space were not in our favor. I don’t have that manufacturing expertise so it’s on the shelf for right now. We are really focused on always improving our core service through education, so more classes and workshops are hopefully coming when COVID subsides. I think our delivery offering will continue to expand. And of course we will continue to advocate for pot-lifers who are behind bars for nonviolent cannabis offenses. I’m trying to enjoy the present and not take anything for granted!
Follow Chelsea and shop all of her amazing cannabis and CBD products at Sespe Creek Collective.
Sespe Creek Collective
Website – sespe.org
Instagram – instagram.com/originalsespe