The Next-Gen Weed Cafe Making Cannabis Cuisine Classy
Meet Andrea Drummer, the chef of the country’s first-ever legal cannabis restaurant.
At first blush, Lowell Cafe looks like any other trendy West Hollywood restaurant. It has the aspirational California aesthetic down pat: exposed brick walls and neon signs; a verdant living plant wall and a lush thicket of ferns; gnarled olives trees imported from Italy in the sprawling patio. But focus in, and Lowell Cafe starts to look a little different. Industrial-sized air purifiers line the courtyard. Curls of hazy smoke peep out from the dining room. Oh, and the guy sitting next to you is taking huge bong rips.
Lowell Cafe is the first business in the country to be granted a fully legal cannabis-consumption license. This means guests can openly smoke pot and eat infused edibles while snacking on vegan nachos and sticky tamarind wings. Its opening represents the culmination of three-and-a-half years of legal hoop-jumping and bureaucratic negotiating. It is accurate, if slightly hyperbolic, to describe its debut as historic.
Recreational marijuana is already legal in 11 states (medical marijuana in 33), and the cannabis industry is projected to reach $40.6 billion by 2024, up from $3.4 billion in 2014. So there’s a lot of buzz surrounding Lowell Cafe, which represents the first of what many potential legal cannabis cafes and lounges around the country could look like. Industry stakeholders and state regulators are betting on its success: the city of West Hollywood has already granted consumption licenses to 15 more businesses slated to open in the next few years.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Lowell Farms, a Santa Barbara-based cannabis company known for its stylish branding. They teamed up with hospitality vets from the TAO Group, and brought in Andrea Drummer, a former Ritz Carlton chef who is considered something of a pioneer in the world of cannabis cuisine, as chef and partner.
Guests at Lowell Cafe order food and drinks from one menu, and pre-rolled joints, loose marijuana flower, edibles, and cannabis concentrates from another. Bongs and glass pipes are available for rent. Due to California law, cannabis and alcohol are prohibited from being sold at the same venue, so all drinks are nonalcoholic, though some of them contain cannabis. Nothing on the food menu is infused, and guests can’t take home any leftover cannabis. The idea is to enjoy imbibing before and during your meal, as you would with a glass of wine.
That last point is particularly important to Drummer. The soft-spoken 47-year-old wants to destigmatize cannabis consumption in the U.S. “There’s no better way to normalize [cannabis] than by combining it with something we do every day: eat,” Drummer says. “It’s two communal experiences at once.”
She hopes that Lowell Cafe and other operations like it will help change both the cultural perception of cannabis and the legal status quo. Despite more states legalizing, cannabis arrests are rising, and according to the ACLU, black users are nearly four times more likely to be arrested than white, despite roughly equal usage.
Lowell Farms is attempting to counter some of that disparity by offering a Social Equity and Reparative Justice Program, which gives employment priority to recently pardoned nonviolent cannabis offenders reentering society. Drummer is outspoken on this point. “Why is it that I get to earn a living by doing something that’s normal, while other people are doing life in prison?” she asks.
Drummer didn’t always feel this way. The title of her 2017 cookbook Cannabis Cuisine: Bud Pairings of a Born Again Chef alludes to her previous career as an anti-drug advocate working with homeless youth in New York. “A lot of our messaging was ‘just say no,’” she says. It was an extension of her religious upbringing in South Florida. “I remember listening to Nancy Reagan in junior high, signing contracts saying I wouldn’t try drugs,” she says. “I thought cannabis was equivalent to heroin.”
That began to change in 2007, when Drummer moved to California and enrolled in culinary school. While she loved the work, cooking exacerbated her sciatica, which radiated intense pain through her back. Cannabis was introduced to her as an alternative to opioid-based pain medication, and she found it provided her with significant relief. She was intrigued by how the body metabolizes cannabis when it’s ingested in food or tincture form and wanted to combine her interest in cooking with cannabis. “But I quickly learned that even in a state where it’s legal, I could be terminated and lose my livelihood as a chef,” she says.
So she spent a few years working in traditional kitchens around Los Angeles, including the Ritz Carlton and Patina. In 2012, she launched her own company, Elevation VIP Cooperative, which produced pop-ups and private dinners featuring high-end cannabis-infused food. “I wanted to educate people about cannabis and edibles, because it was still relatively scary,” Drummer says. “For most people who had consumed edibles, their experience was not fun. What I was bringing to the table—literally and figuratively—was a challenge for people to trust,” she says.
Elevation VIP quickly took off, and Drummer gained several celebrity clients; Chelsea Handler was an early supporter. Soon, she was being booked for speaking engagements across the country and executive-producing a cannabis-themed dinner series for Spotify.
Lowell Farms started sponsoring Drummer’s events in 2016, and approached her about partnering in the restaurant shortly thereafter. “I was like, great! Someone as crazy as me, let’s do it,” she says. State regulations currently prohibit her from making and serving cannabis-infused food on-site, a restriction she hopes will eventually be lifted. In the meantime, she’s working on matching food items with specific strains from the cannabis menu, like a wine pairing. “I’m taking into consideration the flavor profiles and terpenes of whatever bud is being used,” she says. The kitchen staff has weekly tastings of different marijuana flowers to inform their decisions.
The food itself is pretty straightforward comfort-food fare. There is one all-day menu that’s heavy on stoner-food stalwarts like burgers and mac-and-cheese bites, though there are several salads and, of course, an avocado toast. Drummer admits that it’s not the most challenging menu, saying that the team wanted to put forth offerings that “enhance the cannabis experience,” at least for now. She’s working on developing brunch and dinner menus, and plans to change the menu seasonally.
As for the experience of eating at Lowell Cafe, there are still edges to be smoothed. The room is handsome and the mood is less gimmicky than you might expect, but when I visited, service was frazzled, with one “flower host” forgetting items our group had ordered and running out of simple supplies like matches. “Sorry, we have to sell lighters for $2 now. We used to give them to all tables but people just started pocketing them,” she said.
These are fixable issues, not that anyone seemed too upset. The couple next to us reclined in blissed-out fashion with a bowl of guacamole and a bong. My table, buzzed off a shared joint, dug in to an enormous slab of Fruity Pebble-coated bread pudding. The whole room had a subdued-yet-giddy energy, a “can you believe we’re doing this and getting away with it?” vibe.
Drummer is aware that there is still polishing to be done, but after three-and-a-half years in legal limbo, she’s just happy, and slightly overwhelmed, to finally be up and running. She is also acutely aware of the increased visibility she’s subject to as the chef of the country’s first legal cannabis restaurant.
“It’s a huge deal,” she says. “While I’ve done the work, there is something to be said about the privilege I have in it, when others are incarcerated for the same things I get to do on the daily. I want to live to see that change, and be a part of that change.” She shakes her head. “To see me doing this, when I was against cannabis for so long, to be teaching people, and doing it at this level of success, it’s just so surreal.”