Using Marijuana Stores to Market Food

Andrew Adam Newman|The New York Times

After Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in March that he would end the Bush administration practice of frequently raiding medical marijuana dispensaries, the dispensaries have been growing, appropriately enough, like weeds.

Among the 14 states with medical marijuana laws, Colorado has experienced particularly brisk growth in the stores. From fewer than two dozen dispensaries in the state in January, there are now more than 60 just in Denver and nearby Boulder, and more than 10,000 registered medical marijuana patients statewide, according to reports in Westword, a Denver alternative weekly.

Hapa Sushi

When Westword announced recently that it would hire a registered patient to write reviews of the dispensaries (for a column called “Mile Highs and Lows”), it received 400 applications, according to Patricia Calhoun, its editor. And dispensary owners — called ganjapreneurs in a recent headline in the weekly — are placing ads, accounting for nearly seven pages of advertising in a recent 92-page issue.

Now a business that has nothing to do with cannabis is aiming its ads at medical marijuana patients. A new print ad — by TDA Advertising and Design of Boulder — for Hapa Sushi, a restaurant chain based in Boulder, features a map of Denver and Boulder with 63 dots. Four dots are red, representing the four Hapa locations, and the remaining 59 are blue, representing medical marijuana dispensaries, some of which, it turns out, are just a stone’s throw from the restaurants. The ad was to appear Thursday in the Denver/Boulder edition of The Onion and in Westword later in the month.

“We’re just kind of saying, ‘Look, these dispensaries exist and they’re becoming part of our community, so let’s welcome them in and have some fun,’ ” said Mark Van Grack, owner of Hapa Sushi, a privately held, 10-year-old chain. “If you’re going to smoke pot, you’re going to get the munchies, so come to Hapa to eat.”

As in most Hapa advertising over the years, something is conspicuously absent from these ads: food.

“Most restaurants show food, but then you’re just one of a hundred,” Mr. Van Grack said. “We think that our clientele appreciates smart ads that grab their attention. By creating ads that people want to talk about, that are creative and maybe controversial, then at least they are talking about our ads and Hapa is top of mind.”

Jonathan Schoenberg, the creative director at TDA, said of the Hapa ads, “We try to keep these guys in a culturally significant place.”

In 2007, when Barry Bonds hit his 755th home run to tie Hank Aaron’s record (which Bonds soon broke), the agency created a Hapa print ad that alluded to allegations of steroid use by Bonds.

“Congratulations Hank Aaron on 755 home runs,” the ad declared. Smaller print below added, “Organic beef and chicken, no added steroids.” An Associated Press wire story about the ad was reprinted in publications throughout the country, and some readers were not amused.

“I had some guy from San Francisco call me every day for a week because he was offended by the ad,” said Mr. Schoenberg. “But he lived in San Francisco, so we didn’t care.”

Mr. Van Grack, Hapa’s owner, recently came up with a marketing stunt on his own, with no help from his agency.

Last month, Boulder’s police chief, Mark Beckner, announced a crackdown on a 10-year-old tradition, the Naked Pumpkin Run, in which as many as 100 runners wearing only footwear and pumpkins over their heads streak through the city. The chief said participants would be arrested and charged as sex offenders, a threat that had teeth because a dozen runners were arrested last year.

In response, Mr. Van Grack had about 100 pairs of orange briefs and thongs printed with the Hapa logo and the words “Run Responsibly.” Restaurant representatives stationed along the streaking route on Halloween night planned to distribute them.

Only three runners took part, however, and they had already heeded the police and wore skimpy bottoms.

But while the runners were not exposed, the restaurant got plenty of exposure. The Wall Street Journal mentioned Hapa Sushi in a front-page article about the Naked Pumpkin Run hubbub. The restaurant also was named on Web sites including The Huffington Post, not to mention local television and print coverage.

“We salute Hapa owner Mark Van Grack, who clearly knows when to serve things raw — and when to take cover,” Ms. Calhoun, the newspaper editor, wrote in a blog post on