How THC’s spa-like persona is helping transform Illinois’ cannabis market

The large LED screens lining the walls of The Herbal Care Center's (THC) dispensary’s showroom in downtown Chicago signal the options customers have to choose from in the city's cannabis shop. When Illinois became the 11th state to legalize and regulate adult-use cannabis last December, THC was one of the retail shops that opened its arms up to the waiting public.
Boasting the state's largest cannabis product inventory, THC's state-of-the-art facility promises patrons a clean, safe environment for their product selection. Led by GM Michael Mandera, the THC Patient Care Specialists are well versed in providing the knowledge needed to assist with questions about product, medical purposes, etc.
We sat down with Mandera, GM of The Herbal Care Center, to get his take on where the cannabis market is heading and how THC is carving its niche.
Give us a snapshot of your brand.
The Herbal Care Center (THC) is a licensed dual operator dispensary serving both medical and recreational customers near downtown Chicago. THC offers the most cannabis products under one roof in Illinois. Our commitment to providing world-class customer service has made us Chicago’s top-rated dispensary. We are proudly veteran owned and continue to hire from the local community.
What type of consumers are you targeting?
THC targets anybody 21 or over looking for a cleaner, safer alternative form of relief through cannabis. We tend to serve people interested in combating their daily stress, sleep problems or pain relief, to name a few. Being veteran owned and our close proximity to the Veteran Affairs (VA), we serve a large number of veterans as well. Our commitment to service will never change.
How does the overall design of your shop cater to what today's consumers are looking for?
Our state-of-the-art facility promises a clean, safe environment. You feel like you are at a spa or wellness center, rather than a cannabis dispensary. Our goal is to make sure our customers leave feeling comfortable with their experience purchasing cannabis. THC is Illinois’ largest dispensary servicing medical patients. Carrying the state’s largest inventory, there is something for everyone here.
What kind of adjustments have you made to today’s shopping landscape?
We have continued to adapt throughout these unforeseen times by taking safety measures such as installing plexiglass at each POS station, social distance stickers throughout the building, a temperature scanner before entering our showroom, routine wipe downs of surfaces, and masks and gloves for employees. Our commitment to health and safety will always be our priority.

With how rapidly this industry is evolving, opportunities will continue to present themselves. A good opportunity for us once COVID settles down is a classroom-style education session with our customers.

Was your operation deemed essential during the lockdown? How does that help the category's standing in the marketplace?
We were fortunate enough to be deemed an essential business for both medical and recreational sales. Being one of the few essential businesses has shined a light on the cannabis industry and garnered curiosity among people. Cannabis has become a staple commodity in people’s lives.
What type of areas do you look for when seeking store locations?
We look for properties that have ample enough space to safely service our customers, parking and curbside access for rideshare, and areas with a high volume of foot or car traffic. Our goal is to work in a neighborhood that is open to welcoming a cannabis dispensary, and in return reinvesting that support back into the community.
What’s your short-term strategy? Long-term?
Our short-term strategy is to continue to build our base of loyal medical patients, while transitioning to the opening of our second location, which will be recreational customers only. A medical patient benefits from not paying the high tax percentage on recreational customers, priority in line, and access to all products we offer. Our long-term strategy is to develop into a lifestyle brand that people can rely on. Our hope is to one day get involved on the growth side of the business as well.
What advice can offer other brands on what’s happening right now in the marketplace?
The cannabis marketplace has been one that has steadily increased throughout the pandemic. Like any business, you have to stay grounded and be prepared for the financial highs and lows. You never know when demand may shift. Our goal is to stay consistent with our operation and continue to provide world-class customer service.
What makes your location engaging to today's cannabis customer?
The space we have allows our staff to have a genuine dialogue with our customers and find out exactly what they’re looking for. Nobody is rushed in and out without proper consultation. The spa-like atmosphere creates a comfortable experience purchasing cannabis. Our menus are all on digital menu boards, iPads, and standalone kiosks for ordering and more privacy, and online pre-ordering for our guests.

Everyone has their own goals or objectives when walking in, but they still want some relief from any barriers that might be holding them back from getting there.

Walk us through the design?
Our shop was originally chosen because of its size and capacity. This has served us well during the pandemic because it has allowed us to keep our operations primarily the same. Upon walking in, you're welcomed by a spacious and attractive lobby with two separate lines for medical and recreational. We continue these separate lines in the showroom. This helps the staff identify our two customer bases so we can prioritize our medical patients.
Talk about sustainability. What are you doing?
Sustainability is something that is obviously very important to us. I think a key way that we sustain our relevance is by continuing to give people a reason to come here. Whether it's our weekly specials, constantly updated menus or our world-class service, we go the extra mile to make each and every person’s visit pleasant and different from what they would get elsewhere. We truly try to make it an experience, opposed to being just another shop.
What type of opportunities do you see moving ahead?
With how rapidly this industry is evolving, opportunities will continue to present themselves. A good opportunity for us once COVID settles down is a classroom-style education session with our customers. This is something we hope to do because we feel that helping educate the consumer will in return help our business. A better educated customer will know more about our products and feel more comfortable trying things they once never looked at.
What trends are you seeing/expecting?
With the pandemic and everything going on, we’ve definitely seen an increase in first-time users. Working from home has given people the opportunity to take on new hobbies and interests, one of which being cannabis. We expect the curiosity around this industry to continue to grow. As consumer knowledge and awareness grows, we see there being an increase in demand for products such as capsules, topicals and oils.
What’s the secret to creating a "must visit" location in today's competitive landscape?
I don’t know if there’s necessarily a secret or set formula, rather having something that is attractive and approachable is one of the first steps toward creating a “must visit” location. Our big storefront on the busy corner of Western and Ogden definitely catches some eyes driving by. Once entering our building, you receive a warm welcome by our lobby and staff, and even more so in the showroom. Besides the physical space, creating an experience that is effortless for the customer from start to finish is key. We try to create an atmosphere that is fun, but professional, which makes everyone comfortable. Doing this contributes to an experience that you remember and appreciate.
What’s today's consumer looking for?
Relief and convenience. No matter what the issue might be, the consumer wants some type of relief to help handle it. Everyone has their own goals or objectives when walking in, but they still want some relief from any barriers that might be holding them back from getting there. They want a convenient process for this and maybe even the product to be convenient for their lifestyle and usage.
Tell us what makes your brand so unique?
The experience we provide. We go out of our way to help ensure our customers are happy and taken care of. We try to make our customers feel like they’re part of something special here at THC. I think this helps separate us from what their experiences might be elsewhere. Along with this, we give our customers the largest variety of products to choose from. Paired with professionalism and world-class service, you get a unique brand and destination.
Story by Michael J. Pallerino, editor of Commercial Construction & Renovation magazine. Over the past 30-plus years, he has won numerous awards, including the "Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award," recognized as the Pulitzer Prize for business-to-business magazines. He can be reached at

One-on-One with...
Michael Mandera, GM, The Herbal Care Center

Describe a typical day.
No day is ever the same in the cannabis industry. Every day presents a new customer, new products, new challenges of getting customers through the door. Every week for me consists of keeping an eye on our various financials, managing the flow on our sales floor, ensuring our staff provides a world-class customer service experience, and making sure my staff and managers are supported in any way possible. In addition, the Illinois market is heavily regulated, so making sure we are compliant is key to continued success.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part is sharing my knowledge of the amazing cannabis plant and seeing first-hand the relief it brings people. It has truly changed people’s lives and brought them relief they never thought was possible. Also, that I am blessed to work every day with my family and amazing staff.
What was the best advice you ever received?
My father continues to tell me, “There are three types of people in this world, those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who ask, ‘What happened?’” Stay humble and grounded with your success. We continue to try and make it happen for our customers and staff each and every day.
What's the best thing a client ever said to you?
It is humbling to hear when customers say we are the best dispensary they have been to. When customers feel comfortable shopping with us, we feel we are contributing to removing the stigma behind consuming cannabis. THC wants to create an experience rather than just a transaction.
How do you like to spend your down time?
I enjoy working out, watching my favorite sports teams, and getting together with family on Sundays.

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