Embarc: Curating the Cannabis Dispensary Experience

Embarc’s founders have cultivated success by creating atmospheres and product selections that are in step with local communities.

Embarc dispensary interior tahoe
Photos: Embarc Dispensary

If there were one place in the United States operators might have wanted to open a design-forward dispensary meant to attract the canna-curious at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, that place probably would have been South Lake Tahoe, California. The breathtaking ski resort and outdoors mecca became a popular beachhead for affluent young tech workers leaving San Francisco and the greater Bay Area in droves, taking with them their work-induced anxiety, insomnia, and the boredom of being locked at home with no end in sight.

Embarc co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Lauren Carpenter moved to the area in March 2020 to open the brand’s first store at the foot of Heavenly Mountain, site of a popular ski resort. Little did she know the world was about to undergo a radical transformation. By the time the store opened in June, this once-sleepy community was packed with a whole new class of people, many of whom were open to experimenting with cannabis for the first time.


“Many people were escaping stressful urban environments to experience the outdoors,” said Carpenter. “We were seeing this mythical canna-curious customer finally coming out of the woodwork, and the daily users were consuming more.”

Embarc dispensary interior tahoe store interior

Carpenter previously held key government-facing positions with MedMen and served as a strategy officer at dispensary chain Sweet Flower. Embarc was her first solo venture, and despite the period being an unquestionably challenging time to start an entrepreneurial endeavor, there was an “idyllic quality to it,” she explained. “Everyone in Tahoe was embracing [the new normal]. There was a lot of optimism, and that definitely helped our customers and our staff, who immediately bonded and supported one another so much.”

Focused on bringing beautiful, customer-service-oriented stores to cannabis-cautious and less-explored communities—like Tahoe, Tracy, and Fresno—Carpenter considers Embarc a “bridge” for people to connect with products and brands in a way that feels tailored to their specific needs. “Embarc is intended to be about meeting people where they are and embarking on a journey,” she said.

Embarc dispensary interior tahoe store interior

The Tahoe store created somewhat of a design framework for subsequent stores to follow: simple, classy design with an unwavering focus on the customer journey and a strong emphasis on being “friendly, approachable, and thoughtful.”

Carpenter and her co-founder and longtime collaborator Christy Wilson tapped the owners of boutique San Francisco store The Perish Trust as well as Martin Olive, founder of San Francisco dispensary The Vapor Room, to help bring to life their vision of encouraging a community to embrace cannabis wellness.

Embarc-Tahoe merchandise display “We wanted to create a bodega-style shopping experience that was hyper-experiential and involved a basket and a guide to help you shop,” Carpenter explained. “This was something The Vapor Room had pioneered, so we wanted to get Martin’s help on executing that correctly.”

She considers the combination of an open floor plan and basket-in-hand shopping experience to be key for destigmatizing the act of buying weed. “Most dispensaries then had you walk into what is essentially a vault and order at a counter. This dynamic generally contributed to a feeling that you were doing something wrong,” she said. “We wanted to flip that on its head. This is a wellness product and an experiential moment, and we want you to come in and feel comfortable.”

The first step was dramatically reimagining the design of an existing 2,000-square-foot building and transforming its less-than-inspiring cinder-block façade into something more approachable. The aesthetic embraced by the previous tenant, a smoke shop, was hardly in alignment with the affluent, health-conscious locals. The design team’s decision to wrap the building in sustainable stained pine and light the shop floor in an alluring golden hue helped Embarc both stand out and fit in with the community.

Staff members check consumers’ IDs in a small vestibule right inside the front door. To the left is a waiting area with wide, open windows that frame the majestic Alpine mountain range that defines the California-Nevada border. A rustic propane stove sits in the middle of the room, and the company uses the space to conduct casual consultations with new customers or those looking to connect with budtenders, who are called “guides” at Embarc.

Embarc dispensary interior tahoe

The retailer places brands at the heart of the experience, arranging a tightly curated menu of products into an assortment of interactive shelves and islands. Customers are encouraged to explore every display. “We have really strived not to over-engineer the shopping experience,” said Carpenter. “It’s about allowing for exploration and sitting back to let the brands shine.”

Wood is the dominant interior material, with lean vertical slats lending the small space more visual height. A classy back-and-forth interplay between bright, organic wood and charcoal-black walls creates a measured, calming contrast. Above the shelves, phrases like “Puff, Puff, Pass” highlight the flower section and “Lake & Bake” indicates the beverage fridge, offering early glimpses of the playful personality and tone that shine through in later iterations of Embarc’s brand.

The point-of-sale stations at the back of the store are shaped like the adjacent mountain, though Carpenter admits this subtle detail might elude casual observers. “I don’t know if anyone has ever noticed it,” she said.

Embarc dispensary interior tahoe cannabis flower packaging

Embarc currently operates six stores, but Carpenter expects that count to double over the coming twelve months. All the new stores will be in less-explored California markets that sometimes are skittish about allowing cannabis businesses at all. Fresno—California’s fifth-most-populous city and long a licensing holdout—awarded one of only two fiercely competitive licenses to the fledgling brand, for example.

Bigger players around the country are taking note of Embarc’s success in such difficult markets. Carpenter said parties in eastern states have expressed interest in importing the brand, but she is hesitant to deviate from her West Coast plan. “As we’ve grown and people are taking interest in us, it’s been challenging not to get distracted by the shiny objects,” she said. “The East Coast has been calling and, while that’s appealing, California is the fourth-largest economy in the world, and half the state doesn’t even allow cannabis retail yet. There’s still tremendous opportunity here, and we’re focused on continuing to deliver the kind of experiences that break down stigma and introduce cannabis to these new communities.”

Photography by Brian Walker