The cannabis craze is in full bloom, and some Chicago bar and restaurant owners are experimenting with its non-trippy cousin to capitalize on the buzz, as it were.
At Young American bar in Logan Square, for instance, you can add CBD (cannabidiol), the non-psychotropic relative of weed, to a drink of pineapple shrub, orange blossom water and lemon tonic. And that's just the start.
Derived from hemp, CBD, which some claim helps relieve pain and anxiety, has exploded in popularity since 2018, with consumers increasingly seeking natural products that tout health and wellness benefits.
Illinois' decision to legalize recreational marijuana will help both CBD and pot, experts say. With everyday people exposed to CBD in things from cocktails to cookies, it will help destigmatize the hemp plant, along with cannabis in general.
While the restaurant and bar industries have faced tough times with rising rent and food costs in conjunction with a tight labor market, now they must also contend with customers potentially opting to smoke-and-chill at home rather than head to the corner bar. Not only is legalization expected to affect the retail and food industry here, but it's unclear how people broadly consume cannabis, food and alcohol. While change can be threatening, some are embracing cannabis and CBD and offering an inclusive space no matter your vice.
“It's easy to paint (cannabis versus alcohol) as an us-against-them,” says Wade McElroy, co-owner of Young American. “We want to embrace cannabis legalization.”
McElroy and co-owner Jeff Donahue opened the bar in early 2019 as a test concept to see if Chicagoans would go for things like CBD-infused nonalcoholic cocktails. He says they've attracted a new clientele who want the bar experience without the hangover.
“We were mindful of changing drinking culture, and we knew people were open to going to bars and not drinking,” Donahue says. The explosion in CBD popularity and success of the cocktails led the owners to expand the offering to their other bars, including popular Estero, Sportsman's Club and Ludlow Liquors, starting in the first quarter of 2020.
According to Virginia Lee, a CBD researcher at market intelligence firm Brightfield Group, it's probably a good bet. The firm estimates that packaged sales of CBD drinks totaled $143 million in 2019. That's expected to more than double in 2020 to $334 million and reach $1.5 billion in 2025.
Lee compared CBD's fast growth to kombucha, another natural product revitalized by millennials opting for anything perceived as holistic and healthy.
“Americans have a huge thirst for functional beverages, and CBD-infused drinks tie into that health and wellness trend,” says Lee. “Drinks are an easy format for newcomers to CBD to try it out and at an affordable price point.”
The rush to attract inquisitive consumers has begun with players big and small. At Protein Bar & Kitchen, you can add CBD oil to any shake or coffee to pair with your chicken and quinoa.
Kuma's Corner, known for its metal-themed burgers and interiors, is offering CBD cocktails served in glass bongs. Marz Community Brewing in Bridgeport offers cans of CBD-infused sparkling water, cola and coffee.
“When we saw CBD beverages in other states, we thought, ‘Why not do that ourselves?' ” Marz co-founder and President Ed Marszewski says. “It was natural for us because the market is changing. Younger demographics are choosing spirit-free and nonalcoholic products.”
It wasn't without its challenges. Sourcing high-quality CBD was difficult, and consistency with an unknown product forced multiple iterations that the Marz team experimented with for about a year.
The central challenge to the market is the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. The government regulator bars the growth of any hemp plant that contains more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis.
There is also general confusion about what can and cannot be sold or what types of branding and claims sellers can make. CBD's health claims have not yet been proved in definitive studies, except as an anti-seizure remedy. Experts are doubtful that clear and concise regulations will appear in the near term, with CBD providers mired in a bureaucratic quagmire.
But that isn't stopping people from pushing CBD to its legal limit. In cities such as Los Angeles and New York, where CBD and cannabis have had a head start, restaurants serve items like ice cream sundaes with caramel CBD sauce and tater tots with a CBD condiment pairing of ketchup and sriracha mayonnaise.
Chicago chefs and bartenders are likely to add their own spin in the coming months and years.
CBD malort cocktail, anyone?