For commercial realtor and cannabis CEO Jeff Similien, it’s about location, location, and community
The last time I met up with Jeff Similien, it was for a real estate story. Not your average boring business article, but rather one about a young entrepreneur making a real difference in his backyard without hype.
Specifically, Similien was working to retain local creative talent around Mattapan Square, providing space and opportunities for businesses like restaurants and a bodywork studio. That grind continues up and down the Red Line and into Roxbury and beyond, but through it all the Boston-bred commercial realtor has also been seeding a project in which he will be the owner, occupant, and operator.
Though running a dispensary is flashier than any of the background moves that Similien has made up to this point, his subtle approach to the cannabis business is emphasized right in his company’s name: LowKey. I visited him at the modern but modest store in Dorchester’s Codman Square last week, on a day when his team was making final tweaks to systems and shelves ahead of looming final inspections needed for the shop to open after seven years of prep and perspiration.
“When cannabis became legal in 2016, I applied for my Economic Empowerment license and I was approved,” Similien said. “Then I went to find a location, and this one finally came up in 2018. Then I had to go through the process, but this is a community I’m familiar with and I knew this was where I could get support from the residents, so I just went ahead and applied through the City of Boston, signed an offer to purchase this building, and now everything’s coming to fruition.”
Similien, who is currently a broker with Thumbprint Realty in Dorchester, steered our conversation to location. Dorchester has other dispensaries, including the city’s first recreational shop, Pure Oasis in Grove Hall, which opened in 2020 about a mile-and-a-half from where LowKey is coming. But Codman has different needs, unique access, and its own speed, he said.
“This is a neighborhood that I know very much,” he said, pointing up Washington Street. “I get my clothes dry cleaned over there. I went to school over there. My real estate office is right up the street. … This is the neighborhood that I grew up in, so over the years when I was working as a broker, I saw opportunities to revitalize this community.”
But even a real estate background can’t fully prepare you for the cannabis industry.
“I knew the [property] laws and how to navigate them but it was still a challenge because I was unfamiliar with the politics aspect and I was unfamiliar with the zoning aspect of getting property approved [for a cannabis dispensary],” Similien said.
And then there are unique nightmares that are specific to the weed biz. He continued, “Even though I have access to capital based on relationships, cannabis is different. People invest in residential real estate, or fix and flips, or commercial properties, but cannabis is not federally legal so there’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Similien, who gave a lecture at the most recent NECANN in Boston about cannabis real estate, said “it’s best to actually try to acquire the property [for a dispensary].” “Then you have leverage, you have an asset that you can borrow against and lenders can actually provide capital.” He added, “A lot of the time, the challenges individuals face is because they’re just paying on a lease and they’re bleeding cash and there’s no promise that you’re going to get approval.”
LowKey took the same ownership approach in West Roxbury, where they hope to open their second retail store—at 5252 Washington St., just a dab away from Dedham and a nug from Needham—later this year. Similien went to West Roxbury High School and picked the location because of his familiarity and fondness, but was still surprised they “didn’t get as much push back as expected.” Over a series of community meetings and calls with concerned residents, he ultimately won over the neighbors in West Rox the same way he did back in Dot—with his literal low key approach.
“Our focus is education and providing a great experience,” Similien said, “and building this culture and creating a lifestyle around LowKey.”
In the longer term, he’s working to open one of the first cannabis cultivations in Boston proper. The kind of lot and warehouse needed for a grow is beyond Similien’s reach, but he said the owner of the building in Hyde Park they plan to turn into a canopy-manufacturing space is committed to the project’s success. The vision is for a facility that, in addition to establishing LowKey as a vertically integrated company, will be a resource for other Economic Empowerment and Social Equity licensees.
“Not a lot of individuals in Boston have the luxury and the know-how to navigate this business,” Similien said. “This is what my license is—it’s an Economic Empowerment license. Given the fact that I am able to do so, it’s sort of like I’m responsible for providing these opportunities.”