You know a trend has gone mainstream when a top-10 burger brand starts cashing in on the craze, as Carl’s Jr. attempted to do with its recent CBD burger. Available for one day only (April 20, naturally), the concept tested out its Rocky Mountain High Cheese Burger Delight—featuring a CBD-infused Santa Fe sauce—at a single Denver unit. The location sold more than 100 burgers within the first hour (and ran out entirely by 4 p.m.), proving that the menu item and others like it may be a hit beyond the Mile High City.
And Carl’s Jr. wasn’t the only brand that experimented with a CBD menu for the 4/20 “holiday.” Fellow Colorado fast casual Illegal Burger rolled out a CBD-infused burger bowl, while New York City–based fresh&co introduced an LTO salad and sandwich, both made with hemp cakes and greens, along with CBD-infused aioli.
But for many cannabis-curious concepts, CBD items aren’t just a flash-in-the-pot—er, pan—trend or something to experiment with on a limited run. They’re becoming a core item on some menus, largely led by customer demand.
“People are tired of putting man-made chemicals in their body to make them feel better,” says Glenn Cybulski, president and chief culinary officer of Stoner’s Pizza Joint, an 11-unit brand with locations scattered across the Southeast. “The generations coming up want to use better products and want to use more natural products, and CBD is all of that.”
Over the past handful of years, more consumers have turned to CBD for its long list of reported benefits, from the ability to relieve pain and decrease inflammation to its penchant for alleviating stress and lowering blood pressure. Its growing popularity led to national CBD sales of more than $12 billion in 2018 alone, according to research from Euromonitor International, and many restaurants are ready to reap the rewards.
Stoner’s, for one, is developing a line of sauces and dressings infused with CBD oil, which it will use in select locations’ menu items and sell at retail. “We feel there’s a massive opportunity to get out in the savory CBD world, where people can grab a bottle of dressing and put an ounce or two on their salad and know they’re getting 5–10 milligrams of CBD,” Cybulski says.
The concept uses a pure-distillate form of CBD, which infuses with the fats in a sauce or dressing to mask any of the product’s naturally bitter, herby flavor.
Chicago-based Protein Bar & Kitchen has opted to use a similarly flavorless, broad-spectrum CBD oil as a $2.99 add-on available with any shake or coffee. “We’re basically preparing the shake or the coffee, then we’re dousing the CBD on top of the shake. We’re not blending it; we’re not mixing it in with the coffee,” says CEO Jeff Drake. “We wanted to keep it very controlled so the person who wants CBD is getting it, and there isn’t any chance for anyone who doesn’t want CBD to get it.”
In addition to its limited-run Half-Baked Salad and Blazed Beet Sandwich, fresh&co also has some long-stay CBD edibles on its menu, including truffles, cold-brew coffee, and a CBD Ginger’ade. Unfortunately, the brand will likely have to remove these from its menu soon, thanks to recent legislation by New York City’s health department. Although CBD is legal in the state of New York, city law states that restaurants and bars can’t serve menu items with additives that haven’t been proved safe to eat by the Food and Drug Administration (fda). The department is set to begin issuing fines of up to $650 as of July 1.
The legality of CBD is one of the biggest buzzkills facing brands that offer or plan to introduce infused dishes. Though CBD is technically legal nationwide, laws surrounding it can vary by state and city. While hemp contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (thc)—the chemical compound that produces mind-altering effects when consumed—marijuana can contain up to 30 percent THC.
Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp-derived CBD was made legal on the federal level, as long as it contains less than 0.3 percent THC and is produced by a licensed grower. However, regulations about how it can be used and sold, particularly with consumer goods, are continually changing, making it hard for brands to keep up.
“We want to be on the right side of legislation in different counties, and that’s what’s in flux,” Stoner’s Cybulski says.
But even if all legislation aligned throughout the country, that doesn’t mean consumers would automatically accept CBD. With many units in the Deep South—where conservative-leaning consumers aren’t totally sold on CBD—Stoner’s doesn’t plan to roll out its upcoming CBD offerings to all locations systemwide, choosing instead to offer them in markets where customers are more receptive.
“Forget about the legality,” Cybulski says. “We’re in the business of selling great food to people who we want to respect. This is not something we’re going to shove down anyone’s throat.”
Although fresh&co’s guests tend to be more welcoming of experimental ingredients like CBD, employee education has been critical to the success of its edibles. “That was a big thing—the training—because some people have the misconception that it gets you high and it’s a mind-altering drug, which it’s not.”
As CBD becomes more mainstream across the country, brand operators expect to see even more acceptance of cannabis-infused menu items. “People ask, ‘How long will you sell CBD oil?’ And our response is, ‘We’ll continue to sell it as long as our customers continue to ask for it and continue to buy it,’” says Protein Bar & Kitchen’s Drake, adding that he thinks CBD is less of a fad than a here-to-stay movement. “The growth that’s in front of it could be substantial.”