Charles Schwab Challenge

Colonial Country Club

Golf Digest Logo golf & chill

How a New York golf instructor became the exclusive CBD seller in The Villages

/content/dam/images/golfdigest/fullset/2023/1/Golf Digest CBD SHOP1.jpg

Illustration by Freak City

March 28, 2023

Entrepeneurs might have different definitions of a target-rich environment, but The Villages retirement metropolis in central Florida presents some formidable demographics for consideration. The snowbird haven 60 miles northwest of Orlando is teeming with more than 150,000 senior citizens with loads of disposable income and free time, and it offers golf courses and pickleball courts for them to stay active. Those facts were not lost on golf instructor Debbie Doniger—who serves the same clientele as the director of instruction at posh GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, N.Y.

Doniger has long been interested in fitness and wellness and has investigated for clients the anti-inflammatory and relaxation benefits of CBD, a nonpsychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant. A related compound from the same plant, THC, is high-inducing when consumed, but buzz-free CBD is now found in everything from chewing gum to roll-on balm. “My father was suffering from neuropathy, and he was on a tremendous amount of prescription medication,” Doniger says. “He was saying he just couldn’t take it anymore, and I wanted to see if there was something plant-based to help him with that pain.”

Doniger’s father started using a CBD transdermal patch, and the results were dramatic. “He said, ‘I could get my whole building in West Palm using this,’ ” she says. “ Years ago, he had done business in The Villages, leasing medical supplies. He said it would be a perfect spot.”

Doniger found a partner with experience in the segment—Jason Provost, who helped Martha Stewart start her CBD skin care line—and they created The Pharm Stand. The goal was to offer “mature” active people a curated retail experience that helps navigate the features and benefits (as well as the myths) around CBD. “I wanted to create a place where people could have a peaceful, highly individualized experience, where they could find help to get what they needed to feel better,” Doniger says. “It’s exactly how I run my golf instruction.”

Doniger and Provost worked to sell The Villages on the concept of a high-end CBD shop that looks much more like a Crate and Barrel than a GNC Nutrition. Not only did The Villages embrace the presentation and make The Pharm Stand the only CBD provider inside the gates, it paved the way for Doniger and Provost to connect with The Villages Health Service so that physicians could use the shop as a resource for patients hoping to avoid more prescription drugs. “We’re working with knowledgeable people to build a plan for a client, and we track the intervention to see what’s working,” Doniger says. “In the end, you see clients who are spending less money, feeling better and enjoying a much better quality of life.”

After getting a lease approved for a storefront in the chic Brownwood section, where a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and a five-star hotel and spa are neighbors, Doniger and Provost had a year before the doors opened in August 2022 to begin building awareness among the residents. “We’d go into the farmer ’s markets and hear how much people wanted to be educated about CBD,” Doniger says. “They want to understand the science behind it and if it’s really true that this plant can help them. We build relationships with the doctors, with the golf academy, and with a lot of the clubs here. We’ve done everything from webinars to presentations at the rec centers.”

The first questions almost always fall into one of two categories, Doniger says: Does CBD get you high, like marijuana, and does it work? “A subset of people who used marijuana in the 1960s and stopped are coming back to see what this is,” Doniger says. “People who would never do illegal drugs want to make sure this is completely legitimate. Our goal is to show people the case studies, give them all the information they need and destigmatize this part of the wellness space.”

Merchandise at the store is sorted by benefit—pain relief, sleep improvement and stress reduction. Instead of rows of product, each curated selection has a display card with highlights and benefits. The result is more like shopping at a high-end cheese or wine shop than visiting a drug store. “I find products where I know the owners and know the farms and know that the products are third-party tested,” Doniger says. “Again, it’s like how I’ve run my golf business. You don’t have to sort through every single thing because I’ve already picked a selection of the best things to try.”

Summer may be relatively quiet in Florida, but Doniger will be busy. She plans to add another store across the vast Villages metroplex, which covers an area larger than the island of Manhattan, and introduce her own line of Pharm Stand-branded CBD products which are in the final design stages. All of that will happen as she commutes almost weekly from metro New York City, where she teaches a full schedule at GlenArbor and raises two teenagers with husband and fellow teacher Kevin Sprecher, who is the director of instruction at Sleepy Hollow. “I like to try new things, but mostly I like to help people,” Doniger says.

If her store catches on, Doniger will have a decidedly first-world problem particular to the transportation culture in The Villages: figuring out where all the customers will park their golf carts.