The Bulldog Coffeeshop is the most famous and first-ever ‘coffeeshop’ in Amsterdam.
Besides being a well-known tourist attraction in the middle of the Red-light district in Leidseplein, the company’s first shop – The Bulldog the First – is also an attractive, cozy ex-police station that has attracted many celebrities like Mike Tyson, Brittney Spears, Sean Penn, Snoop Dogg, Mariah Cary, and several others.
Since its beginning in the 70s, The Bulldog has grown from a single shop (where joints were secretly sold) into a chain and an international brand. Furthermore, the company, with its novel concept of ‘coffeeshop’, has set the standard for other existing coffeeshops in Amsterdam and even across the globe.
How They Started
The Bulldog came to life in 1974 when a 24-year-old Henk de Vries got fed up with running the sex-shop he inherited from his father. According to Henk, he threw the entire sex-shop inventory into a canal and converted it into The Bulldog (named after his dog, which was a bulldog).
Right from the beginning of ‘The Bulldog concept’, Henk strove to create a unique place where anyone who walks through the door would always feel welcome and comfortable.
The first shop, now called “The Bulldog the First”, “The Bulldog Havri,” or “Nr90” was ironically situated in the building of Leidseplein’s former police station. To create a distinctive atmosphere, Henk retained some features of the original building and added a canal-side patio, souvenir shop, an upstairs bar, and a basement coffeeshop.
There are, for instance, jail cells where customers can go enjoy some weed, offered by an officer on duty. Further, the shop has several collections of fascinating police and criminal artifacts on display.
For the front signage, Henk called on the eccentric Australian painter, Harold Thornton. The talented artist turned the exercise into an eye-catching, colorful mural that covers the whole building.
The mural turned into a great blessing for the establishment as the striking painting became a magnet for tourists, backpackers, and celebs.
“The Bulldog the First”: the Early Days
In the early days of The Bulldog, the sale and possession of cannabis were still illegal. So the company pretended to sell coffee – which was, of course, a front to turn away police attention.
However, that ploy wasn’t that successful. The authorities found out, and the shop started to be frequently raided by the police several times a day.
Nowadays, government policies towards cannabis and marijuana have become more tolerant, neighborhood customers and tourists of The Bulldog can now come in and smoke weed to their hearts’ content without fear of being arrested.
Success Formula – The Living Room Concept
When The Bulldog opened its doors to the public for the first time, it was simply a basement filled with a couple of chairs and tables.
Stepping inside, what you’ll see is a living room kind of setting where people sit at tables, chatting, drinking, and playing cards and board games. This atmosphere wasn’t an accident or an afterthought. It was what the founder, Henk, had in mind right from the start.
That’s one of the reasons why Henk added the word ‘coffeeshop’ to The Bulldog’s name. In his words,
“I wanted to capture the coffeehouse feel, keep the atmosphere of a living room. At the same time, I wanted to have an international character to the place. That’s how the term ‘coffeeshop’ was born.”
This formula proved to be a success for the company and fast forward to today – nearly 46 years later – the company has grown into an internationally recognized brand with many product lines such as merchandising, smoker, The Bulldog energy drink, and iced coffee.
The company has also expanded into vacation homes and a hotel in Canada, a bar-restaurant located in Rome, and on the beautiful tropical island of Aruba. Moreover, they also own social clubs in Ibiza and Barcelona.