The coach doors opened onto a filthy street. It was a sensory overload of sights, sounds and above all else, smells. This was my first visit to Skid Row, a neighborhood in Downtown Los Angeles, whose homeless residents have found themselves marginalized by society.
It wasn’t where I had expected to find myself the weekend before Christmas. The week before, I had interviewed BigMike Straumietis, founder and CEO of Advanced Nutrients, at MJBiz in Las Vegas, during which he spoke passionately about his non-profit charity, Humanity Heroes. When it transpired I would fortuitously be in L.A. on 12/21, I jumped at the chance to help.
BigMike launched his initial organization, Holiday Heroes, in 2016. This year, as a sign of BigMike’s commitment to helping those that need it most, Holiday Heroes has grown and expanded into Humanity Heroes, creating a year-long effort to help the vulnerable instead of only once a year at Christmas.
It has the same ethos and mission: to help cultivate sustainable communities by providing them with the tools necessary to strengthen their foundations and propel them toward lasting change.
“Holiday Heroes was very limiting, so we thought we’d change it to Humanity Heroes,” BigMike told me as we handed out backpacks. “It opened up a lot more versatility for us to help. The goal of Humanity Heroes is to grow it as big as we possibly can, to help people who need it and give back to society.”
I have followed the successful businessman’s philanthropic passion project for years and admired the generosity and humanitarian nature of the work BigMike does for the community. For the last four years, BigMike and his team head to Skid Row to hand out backpacks stuffed with things like blankets, gloves and toiletries. To date, the organization has donated more than $450K in nonperishable items — packaged in over 5,000 backpacks — to the Los Angeles homeless community. My husband and some of our friends joined volunteers from Advanced Nutrients and My Friend’s House Foundation to hand out food, coffee, clothing and conversation to the residents of Skid Row.
“It’s helped the homeless down here on Skid Row quite a bit,” BigMike told me. “There’s a lot of folks here, they know about us, they know what’s in the backpacks and they’re lining up to receive them. And I gotta tell ya, it’s how it makes you feel. The volunteers here, I’ve talked to a lot of them, it makes you feel really, really good to get out and participate and to give back. And I encourage everyone to do it. Whether it’s Humanity Heroes, or any other type of charity, go and help. It will make a difference in your life.”
“These folks down here are going through some hard times and we’re here to help them get back on their feet and back into society,” said BigMike.
Part of that is making them feel like society hasn’t forgotten about them. That they matter, that we see them and that they haven’t been forgotten about.
“A lot of people drive past homeless people, they forget about them,” BigMike continued. “Instead, they should be driving by thinking, ‘What can I do to help?'”
I asked him why Advanced Nutrients is partnering with My Friend’s House Foundation, another L.A.-based non-profit that’s dedicated to helping the homeless and economically disadvantaged.
“They are down here every Wednesday from 12-2 pm feeding a lot of folks,” he told me. “And it’s not about us. It’s about the community collaborating and getting together — we’re stronger together than we are apart.”
I asked him why he believes corporate philanthropy is so important.
“I first started in Bulgaria in 2012, where I helped with handouts to those who have nothing,” he said. “It just happened. I started in Bulgaria and I brought it here. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
BigMike would love roll out Humanity Heroes on a global scale. “First, we have to get the situation here in L.A. taken care of, get a system and a pathway that works then roll it out all over the world,” he said.
How can people help, I asked him.
“It’s easy. Visit joinhumanityheroes.org— it’s that simple to help.”
Trust me, you won’t regret it.
5 Tips for Owning and Operating Successful Cannabis Dispensaries
The cannabis retail landscape has changed. Once regarded as somewhat of a novelty, legalization has allowed cannabis dispensaries to evolve into modern and innovative retail storefronts more akin to an Apple Store than the dark, secretive spaces they used to be. Some, like Shiny Bud, are proving to be leaders in the space, setting an exemplary standard of a contemporary cannabis retail experience.
Shiny Bud is one of Canada’s most successful dispensary chains. They pride themselves on offering customers a premium experience from the moment they enter, from a contemporary and inviting store design to highly trained staff, and of course, premium products.
Co-founder Alex Ledesma joined the cannabis industry when the Canadian government passed the Cannabis Act in 2018. She comes from a forward-thinking family of entrepreneurs, so the move to cannabis was an obvious next step.
“I saw an opportunity to be part of something big in Canada’s history, so we started following the industry, and applied for an application,” said Ledesma.
Shiny Bud opened its first dispensary in Toronto on February 14. Fast forward only a few months, and the company has opened the doors to its fifth location in a small town called Orleans, just outside of Ottawa.
“We have a pretty aggressive rollout,” said Ledesma. “Coming from a quick-service industry, we’re quite comfortable with builds and finding locations. We took our expertise from that and put it into cannabis. And it’s all completely within the family.”
Shiny Bud was awarded 75 dispensary licenses by the Canadian government. The company’s expansion plans include two more Ontario store openings this year, bringing the total number of store openings to seven. And they have no plans to slow down.
“We should be hitting 30 stores by the end of 2021. And we’re planning on maxing out to 75 stores allocated. When we stop to think about it, it can take our breath away.”
The constant march forward of legalization has created an ever-growing interest in dispensary ownership. Below, Ledesma offers up five pieces of advice for those looking to enter the cannabis game.
1. Have a Well-Trained Team That’s Focused on Customer Experience
As the industry is still so young, formal education in cannabis is still relatively scarce amongst prospective employees. For Shiny Bud, this presents an opportunity to reinforce one of their most important business objectives: provide cannabis education and training for their budtenders to pass on to their customers.
“Education is everything because the industry’s so new,” Ledesma said. “We truly believe that we’re an industry where we need to listen to our guests. This is one of the first things we teach our budtenders, along with providing a safe and educational experience for our customers in-store.”
For many customers, the biggest value in going to a dispensary is learning which products are best suited for a specific condition or effect, whether they’re seasoned cannabis consumers or newly curious.
“The goal for budtenders at Shiny Bud is to ensure customers are choosing the right product for them to provide a safe experience both in-store and at home,” Ledesma said.
2. Create a Guest Centric Environment
This goes without saying, but customer service is critical to the success of any retail operation. Ledesma attributes Shiny Bud’s success to the brand’s core vision of providing a “fast and friendly cannabis retail destination.”
“We strive to offer our customers a unique and memorable experience — this has stayed with us since day one,” Ledesma said. “When you walk into any of our Shiny Bud cannabis dispensaries, they’re bright, they’re big, and there’s a lot of education. The budtenders are dressed uniformly, and there’s personality — it’s not what people expect.”
Watching the change in customer demographic has been encouraging to Ledesma, who notes the increase in the 60+ demographic looking to add cannabis to their health and wellness, whether it be recreational, or to aid with a specific ailment.
“As a disclaimer, we always have to tell them that we’re not doctors and we can’t give them medical advice, so to start low and go slow,” Ledesma said. “It’s nice to see people like my mom, my dad, and grandparents come through the door, because you also know you’re helping break down the stigma.”
3. Stock the Best Inventory
With so many quality products now available, choosing which ones to bring to Shiny Bud is quite a lengthy process.
“We carry out a lot of research in terms of what’s new or trending, and what our customers are looking for in each location,” Ledesma said. “I wish I knew consumers’ buying preferences before our initial order was placed. We ended up buying too much!”
“We also use recommendations from our team members, our budtenders, and our customers. A lot of times we bring in representatives of the licensed producers to educate our budtenders about the products we’re selling.”
The three most popular purchases across three Shiny Bud locations are dried flower, vapes, and pre-rolls. “Our most frequently asked question is, ‘what is your highest THC or CBD?’” Ledesma said.
4. Have a Great Location
The age-old proverb of “location, location, location” rings true in the cannabis industry, too. Finding the right real estate is arguably the most important part of retail success. Plus, because of the industry’s prohibition history and the nature of the products being sold, it’s important to find understanding landlords.
“Initially, landlords have said to us, ‘absolutely not, we will not entertain the idea of having a cannabis retailer here,’ so I invite them to take a look at one of our dispensaries so they can see the vision of what and who we are as a company and as an industry.”
5. Ensure Your Cannabis Dispensaries Connect with the Community
Dispensaries are already major focal points in their communities. For Ledesma, giving back and helping break down old stigmas related to cannabis is a top priority.
Shiny Bud is in the process of launching a collaboration with Tsaichedelic to create a line of tie-dyed tees and other merchandise. The proceeds will go towards supporting Cannabis Amnesty projects, like providing legal counsel to get those with criminal records over minor cannabis charges expunged.
“Being a woman and a person of color in the cannabis space, I really believe in the fact that it needs to be the same playing fields for everybody,” Ledesma said. “Teaming up with Cannabis Amnesty just felt right.”
With the regulated cannabis market still so new, it’s important that business owners are able to adapt to changes and weather the ever-changing landscape of cannabis and the regulations.
“It’s ever-changing, so we’re constantly learning and growing from it,” Ledesma said. “Regulations are always changing, so being fluid helps a lot.”
Look for Shiny Bud cannabis dispensaries in Canada and keep an eye out for their expansion into America in 2021.
Gwyneth Paltrow and a Slew of Celebs Invest in ‘Social Tonic’ Brand, Cann
Gwyneth Paltrow is one of several high-profile celebrities investing in cannabis-infused beverage company, Cann.
Rebel Wilson, Ruby Rose, Darren Criss, Tove Lo, Casey Neistat, former NBA star Baron Davis and Bre-Z have also invested in the company.
The actress and Goop CEO and founder calls cannabis a “hero ingredient of the future” for wellness and says she was drawn to Cann’s drinks, which are infused with small doses of THC and CBD, as an appealing alternative to alcohol.
“There’s a whole sober-curious movement that’s going on and the cannabis-curious movement that’s going on, this is kind of at the intersection of those things in a way,” said Paltrow.
Cann is not the health and wellness moguls’ first cannabis investment. Paltrow admitted that while she’s not a big cannabis user personally, she acknowledges its “amazing medicinal qualities.”
“There’s no reason why alcohol should be so much easier to purchase than Cann, and I’m confident the founders will lead the charge in finding ways to integrate it into the same purchasing channels and drinking environments,” she said via a news release.
Cann founder Luke Anderson called the comments made by Gwyneth Paltrow “a sign that Cann (and microdose beverages more broadly) are a viable answer to that very common consumer pain point.”
He added that when people think of Paltrow, “they don’t think of ‘weed’ – they think of cutting-edge solutions for today’s health and wellness needs.”
Cann has positioned itself as a “healthy” and hangover-free alternative to alcohol. Most of Cann’s “social tonics” contain roughly 30 calories and are “microdosed” with 2 milligrams of THC and 4 milligrams of CBD. A recently introduced Pineapple Jalapeño flavor contains 50 calories and 5 milligrams of THC.
Earlier this year, Cann secured $5 million in funding as part of the company’s 2020 production and distribution expansion plans for 2020.
According to TechCrunch, the beverage startup has sold 150,000 cans, which retail for $4 each, since last May. Cann products are available at just 60 dispensaries in California, and online via the Eaze cannabis marketplace, making the $600,000 in revenue the company generated in less than a year even more impressive.
Miss Marijuana: Canadian Beauty Queen Alyssa Boston Is on a Mission to End Stigmas
Alyssa Boston is a woman on a mission. The 24-year-old Canadian beauty queen is using her platform to start a conversation on ending stigmas around mental illness, competing in pageants — and cannabis.
While she doesn’t actually smoke weed, Canada’s crowned Miss Universe caused a media uproar when she wore a sparkling cannabis-inspired look during the 2019 Miss Universe competition in Atlanta, Georgia.
Cannabis Aficionado spoke to her about breaking stigmas, social media and of course, that costume.
CA: How was your Miss Universe experience?