“We constructed a pneumatic pipe system”: Canada’s indie pot shops open throughout a pandemic
The rules for starting a cannabis business can be confusing at best – and these weren’t the best of times. In addition to the specific obstacle course that each province has for Canadian cannabis retailers, the wave of pot shops that opened against the backdrop of COVID-19 has faced unpredictable consumer patterns, empty streets, and ever-evolving health and safety protocols The least of these was an upper limit on the size of a meeting.
Five independent cannabis retailers told us in their own words about their experiences of opening their stores during COVID-19.
Glenmore Cannabis at 2130 Glenmore Court SE, Calgary, opened on April 17th. (Courtesy photo of Glenmore Cannabis)
My shop is in a mall. When Alberta announced that cannabis stores were an essential service, we were ready to leave, but all the stores next to me were basically dead. When I first opened, I had a bit of a rush from friends and family, but it did were days when I only saw four or five hundred dollars in sales and maybe 10 to 15 customers during the day.
[The Calgary neighbourhood] Ogden still has a very strong black market. The black market flourished during the COVID just because people had it delivered to their homes. AGLC [Alberta Gaming & Liquor Commission] has pretty strict advertising restrictions. I would open the door and try to wave people into my shop just to bring someone in. It looked like it wouldn’t come through for the first while.
I go through isopropyl alcohol like water. Keeping the place clean and sterile is my top priority.
–Sam Sanders, Glenmore Cannabis Owner
My father came out of Vancouver for the first few weeks to help. I couldn’t afford to pay staff, and neither did I have enough business to justify the staff. We slowly began to develop a sense of community and a relationship with customers. We chatted about what’s going on, relaxed a little and that added to how the place is now. It has no corporate feel at all.
It’s definitely booted up significantly. It took a long time before people even knew I was there. When people came into the complex again, I saw quickly [business] increase.
I go through isopropyl alcohol like water. Keeping the place clean and sterile is my top priority. The hardest part was managing the inventory. When I first opened I wasn’t that busy so I made small orders. Then I got busier and I didn’t have enough cannabis and people left because I didn’t have what they were looking for.
After the pandemic, it’s all about finding the right groove. It was an up and down roller coaster ride with locks and various things. It’s just a day to day thing, week to week thing.
I can never remember my new clients now because they all look like masks. One thing I really miss is being able to smile at your customers. I miss that. I miss the interaction.
–Sam Sanders, Glenmore Cannabis Owner
Opened June 12, 2020 at 120 Sherborne St., Toronto, 1922. (Photo courtesy 1922)
I had spent two years preparing to open up a traditional brick and mortar retail experience, with online and click-and-collect accounting for perhaps a tenth of the operating model. We should open in April. There were basically three weeks in April that I was preparing to open the store as an online business only. SEO / SEM [Search Engine Optimization/Search Engine Marketing] went from one tenth of my problem to ten tenths of my problem.
This gives us a unique opportunity to have an online sales channel that was never expected to be included in our operating model. But we need volume for these companies to function. My biggest business opportunity is moving my existing customer base to online. When customers go online, on average, they spend 32 to 37 percent more than in-store.
–Mike Dunn, co-founder / director in 1922
The Neighborhood Joint opened in Queen St. E., Toronto, July 2020 (photo courtesy of The Neighborhood Joint).
It was super stressful, super scary, especially opening a business. There was just so much uncertainty. They didn’t even know from the start whether cannabis would be essential or not. We weren’t even open yet and were trying to follow the rules of what we can and can’t do.
We had to stop construction for three weeks during the heavy closing time. And when we started building again, we could only have two people work on each floor at the same time. That only extends our construction time. I [was worried because I] said AGCO [Alcohol & Gaming Commission of Ontario] that I would be done by that date. Would I be pushed to the back of the lineup? [for inspections]? There was just so much uncertainty and stress, all of these factors just played against each other. You have to lower your head and fight through, taking all possible precautions.
We needed a way to get our product from the basement to the first floor. In the end we had a pneumatic pipe system.
Andrew Rhodes, co-founder of The Neighborhood Joint
We needed a way to get our product from the basement to the first floor. In the end we had a pneumatic pipe system. It’s something that was a small plus [during COVID]. It absolutely reduces the number of hands touching the product and the time spent touching the product.
Part of why we chose this neighborhood [the Beach] That’s because it’s a great community and there are so many community events going on. They have JazzFest and the One of a Kind show and every Thursday in summer they do movies in the park which is 20 meters from our store. It’s almost like a summer resort. We expect all of these international tourists, Toronto locals, suburban locals, all of whom come to the beach for the summer. None of that happened. It’s definitely dampened our sales.
We have taken every possible precaution to ensure everyone’s safety. If you can’t wear a mask we have an atrium and can bring you a mobile POS [Point of Sale] and ATM to fulfill your order. We brought a fog machine that uses hydrochloric acid and sprays a disinfectant mist. We do this every night after we close.
Overall, we’re still very happy with how things went. We do our best to keep everyone safe.
Andrew Rhodes, co-founder
Farmer Jane is located at Grant Park, 1-1194 Taylor Ave., Winnipeg. The store opened in September 2020. (Courtesy photo of Farmer Jane)
We felt that if we opened up at this point, we could contribute to the overall health of the church. We have more CBD customers in Winnipeg. When talking to our staff, many of our customers in Winnipeg are people who are new to the cannabis industry and want to try a new product to help with anxiety.
We are really happy to have people who are already involved in the Winnipeg community. It means a lot to them to support other entrepreneurs and local businesses. Since our headquarters are in Regina, we don’t have our church in Winnipeg yet. Our staff were so great at connecting us with other local businesses in town. That definitely helps to have that support.
–Chelsea Petterson, retail director
Greenport opened on October 17, 2020 at 686 College St., Toronto. (Courtesy photo of Greenport)
The opening was amazing. We had a lot of people coming in, showing support, and coming from [suburbs such as] Scarborough, Oakville, you name it. The community came out for sure. We opened and then we left [into more restrictive COVID protocols]. Then it slowed down enormously. Even the pedestrian traffic was noticeably different because all the bars and restaurants on the street were closed.
Even someone who lives down the street came in yesterday and said, “You’re finally open! I’ve been waiting for you to open up! “And I say,” Yes, for two weeks. ” But he doesn’t go for a walk. He’s at home so he wouldn’t really have noticed that we’re open.
The roots and core of who we are is a common space. We had our Halloween event with a tarot card reader, a local community DJ and a drag queen performance. We had a Super Smash Bros. game night. Sundays were open deck so we taught anyone who wants to learn how to DJ. I think I’ll be the first on the registration form. All of these things, after COVID, would be a really big deal, however [before Toronto went back on lockdown] It was only a 10 person check-in to keep the numbers down and they were only here for 30 minutes.
It is really important for us right now that we keep doing what we do. We reach out to the community and have these reduced size events that resonate with them. So you feel like this isn’t just a place we show up and shop. This is a place where you can feel connected to the team that is here.
– –Vivianne Wilson, Founder and President of GreenPort
Ryan Porter has worked as a Toronto-based journalist with Bylines at Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, InStyle and Maclean’s for 15 years. Recent work and photos of strange characters on Twitter at @MrRyanPorter
Show article by Ryan Porter