The launch of licensed recreational cannabis stores in Ontario has become a highly anticipated milestone in the still-nascent days of legal marijuana in Canada. Despite plans changing several times, these stores are expected to play a major role in boosting sales of legal pot in Canada’s biggest market.
BNN Bloomberg talked to some of the key players who’ve been toiling away for months getting these retail outlets ready for prime time. Here are some of their stories:
THE LICENCE WINNERS
Amid a flurry of construction workers nailing down fixtures and sales staff researching cannabis products, Ontario pot store licence winner Heather Conlon says after a busy six weeks, there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel.
“There’s not enough hours in a day,” she sighed, as she inspects her Nova Cannabis store’s vault where its cannabis inventory will be secured during off-hours.
Just a few blocks down Toronto’s trendy Queen Street, the sound of table saws ring outside The Hunny Pot, as staff prepares the final touches for the store’s launch on Monday.
“I can’t say it’s a passion because I never thought of it that way before,” said Hunny Gawri, the owner of The Hunny Pot store who also works as a Mississauga-based realtor. “But this has been a challenge that’s been very, very appealing to me.”
For these cannabis store licence winners, owning one of the first pot shops in Ontario is an incredible feat of luck. All the licence winners that BNN Bloomberg spoke to were understandably pleased with their good fortune and looked forward to being a small part of Canadian cannabis history.
Some opted to work with a retail partner to open their stores, while others rallied a team of staff to help them without any external help.
“I got my legal counsel right away and with their advice, I didn’t entertain anything,” Gawri said. “It was all about how to open this on April 1.”
The stores are also fueling some employment gains throughout the province with between 30 to 50 people hired per retailer, the licence winners said. To date, more than 600 CannSell certificates have been issued by Lift & Co., the “Smart Serve”-like training programs mandated by the province to be able to work as a cannabis retail staffer.
Meanwhile, some licence winners are flying under the radar. Indeed, there are several Ontario pot store licence applications whose retail outlet has no digital presence or contact information.
For example, RELM Cannabis Co., a store owned by David Nguyen doesn’t have a website or social media accounts — and only recently posted a job ad on Kijiji on Monday seeking sales staff.
For Conlon, one of her last decisions is to settle on the artwork that should appear on her store’s walls. In the end, she decided to go with some graffiti, a nod to the store’s location around Toronto’s famous Graffiti Alley.
“It’s just going to add a little bit of culture and colour,” she said with a chuckle.
While April 1 will be the first day of business for some cannabis retailers, others will be waiting on the outside looking in.
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario issued 10 out of the 25 licences it awarded during a lottery process, all but ensuring less than half of the province’s planned storefronts will open their doors on Monday.
Despite spending the last few days putting the final touches on its Nova Cannabis store in Toronto’s Queen Street West neighbourhood, the retailer is “still waiting for that piece of paper from the government,” said James Burns, chief executive officer at Alcanna Inc., which partnered with licence winner Heather Conlon to help build the cannabis outlet.
“We came to an agreement that made sense to [Conlon] and made sense to us to get our brand in the market temporarily,” Burns said. “It’s useful to have a small footprint in this market until it opens up for business in a year or whenever.”
Burns actually doesn’t mind the delay, noting that at least Ontario’s cannabis retail rules are relatively easier to follow than in Alberta where municipalities have different variations to a wide swath of zoning restrictions.
“Some rules [in some cities] change and then it just didn’t make sense to be there,” he said. “Ontario was pretty clear by comparison.”
For Nick Kuzyk, chief strategy officer at High Tide Inc., which partnered with three Ontario licence winners, Monday represents the end of a frenzied two months rushing to get its stores up and running.
Like Nova Cannabis, High Tide’s Canna Cabana outlets will remain shut as the AGCO hasn’t issued licenses for any of those stores. That isn’t fazing Kuzyk.
“The AGCO has a vested interest in making this a successful endeavour,” he said. “We’re all motivated in getting through this process, having great stores, and putting a dent in the black market.”