Ashley Newman, founder of Queen of Bud dispensaries and a shareholder of Alberta-based licensed producer Candre Cannabis, is an independent female retailer on the cannabis frontlines. Her stores (one in Calgary, one in Toronto), like Newman herself, remain strong and distinct as the retail landscape grows ever-more challenging. Queen of Bud’s flagship Calgary shop opened in October 2018. One of the first cannabis retailers in the city, Newman recalls her female-focused business model raised a few eyebrows. She didn’t care.
“I made the store super girly—I wanted a store I would shop at. Some said, ‘it’ll alienate men’ and thought we’d cut off half the market,” Newman, 30, recalled, adding that her place, heavily adorned in flowers, crystals and with house-branded cannabis products named after precious gems, Queen of Bud professed that cannabis was a thing of beauty. “I didn’t always know what I was doing but I trusted myself and I knew how to build a brand. I knew that if it took off, it would be a success.”
When success started to show up at Queen of Bud, so did interest from big-name companies whose top brass expressed interest in acquiring Newman’s company. The prospect of selling was “like winning the lottery,” Newman says. However, she decided to stay in her own lane.
“Everything about Queen of Bud is a piece of my personality. If I had sold, they would have used my company to market just another feminine brand.”
Independent, female-owned Canadian retailers are disrupting the industry with innovation and grace.
Jessica Bonilla, 36-year-old owner of The Niagara Herbalist, shares the secret to her success as a retailer (and it’s the same advice she gives to first-time edible consumers).
“We go low and slow,” she told kind in a recent interview.
Bonilla is among a distinct breed in Canadian cannabis retail: independent female store owners, who each take a careful, quality-over-quantity approach to running their stores, their way. The St. Catharine’s shop was among the first ten Ontario cannabis stores to open in April 2019. Family-run with no current plans to expand, The Niagara Herbalist takes a “community first, profit second” approach to satisfying demand and remaining competitive. Bonilla is smart, competitive and fearless, but she’s not ruthless, and doesn’t feel like she needs to be.
“The goal for us was to compete with the black market, not the other stores. That’s a message that came clear from the AGCO and the OCS and we took it to heart,” Bonilla says, defending The Niagara Herbalist’s lower-price strategy. “We were living paycheque-to-paycheque before this thing. Now, we’re doing well—so if we sell for less, we can’t lose.”
Small indie shops like The Niagara Herbalist face tough competition in a market that’s becoming increasingly saturated by chains with deeper pockets. Less access to capital and fewer boots on the ground mean owners like Bonilla take big chances and work long hours to maintain autonomy, call their own shots and deliver a distinct, high-value customer experience.
“Sometimes I think people are a little fascinated when they hear that I own a cannabis store because I’m a woman. That in turn fascinates me! Why wouldn’t I? Why couldn’t I?” says Lisa Bigioni, founder of Stok’d Cannabis, a new cannabis retailer opened in Scarborough, Ontario, adding that, for her, the job is personal. “I’m a compassionate person and the well-being of my team is really important to me. We’re all connected and we all really understood the significance of selling cannabis in a legal space, and we bonded over that.”
Village Bloomery co-owner Andrea Dobbs shares the sentiment on connection and trust. Her tucked-away retailer that’s been operating in a pocket of Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood since 2015 has prioritized community and quality—above all else.
For Dobbs, surviving and thriving meant a refusal to sacrifice her beliefs. She says that maintaining authenticity in the face of making big changes at the Village Bloomery, which opened its doors three years before storefront sales were permitted federally, was her north star. The 54-year-old, a trusted voice in Canadian cannabis retail—says taking the medical-focused store legal and recreational in 2019 was a hard pill to swallow. It meant compromising a lot: losing business relationships with local farmers, wading through a glut of plastic packaging, raising prices and self-censoring conversations on effect and efficacy.
The work, however, was worth it, she says. Today, the modern Village Bloomery operates within the legal framework, but remains true to its roots through a deep commitment to product quality and love of cannabis. Her team carefully pores over every product’s certificate of analysis (if provided by the LP) and is steadily bringing in more local, craft and micro-grown product as it becomes available.
And while their stores couldn’t be any different, Dobbs, Newman and Bonilla all agree the biggest benefit to independent, focused retail is the ability to enrich a consumer’s experience and, hopefully, help deepen their relationship with cannabis.
Back at The Niagara Herbalist, it isn’t hard to see that people come first. Most customers are regulars; some come in every day just to buy something small, a pre-roll or single-serve product, Bonilla says.
“It’s nice to go into a place that speaks to you, where staff recognize you and know your name,” Bonilla says. “We go low, slow and keep our connection with the community. That’s our edge.”
Victoria Dekker is an independent cannabis communications consultant and award-winning brand storyteller and journalist. Connect with her on Twitter @victoria_dekker.