Friendly Stranger Represents its Community With a Charity Drag Show for Pride

James Jesty, former Starbucks big whig, explains to Ben Kaplan about the big plans for his company (hint: it involves community outreach).
Brooke Lynn Hytes
  • BK: James, congratulations. I love that your company has spent 26 years in weed.

    JJ: We literally began life with a booth on Queen Street selling hemp seeds and have always been fighting for legalization. We got into the cannabis accessory world and have always provided great service and products. With the push for legalization, it only made sense to get involved in retail. It’s an ongoing discussion with our customers.

  • BK: I know you have a bunch of retail cannabis stores open, and are in the process of opening a bunch more.

    JJ: We’re working hard on getting all of our retail locations opened. During the second lottery, we were lucky enough to partner with six lottery winners. Three stores are opened, and we’re working tirelessly on getting the next ones ready to serve customers. We can’t work fast enough!

  • BK: It’s cool that Friendly Stranger used to be in cahoots with Abi Roach back in the late 90s and now you guys are going to turn the Hotbox Café into a Friendly Stranger location.

    JJ: Yeah, Abi ended up landing a job at OCS and we were able to acquire Hotbox. All through the winter, we worked on getting it licensed, and we have that, and a Friendly Stranger on the Danforth, and there’s just been a lot of announcements and openings over these last few weeks. The locations on Church Street and Kensington, of course, mean a lot.

  • BK: That’s a lot of action, especially considering you’re making all of these moves during the worst global pandemic of the past hundred years.

    JJ: We applied for another 20-odd locations, but yes—given the circumstances, it’s been a very busy, exciting, demanding time.

  • BK: It’s good for cannabis retailers to have someone involved who comes from a director of operations gig at Starbucks. Franchising is something you must know cold.

    JJ: We’re very public about our desire to grow—and grow fast. We could realistically have 20 stores open by the end of the year, but who knows. If I could run Starbucks economics I’d be a happy man.

  • BK: We’re celebrating Pride Month all throughout June, and I know you have a beautiful store on Toronto’s Church Street and are also involved with the LGBTQ2IA+ community.

    JJ: We’re excited to be there and be part of the community and participate in that uniqueness, of course. Our digital drag show is tomorrow night, and it’s a gala we’re hosting with Brock McGillis, the first openly gay male hockey player and Brooke Lynn Hytes, one of the finalists on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and judge on Canada’s Drag Race. The proceeds go to LGBTQ2IA+ performers, artists and tip wage earners affected by COVID-19. nLink:

  • BK: When’s the show?

    JJ: Tuesday, June 16th at 8 pm. I promise you, you don’t want to miss it! nLink:

Lucy Flawless
  • BK: With a store on Church Street and one in Kensington Market, you seem to have the coolest parts of Toronto covered.

    JJ: Two really iconic Toronto neighbourhoods, absolutely. And it’s very, very important to our brand that we add something to our communities. We think that’s the only way to be a successful store—you have to be part of the community and participate in the uniqueness that makes our city so awesome.

  • BK: How else does Friendly Stranger work with the communities where you open locations?

    JJ: A good example is from our location in London, Ontario, near Western University. We opened there five days before they cancelled all the classes, but we see it as a great place to help support education and scholarship programs. It’s a big piece of who we are. It’s in our DNA. We like to say that we started on Queen Street and it’s not by accident that there’s now 45 cannabis stores there. That doesn’t happen without Friendly Stranger.

Erin Brockobić
  • BK: I see so many shops opening up in Toronto. I know 45 on Queen Street is a joke but there’s at least ten. Is that sustainable?

    JJ: This industry is unique. And as a guy trying to run a business, I’m looking for real estate—as is everyone else. Leases get signed, and suddenly four guys have the same idea for the same place. Very quickly cannabis is becoming “proper retail,” which is a good thing. Nobody goes, ‘Wow,’ when they see a lot of restaurants on the same corner. That’s where cannabis retail is going. Fast.

  • BK: How do folks differentiate when you all sell—roughly—the same product?

    JJ: It’s about who does it better. That’s who survives, whoever understands their customer and delivers an experience that’s unique and identifiable. Retailers will also be able to curate their lists better as OCS builds capacity, but you’re right, fundamentally, the cannabis is the same.

  • BK: Well, good luck to you tomorrow night and thanks very much for your time. I know the show’s going to be great and I look forward to covering more of your community initiatives.

    JJ: It’s an exciting time for our company, and thank you for your time and I hope you tune in and enjoy. Tell your audience that this is exactly the kind of thing they’ll be seeing more of from Friendly Stranger. Celebrating our communities is what we love to do most.