“My Dream Is Becoming A Reality”

Lorne Gertner, originally trained as an architect, with a career developing companies in the retail, fashion and real estate, and cannabis sectors, believes that design is one of the key characteristics that differentiates a good business from a great one.
Gertner is a lifetime cannabis enthusiast, and a longtime veteran of the legal cannabis industry. In 2004 he and David Hill co-founded Cannasat, the first public cannabis company in Canada—a progenitor to the legal cannabis movement that would come later. Not missing a beat, in 2012 Gertner co-founded PharmaCan, which eventually became the Cronos Group—one of the world’s largest cannabis companies.
Then 2015, he sparked Tokyo Smoke with a concept store—a hidden gem on Adelaide Street in Toronto which seeded the Tokyo Smoke brand as we know it today. Behind a mural facade, the 125-square-foot store was actually a modified shipping container, with countless architectural flourishes. Its main offering was coffee, as it was three years before recreational cannabis was made legal. However, from the start it was intentionally a cannabis positive environment. The idea was to create a beautiful and mainstream cannabis brand.
And, canvassing the best of Canada’s crowded, current retail landscape, it seems that Gertner’s vision has played out: stores like Edition and Dimes are stunning, and cannabis shops across North America are winning design awards and are featured in magazines like Wallpaper, Frame and the style pages of Globe & Mail. Cannabis has moved from the alleyways to the art galleries so to speak, and Gertner, perhaps more than anyone, is influential in this shift.
Ben Kaplan, the editor of kind magazine, caught up with Gertner from his home in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood.
  • Ben Kaplan: Lorne, thanks for your time. As the co-founder of one of Canada’s largest cannabis retail chains, how do you feel about the retail landscape in this country?

    Lorne Gertner: I think it’s awesome. You read every day about how bad retail is and how stores are closing, but in the cannabis industry, there’s continuously new retail, which is unbelievable. When my son Alan and I started Tokyo Smoke, we wanted to create a design-first environment in which people feel comfortable with cannabis.

  • BK: You see stores these days and they look like flower shops on Neptune, I mean they’re gorgeous!

    LG: My mantra is to make the world a better place through design excellence and to me, cannabis is this incredible plant that heals people, so when I see those things come together? I think it’s fabulous. It’s about time.

  • BK: You think it’s almost too much of a good thing? No lie, there’s six stores within a kilometre of my house in Toronto.

    LG: It took Ontario a long time to get where we are now, which is the AGCO processing 80 new retail locations per month. In response to the pandemic, there’s been a rise in cannabis consumption. So it’s interesting that all these stores are opening, and many are really beautiful! And yet these stores haven’t even been able to act as stores yet—rather, they are like takeouts. And despite that, they’ve done incredibly well. Although they won’t all survive, I think that the ones that will survive will be the ones putting extra emphasis on their design. How will you differentiate your brand when you’re all selling mostly the same product? Design, along with flawless execution and an eye to bringing value to customers will provide that edge.

  • BK: We’re about to enter another lockdown and it’s already happened in BC and Quebec. What are people missing in cannabis retail?

    LG: Discovering the most beautiful stores.

  • BK: Could you imagine a moment when cannabis would be “upscale”?

    LG: Design is redefining the cannabis experience and I think the intersection of quality and value is when retailing becomes spectacular. At Tokyo Smoke, we always worked with the top architecture and interior design firms in their field. I don’t know if “upscale” is the right word. Elevated, perhaps.

  • BK: Why elevated?

    LG: It addresses the stigma around cannabis. You bought it around the back door from a guy, you know the culture: my dealer knows a guy who knows a guy. Today, you don’t have to know a guy—you go on the internet and search and what hits you is design.

  • BK: Macleans called you the Godfather of Cannabis in 2017. What do you want your legacy to be?

    LG: The merging of cannabis and design excellence to create an incredible experience.

  • BK: So cool that you started that.

    LG: When you think about it, the starting point is a great product. After that, design and personalized service are the keys to a transcendent retail experience—the quality of the design, the personality of the budtender and so on. I’d like to think with regards to the early days of Tokyo Smoke, we knew that these things mattered.

  • BK: Are you proud of the industry?

    LG: Yes! You can’t walk a block in this city without seeing several cannabis stores. Soon, people will experience the stores in-person that they’d previously only seen on Instagram. There’s going to be a huge ‘wow’ factor, and I like that!

  • BK: So you’re proud?

    LG: I’m proud, I’m so proud! You can see the evolution. We went from calling up a drug dealer and he’d meet you in the park and you passed him a bag of money, to having illegal dispensaries, to then having legal ones with the armed guards out front, and we just keep progressing. It keeps getting better.

  • BK: The illegal shop by my house had a huge dog walking around, like a pit bull.

    LG: Operators like that certainly weren’t thinking about design. I’d been around the world, I’d travelled, and I knew if we designed something incredible, we could set the standard for what the future of cannabis retail could be.

  • BK: What do you want next from cannabis retail?

    LG: Window displays! I don’t like how the stores have to block their windows and I don’t think it’s necessary—nor is it something we’ll see down the road. Your windows are what invite curious people into your shops.

  • BK: How did Tokyo Smoke begin?

    LG: At the time in 2015, there were only illegal dispensaries and design wasn’t something that people thought of. I thought they should.

  • BK: You started out selling coffee and clothes, right?

    LG: Yes, we had this little store on Adelaide designed by architect Steven Fong. Our main offering was coffee, and alongside that we sold clothes, well-designed cannabis accessories and other esoterica in a cannabis positive environment.

  • BK: What do you remember about 10.17?

    LG: I was at our Tokyo Smoke in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and it was one of those awesome moments when you’re so proud and that changed my life. You just stand back and say, ‘Wow. My dream is becoming a reality.”

  • BK: The price Canopy paid for your dream was hundreds of millions of dollars. After so many years in the industry, how did you feel when the deal was done?

    LG: That we had built something great and that design mattered.

  • BK: And what do you feel when you walk into a store today?

    LG: That our DNA was strong. I look in the stores today and they feel like our stores.

  • BK: What’s your prognosis for the future?

    LG: I see more cannabis and design excellence—two things that make people happy.