Modern cannabis is so diverse — people don’t even really understand the breadth of choices that they

Alysia Gadson

General manager at Kannabis Works

I’ve been in and around cannabis at different times during my life and I decided that it was time to get back into the cannabis industry, especially with it being legal now. I had worked in cannabis when it was under Prop. 215, which was the caregiver act, which meant that you could grow up to 99 plants legally if you had people as members of your organization; there were a lot of loopholes to make it work, and I did, so I’ve been a cannabis cultivator professionally. My idea was to work here at Kannabis Works for maybe a year and then go back to Australia and really kick things off there. But Australia has been really slow to legalize. I thought we’d be a lot further along over there by now. I approached the friend that I used to grow cannabis with ten years ago and said, “Hey, I’d like a job if you’ve got one in the dispensary, I just want to work on the floor, learn the products, meet people, and go back to Australia.” They said yes and they were very surprised that I was willing to leave a director-level international sales job for a floor sales staff, $14-an-hour retail job.

Throw yourself in at the bottom and just figure it out. I hesitate to call it “at the bottom” because retail staff are really the face of the business. It is an entry-level position to the industry but it’s an important position and it’s the best place to work. I get excited when I’m driving to work because it’s amazing, it’s just such an opportunity to be here. It’s an exciting environment and it’s fast-paced and because sales are growing so quickly that brings its own challenges, but I like that. I like that fast growth, that’s a vibe that I’ve been drawn to.

March 20 was the day that we realized COVID just got up close and really real, we’re going to need to change the way that we do things because we are considered essential workers. Cannabis is considered medicine but we have a duty of care to protect our customers and also our employees. A lot of people thought we overreacted when we said we were closing the store to the public and we put a folding table with a table cloth across the front of the shop and switched over to online ordering. Literally within 24 hours, we had a website set up that could take online orders, we reconfigured the entire shop, moved cash registers, we did everything on the spot because that’s my vibe: there’s a change that needs to be made, I’m going to make it now. We did it, and we’ve only been growing; every single month we get busier.

Over the next month or so we continued to pivot, like selling accessories — little glass pipes and all the stuff that cannabis users might need in addition to the actual cannabis. We never used to sell very much of that stuff because it’s all those smoke shops that are everywhere that sell it. Well, they’re all closed due to COVID and I realized that we could probably sell more of that type of thing so I started displaying it at the front table across the front of the store and now it’s a big piece of our business. Now I can barely keep up with buying enough of it. That’s just mind-blowing to me: it’s only been a couple of months and suddenly it’s like a major product category for us, where it used to be something that we dusted once a week. But seeing opportunities like that is what gets me so excited.

There’s a lot of legal things that we have to think about with cannabis, like we can’t display a cannabis product right at the front of the shop, but we can display everything else and have the cannabis products a little farther back where they’re still within eye line. Anything that I’m trying to increase the sales of, like a particular brand or product category, I put it in that eye line of the person that’s waiting to pay, and it starts to sell more. That has helped us grow product categories that maybe weren’t our strongest previously.

We realized that online ordering is a big part of our business, sometimes there’s like 10 people in line at the front — half of them have ordered online, half of them haven’t. We need to expedite the online orders to encourage people to keep doing that, so I bought us a sneeze guard, a plexiglass window, and opened up an online order pickup area. Now if you order online, you’re in and out of here in under two minutes. If you didn’t order ahead, that’s fine, we’ll help you, but it might take an extra few minutes. It’s helping us be more efficient and increase the number of people we can service per hour without having to increase human resource cost. The numbers are everything; that’s how you stay in business in retail. I think that companies that are going to survive, let alone thrive, through COVID are ones who are really watching the numbers like that. That’s where my business background and working for myself for 15 years pays off because I know how to focus on the right numbers. That mental agility of, “Ok, the Governor handed down a mandate that everyone must wear a mask” or whatever it is, and being able to just walk in and say, “Ok, we’re doing it this way today.” To have fostered an environment with the staff where they all roll with those pivots is also huge. We don’t have anybody who is resistant to those kinds of changes. Having built that sort of culture in a company is something that the other manager and I are really proud of.

Pre-COVID, this was a very personalized, high-end shopping experience. You or you and the friend that came with you would be with one person that would walk you around the entire store, show you what’s available, talk about what brought you here today, whether it’s that you’re going to a party and you want to take a pack of pre-rolled joints or maybe you’re 80 years old and you’ve got arthritis and your hands hurt and you can’t knit. People come for such a wide variety of reasons. Anxiety is another big one and we have products that are specially formulated to help people get through the anxiety of today. So we teach the staff here to ask the important questions and respectfully dig a little bit and find out how comfortable are people with cannabis. Not everybody wants to smoke cannabis and not everybody has to. Sometimes for sleep, for example, there are tinctures that are just a few drops under your tongue that if you’re used to the 2 am wake-up, it can kind of smooth you through that. Modern cannabis is so diverse — people don’t even really understand the breadth of choices that they have.

So we used to have that high-end shopping experience and now in the COVID world it’s very much an online order and pick up at the door experience. Some people do still need a lot more help than that and they can work with us one-on-one; we pull them to the side or have them sit in the conference room, everybody’s in masks, and walk them through that similar shopping experience, just not through the shop floor itself. We’re doing our best to continue to offer a really personalized experience, but an expedited one. Where a new customer who maybe has several different issues, like insomnia, pain, and anxiety, that person maybe in the past would have spent half an hour with one of us walking the shop floor and really learning a lot; now it’s more of a quick turnaround because there’s 10 people in line and so we can tell them, “Hey, here’s three different products that can help with what you’ve told us you need help with today; if you would like additional help we offer free of charge online meetings with one of our wellness people and you can do a phone call or a Zoom call and they’ll walk you through, take as much time as you want.” So we still offer that very personalized experience, but it’s one more step that they have to connect with those people and then get the help that they want. Our seniors love it. We have a senior specialist who will walk them through on a Zoom call and show them how the shopping cart works and talk about different products that might be helpful to them. They can complete their order while they’re on that call and then have it ready for pick up in the store or we can deliver it.

A lot of the people who work here are cannabis-comfortable. They’ve either been cannabis consumers, or they have somebody in the family who maybe had cancer and used cannabis to help get through their cancer treatments. So a lot of our staff already know quite a bit and then it’s more the medical applications that we need to teach. All of the staff here go through a training program, it’s called Healer and it was written by Dr. Dustin Sulak. He and a number of other medical professionals have provided this content that teaches us about cannabis’s medicine and different ways to ingest it and how that will affect different people in various ways.

Another thing that we’ve fostered with the staff is an environment where it’s ok to say, “I don’t know that as well as I would like to, to be able to help you; let me get somebody who knows this product category better.” We just pass different customers off to each other. I don’t dab a lot, I don’t do a lot of concentrates, I don’t know that product category backwards and forwards. I know enough to be able to suggest something that someone would like, but if someone’s got really detailed questions, I’ll pass them off to somebody who that’s their passion. Whereas seniors and sleep disorders and pain, that’s really what I’m passionate about and so other staff here will pass people along to me. I’m really into cannabis for pets and I can tell you a lot about that. We have cannabis pet products and so if somebody comes and says my dog has cancer or tumors and it’s his last week on earth and he’s in a lot of pain and can you help? Yes, I can, here’s what we have. I think we’re definitely a team of generalists with specialties.

I think that once we get to federally legal, the state lines won’t be so important and the industry will grow again. Right now you can’t produce a cannabis product in Oregon and bring it to California, that’s illegal. You have to produce in the state where you’re selling it. So I think we’re still really in the early stages of a very long upward climb. At first it was all small growers and family farms, that’s all there was. Now it’s big business. Now there are businesses that have hundreds of thousands of square feet of growing facilities in multiple locations across the state. Imagine walking into a grow facility that’s four times the size of Costco… and there’s a bigger one across the street. It’s boggling! And that’s just locally here in Southern California. Here are all these kids who were smoking weed during their teen years and their parents said, “You’ll never amount to anything,” and now they’re making $150,000 as the head of operations in a major indoor growing facility. This industry has really turned things around and created careers that nobody saw coming.

The problem with being federally illegal is that you can’t have a bank account. We pay taxes on cannabis products at 32%. City, state, and excise tax. It’s a cash industry… it’s very dangerous! It’s been a boon for security services. Every shop has security all the time because you have to. But that’s definitely my biggest frustration: the banking thing. There’s a lot of those kinds of things that have gone along with an industry that’s still emergent. I think if they had treated cannabis more like it was just alcohol, and destigmatized it in terms of legalization and taxing and banks and stuff like that, we would be in a very different position. But because we’re still being treated like a fringe operation, even though we are a very big business. This is a huge industry, and just the disparities in laws and the ways things are implemented… your city regulations might not be completely in line with the state-level regulations and then who do you choose? It is an absolute minefield. I am so grateful that it is not my job to figure out exactly the fine line of the law for everything because it’s really confusing and it changes all the time. That comes back to that agility as a business: ok, we used to be able to do things this way but the law changed yesterday and so today we will do it this way. You just have to be able to implement it on the spot and roll with it. But trying to figure out how to do that with a level of efficiency that makes the product still affordable… that’s a challenge sometimes. Like, there’s the metric track and trace system which traces every cannabis product from seed to sale. Literally. All the way through, through any manufacturing step that it went through, through the distributor, through the guy that delivered it here, through us signing it in, to where it’s kept in the shop, all the way to the final sale and as it goes out the door, it is tracked at the state level. There’s bar codes on everything. Everything that comes into the shop has to be QR coded. We report back to the state at the close of business every day exactly what was sold, right down to the individual boxes of certain things. The side of the business that deals with product coming in and having it QR coded correctly and stored correctly in the shop so the right QRs go out in the right order and all of the stuff… that is a really complicated job. We have somebody that’s specially trained to work within that state system. She’s a high-level manager here, because she should be. That’s really serious. To be able to do that with an efficiency that doesn’t make the product unaffordable is really a challenge and we’re figuring it out and we’re proud of that.

Cannabis flower, the actual buds that people smoke, that is still the biggest percentage of our business. It’s less than half, though, which is really interesting because smoking flower is a time-honored tradition from college on up, right? So cannabis flower is big business, pre-rolled joints is big business. I can go home and grind up some flower and roll a joint; I would much rather that that be done by a factory and all I have to do is open the tube. We’re busy people and when you get home from work it’s a lot easier to just light a joint than to go through the process. Now, other people would prefer to come home and go through that process because it’s a part of unwinding at the end of the day so flower’s still a bigger seller than pre-rolls. The range of edibles now is just amazing: it used to be brownies or cookies and that was kind of it. Now it’s brownies, cookies, Rice Krispy treats, amazing different types of chocolates, hard candy, soft candy, all the different gummies, peanut butter and almond butter cups, gluten-free, vegan… if it’s food, it has cannabis in it. Honey and tea, loads of premade drinks: some taste like beer but have cannabis and not alcohol in them, others are more like a soda, there are some that they make to use as a mixer, like you’re making a cocktail but you’re going to put cannabis in it instead of alcohol. So the drink category is still emergent, that one I think will be the next phase of consumer interest. The medicinal products: everything from capsules and topicals, gels, creams, balms, patches, the range there is huge as well. And then of course all the vape products. Vaping’s really popular because it’s easy to take with you, it doesn’t smell like cannabis.

The range of products is just incredible but I think edibles is the one that I get really excited about because I love food! There’s a brand called La Familia and it’s a group of young people in L.A. who decided that the Hispanic community was underserved by the cannabis market, which was very true. So La Familia is a family of cannabis edible products and they have drinks as well, but they’re very much rooted in Hispanic flavors, so there’s horchata, there’s marzipan, chocolates, and Rice Krispy treats that are just freaking delicious. To be able to work with a company like that — it started as just two guys who had an idea and now they’re a major player in L.A. cannabis — that’s really exciting. As much as big cannabis is going to, not completely take over the industry, but you know, it is going to be a lot of big commercial brands and then some little guys that are like the craft beer companies. That’s what the cannabis industry is going to grow into very very quickly. Everybody’s sad to see some small businesses not make it, others get absorbed into these huge companies and the owners do very well, so good for them. And then there’s always going to be space for people who are just mom and pop and they came up with a great idea and they sell in a few local stores and they do really well… there’s always going to be room for them. I love that about cannabis.

The reason that the cannabis industry moves forward is that there are so many of us that are passionate advocates and we believe in the power of the plant, we believe that people should have access to safe legal cannabis. There’s still a big disparity between what’s available in licensed and unlicensed shops. Unlicensed shops are still out there, there are lots of them. The unlicensed industry is huge. It still dwarfs the legal industry because being legal in cannabis is really expensive and there’s a lot of people who would rather not go to that expense and they’re willing to roll the dice and continue to operate in the unlicensed market. I’m proud of working in a legal shop because our products are tested. I can assure you that there are no pesticides or metals or fungi or other things that you shouldn’t ingest in the products that you buy here because you can pick literally any product off my shelf and I can immediately produce the certificate of analysis that shows you that that individual product batch has been tested for all the things that you don’t want to consume. I think that gives people a lot of comfortability in what’s still a very new product market.

I think that there probably will be a time when it’s the right time to move back to Australia and really be part of helping drive legislation and things that people have been able to do here because it is an emergent industry. But my dream of doing that in 2019… obviously it’s 2020 now and that’s sort of been sidelined. I really just believe I’m just going to keep showing up and saying yes and the right opportunity will appear on my radar on the right time and that’s when I’ll do it. I meet amazing people in the cannabis industry just by showing up and eventually one of them is going to have a company that they want to expand into Australia, and here I am! I’m a citizen and I have family there and I can move back any time. Rather than doing it sooner, I’d rather do it later because I hadn’t realized how much of an emergent industry it still is here.

I just want to help people – it’s my whole life. Whether it’s my customers or my staff, if I can help somebody feel better about the direction that they’re going in and feel excited about it, that’s what I want to do with my life. I get to do it and they pay me to show up and I can’t believe it! It’s so fun. Even a bad day here is still really good.

Learn more at: kannabisworks.com

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