Trailblazing the Cannabis Frontier: Advice from New York Dispensary Owners

A.W. Naves
September 19, 2023

In our quest to gain insight into the rapidly evolving cannabis landscape in New York, we had the privilege of sitting down with a distinguished panel of cannabis dispensary owners who have played pivotal roles in shaping this burgeoning industry. This dynamic group of entrepreneurs generously shared their experiences, challenges, and wisdom gleaned from their journeys into the world of New York cannabis dispensary ownership.

Meet our esteemed panel:

Headshot of Keshawn, co-owner of Dazed Cannabis. He is giving advice to new dispensary owners.

Keshawn Warner, co-owner of Dazed Cannabis with locations in Massachusetts and New York

Headshot of Malika C. Cellamy, who is giving her advice to new dispensary owners.

Malika C. Cellamy, Director of Communications and at Gotham Buds in New York

Headshots of the owners of Trends LIC, as they give advice to new dispensary owners.

Rodney Carter Jr., the CEO of TrendsLIC, a family-owned cannabis business in New York, ably assisted by Brandon Carter in the day-to-day operations

Their compelling stories and valuable insights shed light on the intricacies of obtaining dispensary licenses, the hurdles faced in launching their businesses, and the innovative marketing strategies that are propelling their ventures to new heights.

How did you obtain your dispensary license?

Keshawn: “In New York, there was a special program called the CAURD Program, which considered social justice applicants. I happened to fall into that category, and I checked other boxes for having qualified business experience. I was one of the first 36 selected and one of the first four in Manhattan. So, I felt like I won the lotto.”

“My family had all been impacted negatively by the cannabis laws. We had all been arrested, but my brother and I had charges dropped to lesser charges. My father has a conviction, so he became our justice-involved case. We’re a family business started by my father and his partner, me, and my brother.”

How does your dispensary positively impact your community?

Keshawn: “The first impact that we have is by hiring and adding jobs. We were able to hire a bunch of people, so we added to the workforce. Other than that, this was an empty storefront. So, from a community perspective, you have an empty storefront that's now a viable business that brings in tax revenues and continues to bring more foot traffic to the area.”

Malika: “We are promoting the evolution of not just a Black business but of Black women in business. There are not a lot of Black women in cannabis. There are not a lot of women, in general, in the cannabis business — but especially not Black women and women of color. We're building a legacy here. We believe in our community, and we want to find and express new and innovative ways to pour into the community. We want to idealize entrepreneurship and show them that anyone can succeed. We want to show even the youth in the area that we and the surrounding neighborhoods and communities worldwide have options — that there are legal, safe ways to get to the top of the batch, for lack of a better phrase.”

Do you have any advice for anyone applying for a license?

Keshawn: “Hire the experts to help you get through the paperwork. If you don't have the means to hire experts, speak to friends who may have those skills to help you out. If you just can’t get help, just take your time. There's no need to rush. The market is still brand new. It is going to grow. But the paperwork is what trips everybody up. So, if you don't get it right the first time, they'll kick it back, and then it gets more frustrating. They'll prolong the process. Seek whatever free resources that you can. There's a lot of free resources out there.”

Rodney: “You need to have your backing, your support system, and your team together so you can bounce ideas off of one another. Be ready to move quickly because I do believe that this is an early-to-market game. I do think that the first people to market will be the most successful. Get it done early.”

Do you have any advice for a first-time dispensary owner?

Keshawn: “It's gonna be a lot of work. It's fun, but you actually have to run the business, so learn how to run the business. Cannabis is a product. It’s like sneakers. It'll sell itself, but it won't keep the doors open if your business model isn't appropriate or if your staff isn't trained appropriately to work with the customer base. So, I would say just get your business-savvy up and let everything else take its course.”

Malika: “Have patience and surround yourself with people you can trust. Do your due diligence. Do the research to understand your industry. Reach out and find forums, publications, articles, and people who are willing to talk to you, so that you come into the space knowing what you're talking about and being able to have a real way to connect to others in the space. Tapping into your village is critical to me.”

How do you find great budtenders?

Keshawn: “I think the key to a successful business in any industry is your front staff. Our budtenders, we've handpicked them. We did a wide search and we cast a wide net, but then we pulled a few in and these few happened to be great. And that's been part of the reason why things have been going so well for us.”

Malika: “Well, fortunately for us, we had a lot of partners in that endeavor. Our CFO, Omar, is spearheading that for the time being, but we have people sorting out regulations, as well. Working with great partners like KayaPush helps us strategize and make sure we are not only recruiting but retaining top talent. We want to serve them the best way possible once they are on board. Daphne and other groups have helped generate a pool of candidates who have been background vetted and fielded. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit. For us, it's just hiring and retaining folks that are just as passionate about cannabis as we are, but also passionate about the brand and our vision.”

How do you approach budtender training?

Keshawn: “When we brought them in, we had three days of budtender training on-site where we taught compliance. We talked about the brand, so they know who we are. We brought some vendors in to talk about products. We did that throughout three days. And then we did a lot of point-of-sale training. We wanted to make sure that they had as much experience and exposure to everything as possible beforehand. I mean that's the most vital piece cause they're the first and last person that your customers encounter when they're in your store.”

What obstacles did you face in getting your dispensary off the ground?

Rodney: “Finding a location was difficult. A lot of people are struggling with that part of the process because the regulations are so tight as far as being away from the schools, the churches, and the other locations. You have to really look to find a place and then work hard with real estate folks and a lawyer to secure it.”

Malika: “Being completely transparent, this is the cannabis industry. You're gonna have folks who, for personal reasons or moral compass, might be anti-cannabis or don’t think it should be legal. So, you're gonna have those sorts of adversaries. That's a naturally reoccurring part of this business. It's happened not just with us, but there are folks who are pushing against the grain with other businesses as they prop up. But cannabis is here to stay. It is very much legal in New York City and many other cities across the country and across the globe. It's something that's healing and helping people. So that's what we try to maintain our focus on, even though folks who are against it often push back.”

How did you create your brand?

Malika: “We have categories in terms of audiences. Our mission and vision is to create a safe space for all folks who consume cannabis. We want to speak to all those walks of life that we found really seem to benefit from the therapeutic and wellness benefits of cannabis. 

One audience is the everyday consumers who know all the nitty, gritty aspects of a cannabis bud. These folks know about cannabis and want to lean into real premium products.

Then you have your artists and creatives who utilize and build relationships with cannabis in order to help empower them. It's part of their creativity. These are also your hipsters, your downtown folks, who are a touch different or unique and have a different creative approach or perspective to life in general.

You also have the tastemakers. These are folks like your Diddy. They are from Harlem but have since evolved and elevated. They are invested and expect the best of the best. They know their stuff and want high quality.

We’ve rounded all of these things up to build a sort of empire that speaks to all of those people across all walks of life. We've come from Gotham and are essentially Gotham. The name speaks to those darker, mysterious spaces in every city, not just across New York.

So, this is our way of reaching out and touching Gotham in every space to say, ‘Hey, you have a place here. You have a family here. You have folks who look like you and feel like you, who understand your journey. And here is something to help you along the way to just enhance it and make it better.’”

How do you plan to market your dispensary?

Rodney: “We are just starting marketing now. So, we started our page. Our website is currently being built out. We also started our social media page, and we are trying to get some traction on those. We're going to bring in a PR firm and marketing company to help us generate some press. We would like to have some of the politicians come out for our opening day — definitely some news channels as well. We’ve also created our own in-house marketing team.”

Malika: “Gotham is pretty expansive because it crosses over multiple pillars and tears. We have our core cannabis business, but also fashion and apparel. We have our in-house music production center as well, so we'll have artists coming through. We want to ensure that Black and brown folks, others who look like us, and folks of color have safe access to premium cannabis. That's the main focus.”

Parting Advice for New Dispensary Owners

In an industry marked by groundbreaking changes and opportunities, our conversation with these cannabis pioneers has not only unveiled the inner workings of the cannabis dispensaries world but also exemplified the resilience, dedication, and community-driven spirit that underpin their success stories. As New York's cannabis landscape continues to evolve, their experiences serve as a beacon of inspiration for those who aspire to enter this transformative industry.

From navigating the intricacies of licensing to fostering positive community impacts, these entrepreneurs have demonstrated that success in the cannabis business is attainable with the right mix of passion, perseverance, and a commitment to creating lasting change. Their collective wisdom and unwavering dedication to excellence in product and service offerings set a high standard for the industry's future.

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September 2023


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