Rebranding Marijuana

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Tokyo Smoke and the risks of building a business that isn’t (yet) legal

Written by
Samantha Edwards

Photos courtesy of
Tokyo Smoke

On a quiet street just south of Toronto’s bustling Queen Street West neighbourhood, Tokyo Smoke Found is wedged inside the loading dock of an old photo-finishing factory. A barista is working a walk-up espresso bar that faces the street, where a line of trendy businessmen, young parents with strollers in tow, and neighbourhood urbanites begins to form on an early weekday morning.

From the outside, Tokyo Smoke’s flagship location is an indie coffee shop. But inside, the space’s other identity quickly reveals itself.

Perched on shelves in the 330-square-foot shop are gleaming $600 vaporizers next to designer-made metal grinders, arty concrete ashtrays, and wood-and-glass pipes. And if all goes to plan, within the next year, Tokyo Smoke’s own line of marijuana will be for sale too.

Communal table and curated goods at the back of Tokyo Smoke Found.
Communal table and curated goods at the back of Tokyo Smoke Found.

Founded by the father-and-son team of Lorne Gertner (a self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneur”) and Alan Gertner (a former Google exec), Tokyo Smoke has a built a business of stress relief that aims to redesign the marijuana brand. They’re trying to rewrite decades of Cheech and Chong, colourful bongs, and anamorphic weed leaves with squinty red eyes for a new demographic of design-conscious, sophisticated, and modern pot users.

Attempting to change the culture of pot is a bold risk; one in which the Gertners have already invested around $1 million. It’s especially audacious when you consider Tokyo Smoke is based on a product that’s still illegal in Canada. Even with possible recreational weed legislation at least six months away, the duo is making big bets they can turn Tokyo Smoke into a premier boutique for high-end weed.

“We’ve yet to see the emergence of the Grey Goose or the Patrón of marijuana — the kind of high-end lifestyle brands that people choose because they have an emotional connection to them,” says Alan, as we sip coffee and tea outside of Tokyo Smoke Found.

Tokyo Smoke’s Winter Blend medium-roast coffee
Tokyo Smoke’s Winter Blend medium-roast coffee

To form emotional resonance with potential customers, Alan and Lorne believe the experience of buying weed is going to have to change completely. Once pot is legal in Canada, they figure the average smoker or the weed-curious passerby won’t want to be seen in traditional head shops, where the smell of burning incense is as omnipresent as psychedelic Bob Marley posters. They’ve modelled Tokyo Smoke Found as an alternative: it’s hip and has free Wi-Fi, espresso, and curated weed paraphernalia. Moreover, Alan and Lorne also predict that the actual names used for different strains of marijuana (see Alien Dawg, Lemon Skunk, or AK-47) will change to adapt to mainstream consumers. “We’re bringing a level of design to a messy, dirty industry,” says Lorne.

It’s something that Lorne has been thinking about for a while, long before Tokyo Smoke opened its first brick-and-mortar shop in the spring of 2015. Lorne first entered the weed business in 2000, a year before Canada’s first medical marijuana legislation was introduced. In 2004, he founded PharmaCan Capital, an investment company that has stakes in five of Canada’s 35 legal medical marijuana grow-ops. His expertise transcends into design too; he had a hand in creating Toronto’s first-ever fashion week and is a trained architect. The year before Tokyo Smoke’s opening, Alan had just quit his job as a management consultant leading Google’s Asia-Pacific sales team, where he was handling a $150-million account in Singapore. Burnt-out at age 30 from the constant “pursuit of the next promotion,” he went on a series of soul-searching journeys, including a secondment to Ghana, a road trip from London to Mongolia, and a job as a backcountry ski guide in Japan. It was during this time off that Lorne came to Alan with the idea of starting a high-end marijuana lifestyle brand based inside a coffee shop. “Alan and I have very different views on things,” says Lorne. “I’m very design-driven, and Alan is data-driven. It creates a really nice tension that allows us to be incredibly creative.”

We’ve yet to see the emergence of the Grey Goose or the Patrón of marijuana — the kind of high-end lifestyle brands that people choose because they have an emotional connection to them.

For the past year and a half, Alan and Lorne have been developing Tokyo Smoke’s four proprietary strains of marijuana: Go, Relax, Relief, and Balance. Go is a sativa (which offers an energetic, uplifting high), Relax is an indica for a calming body high, Balance is a sativa-indica blend, and Relief is used for pain relief.

By giving each strain a simple name that describes the experience they’ll provide users, Alan hopes the differentiation will help customers realize not all pot is made equal. “I don’t think we’ll live in a future where consumers will go to a counter and buy a strain called Fucking Wreck,” says Alan. “As marijuana becomes more mainstream, we’ll develop a sophisticated nomenclature so customers really understand there are different types of pot out there.”

The Little Black Book of Marijuana

And there’s no doubt that marijuana is entering the mainstream. A 2015 Forum Research survey found that 59 per cent of Canadians support legalization. And the rate at which dispensaries are popping up in Toronto alone shows there’s a high demand to buy pot from beyond a dealer. Lorne says a lot of closet smokers are now coming out and points to how Bill Clinton and Justin Trudeau handled their own respective marijuana scandals. “[In 1992] Clinton said, ‘I didn’t inhale,’” says Lorne, “whereas with Trudeau, it’s not even an issue. Everyone knows he’s smoked pot. He’s not scared to say it.”

We have no idea how this is going to play out, and that’s stressful. You have to roll with the punches; you have to be able to morph quickly and be very adaptable to what the change is.

Instead of gaudy bongs, marijuana users are spending big bucks on vaporizers (like The Weeknd’s limited-edition matte black Pax 2 vaporizer, which turns on to the tune of his song The Hills), $500 copper joint-rolling stands, or a Tom Dixon-designed brass-plated stash container.

Marley Natural walnut prep tray

Other companies are also elevating marijuana’s perception. The licensed producer Tweed sells its bud in artisanal-looking jars and even hired a creative director to manage its brand, while Queens of Cannabis (a dispensary located in downtown Toronto) hosts a high tea on Sundays where women can drink organic tea and nibble on weed-infused cookies.

As Alan and Lorne think about how they plan to revolutionize marijuana’s public image, their biggest obstacle remains out of their hands. Recreational weed use is still illegal in Canada, and until the federal government passes new legislation, Tokyo Smoke’s biggest aspirations are in limbo. This fall, the committee overseeing how to legalize the sale and purchase of recreational marijuana will make its recommendations, with possible legislation coming next spring. Right now, it’s not clear who will be able to sell weed. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne wants sales to be restricted to the LCBO. A 94-page report written by a task force for the Canada Post Corporation review noted that the Crown corporation is already the sole agent for delivering medical marijuana across the country and that its 6,200+ post offices and retail outlets could potentially serve as storefronts for weed sales. MP and former police chief Bill Blair, who is Trudeau’s right-hand man on the issue, suggested it could be handled by Canada’s current licensed producers. If the sales are restricted to a single entity like the LCBO, it poses a big problem for Tokyo Smoke. They might not be able to sell their own strains of marijuana directly, despite investing plenty of money and time in building their brand. And this is all assuming, of course, that weed is legalized sometime in the near future.

I’m trying to predict the future of pot, which is super stressful. I might never have another opportunity to be a part of defining an industry.

It’s a worry that neither Lorne nor Alan are taking lightly. “I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve been beat up a lot,” says Lorne. “We have no idea how this is going to play out, and that’s stressful. You have to roll with the punches; you have to be able to morph quick and be very adaptable to what the change is.”

Alan adds, “I have no shortage of moments where the uncertainty is difficult to manage. Not only are we building a new business, but we’re building it in an industry that is itself developing.” For all the unknowns, Alan is quick to emphasize that they launched Tokyo Smoke before Justin Trudeau was elected, so the timeline is going more quickly than they expected.

In the meantime, Tokyo Smoke is diversifying its brand. They created four blends of specialty tea that correspond to their four strains of weed, in addition to a limited-edition custom candle collaboration with Brennan Michael. With a $45 price tag per candle (also inspired by their four strains), these candles represent the new discerning marijuana user Tokyo Smoke is after. They’ve designed a men’s clothing line that they sell at their shop and through the retailer Gotstyle. This past May, they opened another coffee shop and tropical plant store, Tokyo Smoke Green, in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood. They’ve travelled around Toronto on their Tokyo Smoke Trike, a pedal- and propane-powered coffee shop on a bike, in addition to hosting pop-ups in California’s Venice Beach and at Toronto’s Drake General Store. Looking at the year ahead, they’re planning to launch a vaporizer designed by star industrial designer Karim Rashid. They’re betting on vaporizers as the future of recreational weed consumption. “Joints will be like cigars, smoked on special occasions,” says Alan.

Alan Gertner and Lorne Gertner

In September 2016, Tokyo Smoke made one of its biggest moves yet: they teamed up with licensed producer Aphria to grow and sell their four strains of marijuana to Aphria’s 4,675 patients — a number that’s expected to double in 2017.

For Alan and Lorne, they’ve scrutinized every detail of their brand, from the curated collection of items that sit on their shops’ shelves to their business cards that double as grinders. Their approach is obsessive — both are self-professed workaholics — but with the core of their business out of their hands, they need to control whatever they can.

Their next challenge still remains the seemingly impossible. “I’m trying to predict the future of pot, which is super stressful,” says Alan. “I might never have another opportunity to be a part of defining an industry.”

Samantha Edwards

Samantha is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She has written for The Globe and Mail, NOW magazine, Toronto Life, Chatelaine and Canadian Living.

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