Inside the mad dash for legal pot shops to open
Hamilton will soon have 2 legal pot shops: Hello Cannabis and Canna Cabana
Lately, Stephen Verbeek's life is one of chaos, sawdust, and weed.
Verbeek is the CEO of Hello Cannabis, which is acting as a consultant for the opening of a legal storefront dispensary at 51 Cootes Drive in Dundas alongside owner Santino Coppolino. It's right next door to Verbeek's medicinal marijuana business of the same name.
There were hopes the shop would be open by this Saturday, but standing in the shell of the building amid the sound of saw blades slicing, Verbeek says that was impossible. Counters aren't yet installed, wires are hanging from the ceiling, and the air inside the building still smells like fresh cut wood.
"I had a full head of hair when we started," he said with a smile.
The pressures of the situation are palpable, but Verbeek and general manager Frank Germana are trying to take them in stride.
"We literally can't work harder, or faster, or with more people," Verbeek said.
This then is the state of legal storefront dispensaries in Ontario, as they scramble to open weeks after April 1, which was the first day such stores were legal in the province.
A handful of stores, like RELM Cannabis on Fairview Street in Burlington, managed to open by that date — though the majority of the 25 shops granted licences did not.
1 shop opening in Hamilton this weekend
One Hamilton pot shop will open this weekend, when Canna Cabana Hamilton holds its grand opening at the Centre on Barton, complete with a ribbon cutting with mayor Fred Eisenberger, a live band, and a 4:20 celebration (because of course).
It's been a long process to get to this point. Though cannabis has been available online in Ontario since legalization day in October, storefronts didn't launch on Oct. 17 like they did in many other provinces.
Premier Doug Ford's government scrapped the public model with government-run stores planned by the former Liberal government in lieu of private retailers just months before legalization.
Retailers say the lateness of that move, alongside deadlines and regulations from the province and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), have made things difficult — coupled with the fact that no one has ever done this (legally) in Ontario.
Delays will prove costly, too. The terms of their agreement with the AGCO allows the province to draw upon $50,000 letters of credit from retailers, to the tune of $12,500 for the first day a store isn't open, and an additional $12,500 if they aren't open on April 15.
An additional $25,000 is then lost if they aren't open by the end of April.
Both Canna Cabana and Hello Cannabis say the province has indicated it will be drawing from their respective letters of credit, meaning they are out thousands.
No doubt those costs will be offset by a surge in demand when stores first open. Long lineups are common at the dispensaries that are open across the province, and Hello Cannabis is expecting something similar.
"We're preparing for 900 people a day," Germana said. Seeing as there were once more than 80 illegal dispensaries operating across the city, that figure doesn't seem unattainable. Police say there are currently 12 illegal dispensaries still open in Hamilton.
'This is going to clean up fast'
Anyone looking at Hello Cannabis' space on Wednesday would be forgiven for thinking that opening in just over a week's time seems like an extraordinarily tall task. The ceiling was still being installed in the morning, alongside fixtures and the security system.
"This is going to clean up fast," Germana said, assuredly. "These are the finishing details."
"It's like a village working here overnight," said Verbeek, who openly marveled at the progress that had been made when he first walked through the door in the morning.
The shop will have a lounge area at the front where people can line up, and have their IDs checked before being buzzed into the main part of the store.
Once inside, registers will be on one side, with "sensory displays" on the other so people can see and smell different strains of pot.
"We're going for the Apple of cannabis retail, with a Muskoka cottage feel," Germana said.
The store will employ 20 front-end staff and another 10 behind the scenes. Demand to work there was high, with 800 job applications submitted in just seven days. The youngest employee is 23, and the oldest is 71-years-old.
Supply has been an issue for the province so far, with some customers complaining about a lack of selection and products selling out. The government said the reason it capped the initial amount of stores at 25 was to ensure healthy supply chains.
Newfoundland and Labrador, by contrast, opened 28 stores on legalization day with a population of just over 525,000 people, compared to Ontario's 14.32 million.
"We've been told and promised that there is no supply shortage," Verbeek said. "But as someone who has been in the legal cannabis space for six years, nothing has ever really gone as expected or told."