Ep 351 – Maine Cannabis Company Thrives in a New Market

brandon pollock theory wellness

Maine cannabis sales are booming after dispensaries were finally given the green light to sell recreational cannabis last fall, but this new market isn’t without its challenges.

Here to tell us about it is Brandon Pollock of Theory Wellness.

Learn more at https://theorywellness.org

Key Takeaways:

[2:14] An inside look at Theory Wellness, a small batch cannabis company with recreational and medical dispensaries in Massachusetts and Maine

[2:57] Brandon’s background in cannabis and how he came to start Theory Wellness

[4:36] Lessons Brandon learned during his time working for Harborside and how they’ve influenced his approach at Theory Wellness

[7:11] The pros and cons of being vertically integrated in the cannabis industry right now

[8:53] Why Maine dispensaries are having a difficult time meeting their supply needs

[10:25] The best selling products in Maine right now

[11:25] Unique aspects of the east coast cannabis market and where Brandon sees it heading over the next few years

[13:53] What it means to be a “small batch” cannabis company and how that sets Theory Wellness apart from other dispensaries

[15:03] How Theory Wellness is expanding into new states despite difficulties scaling a small batch cannabis company

[17:38] The inspiration for Theory Wellness’ successful new product Hi5, a low-dose THC seltzer

[19:02] How Hi5 compares to similar alcoholic seltzers in onset and overall effect

[19:59] Why Brandon believes cannabis beverages like Hi5 will surpass alcohol over the next few years

[22:26] Challenges Theory Wellness has faced in distributing their cannabis drinks

[24:02] How Theory Wellness is helping more entrepreneurs get into the cannabis space through its social equity programs in Maine and Massachusetts

Click Here to Read Full Transcript

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Matthew Kind: Hi, I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com that's C-A-N-N-A insider dot com. Now here's your program. Hi, CannaInsiders just a quick note before today's interview gets started, that my colleague Sinead Green will be interviewing today's guest. Sinead is--

Sinead Green: Hey, Matt.

Matt: Oh, my God, you scared me. Sinead, I didn't realize you were in the sound booth.

Sinead: Sorry about that, Matt.

Matt: Sinead, since you popped into the sound booth here. This is a great time to just say hello to all the listeners since I was talking about you.

Sinead: Sounds great, I'd love to. Hey, everybody - I'm Sinead Green and I've actually been working with Matt behind the scenes for a couple of years now. I'm so excited to put on my hosting hat and really get a chance to engage with you and bring you some more great interviews. I just want to say if there's someone you'd like us to bring on the show, please feel free to email me your suggestions at sg@cannainsider.com. I'd love to hear from you and I really hope you enjoy these upcoming shows.

Matt: Gosh, I want to get a host again, now that you mentioned it, I'm thinking like huge purple velvet hat. What do you think about that?

Sinead: I think that would look great on you, Matt.

Matt: Really important, Sinead. We want you to do a good job but not better than me. Does that sound fair?

Sinead: We'll see about that.

[laughter]

Matt: All right. Everybody, enjoy this episode with the host, Sinead.

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Sinead: Nearly four years after voters approved legalization in Maine, retail stores were finally given the green light to sell recreational cannabis last year and the lines have been out the door. Here to tell us about it is Brandon Pollock of Theory Wellness, a vertically integrated cannabis retailer with some of the few licensed recreational stores in Maine and Massachusetts. Welcome to CannaInsider, Brandon.

Brandon Pollock: Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

Sinead: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world right now?

Brandon: Right now, I am in our office, which is super exciting. We have an office north of Boston where we spend some time when we're not on the road visiting our facilities or looking for new projects to work on.

Sinead: Oh, great. What is Theory Wellness on a high level?

Brandon: On the highest level, Theory Wellness is our cannabis project that we've been working on since 2015 on the east coast. We're a vertically integrated cannabis company where we cultivate different varieties of cannabis produce a wide variety of products and distribute that to our customers. Both adult-use customers and medical patients through our own dispensaries and we're currently located in Massachusetts and Maine.

Sinead: Great. Before I want to jump into everything about Theory Wellness, I wanted to talk a little bit about your background. How did you originally get into the cannabis space and what led you to start Theory Wellness?

Brandon: Sure, that's a great question. I've been entrepreneurial if you will, my entire life. Myself and the other founder of Theory Wellness, my business partner, Nick Friedman. We started our first company together in college, actually. In about 2014 or so, we both became aware of the medical cannabis movement that was happening primarily on the West Coast and it seemed really interesting. We saw that in Massachusetts, where we were working and living at the time, there were some discussions about medical cannabis. It had been officially legalized, but there were no dispensaries opened yet.

We decided to head out to California and do some consulting for some of the operators out there to sort of learn what this industry was all about. I began working for Harborside Health Center out of Oakland, California, which at the time was the largest and one the first dispensaries in the country. It was just a fascinating thing to see. There were so many patients coming through the door every day that we were helping. It was playing a huge role in their life. For us, it seemed clear that this would be something that would benefit people on the East Coast and was going to be part of the future there. That was the genesis for starting Theory.

Sinead: Great. I heard you mentioned you worked at Harborside, we've actually had a few people from Harborside on the show. How did that period of time influence your approach at Theory Wellness? Did you take any lessons from your time there?

Brandon: Yes, absolutely. They were one of the pioneers and we have a ton of respect for what they've done. They were truly on the forefront of bringing cannabis, as they like to say, out of the shadows and into the light. Really what that means is creating a welcoming environment for patients, testing their products for safety and potency, and just generally treating cannabis as a more open and accessible treatment option.

Certainly, it is different than other medications, of course, but just creating that environment where customers can come in, patients come in and become educated, and have a wide variety of safe products was really remarkable. Nowadays, it seems the norm because it is the norm, but back then, that was a much different approach than a lot of the other medical shops were taking.

Sinead: Definitely, and I've read that you have been a longtime advocate for the repeal of cannabis prohibition. What sparked that passion and what does it mean to you to be working at the forefront of that now?

Brandon: For us, for me, I've always been since high school, a cannabis consumer, never had any adverse effects other than eating a little too much food or maybe using a little too much and feeling uncomfortable for an hour or so. The whole discrepancy between alcohol and cannabis just from the highest level makes no sense. We went through alcohol prohibition, it was a tremendous failure.

We repealed that, of course, but then we did the same thing with cannabis. Then you couple that with how prohibition is truly been disproportionately affecting certain communities in our country and the genesis of prohibition, in many ways, had racial undertones. When you look at it with today's lens and historic lenses as well, it's just a failed policy that needs to be repealed. Cannabis should be accessible for any adult without any penalties. We're heading there, which is great, but there's still a lot of work to go.

Sinead: That's great. We'll get into your social equity initiatives that you guys do at Theory Wellness later on in the interview. You mentioned earlier, you guys are vertically integrated in both Maine and Massachusetts. What are the pros and cons of being vertically integrated in the cannabis industry right now?

Brandon: Sure, that's a great question. I would say the benefits of vertical integration, there are several, but essentially, when you're controlling your own supply chain, it allows your customers and your patients to experience exactly the products that you want to produce for yourself and for them. In other words, if you are simply a dispensary, and I say simply not in a [chuckles] simple way because even that is a tough business and I have a lot of respect for who are running dispensaries. If you only are a dispensary, you're at the whims of the wholesale market.

There might be certain strains of flowers you can purchase. There might be certain types of vapes, you can purchase or different dabs. You can't really control your own destiny as much. Being vertically integrated allows you to cultivate exactly the type of cannabis you want. It also allows you to produce new products, innovative products, which we can touch on later, we just introduced a new infuse seltzer water here in Massachusetts which has been super popular. You can really control your own destiny. All that being said, it's a lot more expensive and one of the most critical issues in cannabis right now is how expensive it is to get into the industry and how that creates a lot of barriers for entrepreneurs. It's good to be vertical. We started small and we're fortunate to be able to grow our cultivation into a larger facility, expand our manufacturing, but it certainly is a little harder to get going just trying to find the capital to do so.

Sinead: I've read it's been a bit aggravating for a lot of dispensaries up in Maine right now with their supply chain. Lots of dispensaries are experiencing some big shortages right now. Was that something you guys had anticipated going into the Maine market?

Brandon: Yes, it was an interesting launch where we received one of the first cultivation permits in the state and also opened the first retail store. There was only about a month in between those two things happening. [chuckles] As we know either, you can't cultivate cannabis in only a month. Initially, it was very slim, what we could have on the menus, and it was mainly just edible, and extract products and things like that as the supply chain caught up.

We are really happy to see that on a monthly basis there are more and more new cultivators and product manufacturers getting licensed in Maine. Maine is interesting where there's a very robust Medical program. There's a lot of infrastructures there that's starting to get ported from medical [unintelligible [00:10:02] use, but it's a lot of paperwork for folks. It's a process to learn metric and see the sale tracking systems. It's been a bit of a slow process, but the month of May was the record sales of the program up there and I expect it to keep growing through the summer.

Sinead I saw that. I saw $5 million in sales last month. That's pretty groundbreaking. What would you say in Maine, specifically, has been selling best right now?

Brandon Flower is the king as it is in Massachusetts. I think most markets still though. As we've added more concentrate options on the menu, more edible options on the menu, we've started to see the initial stages of that shift away from flower and more into the different manufactured products, which is typical to what we'd expect to be seeing as customers.

They might come into a recreational dispensary for the first time. They've only smoked flower in their life. That's their only experience with cannabis. That's what they're familiar with, but on their second or third visit, they might be eyeing that chocolate bar and say, "All right I'll try one of those." We're starting to see a little bit of a shift towards more edibles, concentrates at this point.

Sinead Great. I know I've mostly been asking you about Maine. You guys are also have dispensaries across Massachusetts as well. Have there been any surprising trends that seem unique to the East Coast or the New England area you've observed over the years?

Brandon I think it's just unique and fun about the East Coast is it is still very new out here. A lot of just culture and technology in general, it starts on the West Coast out in California and works its way east and cannabis is no different. What's really I find fun and different about the East Coast is on any given day, dozens of your customers will never have been in a dispensery in their entire life.

You get to be that first experience for them and show them what it can be like to purchase legal cannabis, what the different products are. That's something we're really fortunate to have out here where it's just so new still that we can still provide that first-time experience for so many of our guests.

Sinead Great. You guys are kind of also pioneering craft cannabis on the East Coast and that's really a new thing across the country. I've read that you take a lot of inspiration from Sam Adams and its parent company Boston Beer, which are pioneers in the craft beer industry. How would you say you're trying to emulate Sam Adams and bring those same craft standards to cannabis. Why is that important to you?

Brandon Sam Adams and now there are some other breweries in Massachusetts as well that are really impressive. Basically, created a new genre if you will, a whole new category. After alcohol prohibition was lifted, the marketplace really was a consolidated amount of your big beer companies, your Coors your Budweisers, but then Sam Adams came along and created a whole new trend about higher-end craft products that are sure they're more expensive, but they're also, they're higher quality. They taste better. They're packaged in a more aesthetic way.

When we look at cannabis right now, that's where we're trying to position our company to be both through the quality of the products and then the entire experience with educating customers, with packaging, with ensuring the flower inside the packaging is stored properly to preserve the terpenes. We're really trying to differentiate ourselves with that higher-end craft brand, which we believe is going to be a smaller portion of the market, but it's a more interesting part of the market to be in.

Sinead You guys, quality has been a pillar of yours from day one. You pride yourself in being a small batch craft cannabis company. What does that mean and how is that different from most other dispensaries?

Brandon What it means at the highest level is smaller cultivation. Our indoor cultivation facilities are, even though our stores are some of the busiest in the state, are actual indoor flower production, we have some of the smallest facilities in Massachusetts and Maine. What that allows us to do is really put a lot of attention to detail on each harvest cycle, on each plant even within a veggie or bloom run, just to really ensure that they're being cared for properly, they're receiving the right environmentals, the right nutrients. That allows us to cultivate a really nice product. We also are one of the few companies that only hand trim. We don't have any machines ever touching the buds before it gets to our customers. We try to just think of it from really from seed to sale. How can we take the most care possible with our products?

Sinead Great. With that, you guys have a lot of advantages and I'm sure if one harvest isn't may be up to your standards, you can tweak things and change things as you go. whereas other dispensaries can't. I imagine the small-batch model does make scaling a little bit tricky. What have you done in terms of navigating, scaling the company and how do you think you'll adjust that as you expand into new states?

Brandon That's a really good point. It is difficult because, since day one, we've struggled to keep up with the demand for our products and even today as we have done some modest expansions, we can't produce enough products to keep our customers satisfied. In order to help meet our customer demand at the store, is we've really developed a very good network of other vendors here in Massachusetts and in Maine where they have similar values to us. Where we're happy with the quality of the products that they're producing and are happy to also offer those to our customers. We're starting to look into new markets like New York, New Jersey. It becomes tempting to try to build a really big facility and have a lot more team members there and produce a lot more products. We need to temper ourselves and really just make sure that no matter what we're doing, we're continuing to focus on quality is as a unnecessary part of the business that can't be forgotten.

Sinead Great. You have also not only do you partner, like you said, with local farmers, but you also support farmer's markets in both Maine and Massachusetts to increase supplemental nutrition assistance programs. Tell us a little bit about that. Why is local farming so important to you at Theory Wellness?

Brandon As a wellness company, we truly do believe cannabis makes people's lives better. Whether it's a medical patient or adult-use customer, you're coming to a dispensary to feel better. It really segues well into the wellness aspects of local agriculture, eating healthy, eating local. It's not just good for the environment. It's not just good for the economy, but it's good for you. By supporting farmer's markets, we feel we're helping our mission along in general, which is just to create a happier, healthier community that we operate in.

Sinead Absolutely. That's awesome. I wanted to jump in, you mentioned your new product High Five earlier which is a low dose THC seltzer. Tell us about that and what inspired you to enter the cannabis beverage space?

Brandon This is something we're super excited about. We've been working on High Five for a couple of years now. The vision in essence is that cannabis can be used in a wide variety of ways and increasingly can and should be a substitute for alcohol. Almost every adult in the country is familiar with drinking an alcoholic beverage. It's very acceptable, it's very social, but for cannabis as consumers, we've been relegated to the sidelines a lot of times.

I get it. Not everybody likes smoke, eating a gummy is not social. It's not anti-social, it's just eating a gummy. We really wanted to get into beverages and through the brand High Five, we've created a fast-acting seltzer product that can give a customer a doseable experience that tastes delicious and is a very social way to consume cannabis. It's been very popular so far. We launched it a couple months ago and look forward to continuing to grow that market.

Sinead That's great. I read the story behind the name High Five is that the onset is five minutes, which is just insanely fast. What effect can consumers expect from High Five and how does that compare to alcohol?

Brandon That's a great point. I think that's one of the main advantages of inner integrating technology with cannabis where we are in 2021. We use a nano emulsification process with our cannabis concentrate, which essentially allows the cannabis to absorb in a person's body much quicker than a conventional edible.

Our customers will typically start to feel the effects within five minutes or so and they also dissipate quicker. Within an hour you'll have that effect circular off, which is very similar curve to an alcoholic beverage.

Sinead Very interesting. Where do you see THC seltzers, like High Five heading over the next few years? Do you think they'll really start to rival alcohol?

Brandon: I really do. I would be bold enough, I think, to predict that long-term, they will outpace alcohol because we're moving towards a healthier society, a more health-conscious society, and being able to have a social beverage where you don't have a hangover, you don't consume calories. You're consuming only all natural products is it's an obvious alternative to alcohol. Once it becomes more accessible to every adult. Right now, the main thing that's holding back cannabis beverages is just that beverages are really hard. You need big trucks, you need big facilities, you need to store millions of cans. It's a whole different business model than any other cannabis product. It's challenging to get that going but I think once Theory Wellness and other companies start to really understand the beverage space, I think the impacts are going to be tremendous.

Sinead How did you guys land on the concentration that you use for Hi Five and what is the potency for a Hi Five THC seltzer?

Brandon Hi Five right, now we have what we call a micro version, so Hi Five micro, which is similar maybe to your bud light if you're going to make that stretch of an analogy. That's targeting around a two or 2.5 milligram dose of THC, and then we have the more conventional Hi Five , the standard dose, which is five milligrams. We were looking to create two different options for folks with nano emulsification. The experience tends to be a little stronger, a little quicker, of course than a normal edibles, so five milligrams might feel more like a 10 milligrams, some people. We think it's a really good social dose and especially with the micros heading into the summer, we wanted to create a product that was sessionable that people could enjoy a couple of them out of barbecue and not potentially overdo it. That's where we are now. We're going to probably continue to innovate, introduce some new dosages, some blends with different other cannabinoids. There's really a lot of exciting things that we can do with the brand.

Sinead How have you guys gone about navigating distribution for Hi Five outside your own Theory Wellness dispensary's? Have there been any challenges there?

Brandon: There's been a lot of challenges. Beverages, as we were talking about earlier, the beverages are tough. They're heavy, they're big, they're bulky. We've had to purchase different types of vehicles, box trucks, delivery vans, things like that, just to help distribute these products. Then also we have to be on the road a lot because they take up so much more space when most of our wholesale vendors were building their storage vaults in their dispensary's, they weren't thinking about storing drinks, thinking about storing dummies or pre-rolls, which take up maybe a 10th of the space. Space and weight are really challenging right now for beverages, because unlike a liquor store, unlike a beer company, we can't just buy another truck. We can't just store things in the hallways. We're super regulated. All of our vehicles have to be registered, inspected by the state of Massachusetts storage has to be in very specific areas and people's stores. It's definitely some growing pains that we're navigating right now as we try to expand beverages.

Sinead I want to move onto your sustainability or your social equity initiatives. You touched on that earlier, but I know that's a huge part of what you guys do. I wanted to really dive into that here. Tell us about your program theory cares and why this is important to you. Why do you think this is going to really impact the industry for the better going forward?

Brandon: I do appreciate that. I think from our view, we've done from what we feel is the bare minim and we want to keep doing much more to give back and contribute in meaningful ways. We certainly acknowledged that the war on drugs has been not just a massive failure, but has been really negatively affecting certain communities of color for decades here in the US and Massachusetts is not immune to that pain. What we've done at theory is we've created an in-house social equity program, where we decided that instead of hosting different job fairs or educational seminars, we really wanted to help an entrepreneur get going in cannabis. We did a process where we interviewed dozens of aspiring entrepreneurs. All of them were certified by the state of Massachusetts as economic empowerment applicants, which essentially means their backgrounds are from communities that were disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.

We're really fortunate to find and start working with the Legal Greens teams. This is a business run by Vanessa and Mark. They've been really awesome to work with. We've helped provide them financing and mentorship. Over the last couple of years, it's really provided them the help they need to open their dispensary, or they can do 99% on their own but that 1% that we can help provide just through already walking down that I think has been helpful for them. We're really proud that they recently opened their first dispensary in Brockton here in Massachusetts. It's been a great success our program. We're going to be opening up to a second round really soon.

Sinead Very cool. One last question, before we jump into some personal development questions. What is one thing going on in the cannabis industry right now that you think will have a big impact, but maybe is a little under appreciated right now?

Brandon: That's a great question. The easy one for us to say is beverages, because it's still such a small part of the market, but I think it's going to be huge. I think even though it's getting a lot of press, I think the real movement we're seeing at the federal level is starting to get or maybe it's not getting the attention that it deserves in the right way, but I think it's going to be really interesting to see how businesses in the next couple of years start to position themselves for federal prohibition. Right now we have a really interesting marketplace in the US where in every state that a company operates and they have their own production facilities, their own distribution, their own dispensary's. There's going to be some day in the near future where cannabis grown in California can be shipped to Massachusetts, then how is that going to start to change all these investments people are making right now or we're contemplating right now. I think continuing to really think about the future is going to be important for everybody in the space to make sure that things are being positioned in a thoughtful way.

Sinead That's a really good point. That wraps up the bulk of the interview. I did want to jump into just a couple of personal development questions though here for you, Brandon. The first one, is there a book that has had a big impact on your life or way of thinking you'd like to share?

Brandon: A book? I'm trying to think if there's been a meaningful. I wouldn't say a book that necessarily jumps to mind off the top of my head.

Sinead This can be anything really, if it's a documentary or anything?

Brandon: I think one of the things that's been really impactful is when I was in college I studied philosophy. Thinking about how great thinkers 100s, if not 1000s of years ago looked at what the problems, and then trying to reconcile their thought process with where we are as a country these days, I think is something we always try to think about. One of my favorite quotes is the more that you learn, the more you realize you don't know anything essentially. [chuckles] We try to weave that into our daily life because it's true. There's so much out there. It's really important especially in cannabis to keep this an open mind and try to keep learning every day because things are changing, there's new technology, there's new information. We're really just scratching the surface. I'd say having a philosophical outlook on life and business has been very helpful over the years.

Sinead Absolutely. Brandon, I've got a real hard hitting question here for you. What is your favorite unhealthy comfort food or guilty pleasure?

Brandon: I'm going to have to go with Chinese food is my classic go-to Montre when once every couple months I'll just get that craving and it can only be satisfied by some big greasy Chinese food. That's just how it goes sometimes.

Sinead I am right there with you. I love some good Chinese food. [chuckles] As we close, how can listeners find you online and connect with you?

Brandon: Our website is theorywellness.org, and we're all over the social media too is Theory Wellness and we'd love to connect with our current guests and new customers alike. Feel free to get in touch.

Sinead Great. All right. Brandon, thank you so much for coming on the show. We really appreciate it and wish you the best of luck with everything going on in the rest of 2021.

Brandon: Yes, thanks so much for having me. It's been great. Great talking to you today.

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Matt: If you enjoyed the show today, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes, Stitcher or whatever app you might be using to listen to the show. Every five-star review helps us to bring the best guest to you. Learn more at cannainsider.com/itunes. What are the five disruptive trends that will impact the cannabis industry in the next five years? Find out with your free report at cannainsider.com/trends. Have a suggestion for awesome guests on CannaInsider, simply send us an email at feedback@cannainsider.com. We'd love to hear from you.

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