From Bay St. Bull Winter 2015/2016 issue. Photography by Jesse Milns.
With the legalization of cannabis in the not too distant future, it’s unsurprising that entrepreneurs have recognized a lucrative business opportunity in a market on the brink of skyrocketing success. It’s uncharted territory, and they are the pioneers. But while many have focused their efforts on legally offering a product that is, more or less, already available on the market, there has been little mention of those who are seeking to offer an elevated experience around the misunderstood plant.
Enter: Alan Gertner.
Gertner sees things a little differently. He aims to bring beauty to cannabis in a time where perception and stigma are swiftly shifting. A quick browse through his LinkedIn page will show a professional pedigree that ranges from stints at financial institutions to being a senior associate of Global Business Strategy at Google. And then there is his most recent and current position at Tokyo Smoke, where the only description under his title of CEO is: “Building a disruptive luxury collective.”
It’s a simple statement, but one that captures the Toronto native’s ambition to weave cannabis into the fabric of our lives as a luxury experience via beautiful design and exceptional quality. The question that begs now is not if, but when cannabis will enter the luxury market.
What is Tokyo Smoke and why did you feel the need to bring it to the marketplace at this time?
Tokyo Smoke is a modern lifestyle collective. What we wanted to do is build a brand in the cannabis world that could elevate and lead in the space. We believe that coffee, clothing and cannabis are the creative lifeblood of the modern, urban citizen. They are very much three things that are a part of our lives. And the cannabis space needs someone who is going to be a touchstone for design in this space. There are people who are driving other consumer product industries forward and building beautiful and interesting products. That’s what we want to do with Tokyo Smoke.
You have three pillars: coffee, clothing and cannabis. How does cannabis play into the dynamic?
What we’re trying to do is bring beauty and design to different verticals. For cannabis, in terms of Canada, we sell paraphernalia and a lifestyle in our store. What that means is that we aim to have the best vaporizers and the best papers, and exclusively curate to bring to market beautiful products. In the US, we partner with what we believe is the best grower, in Washington state to start, and produce Tokyo Smoke marijuana.
Why is it so important to elevate the cannabis experience?
We can look at other consumer products industries, first. In those industries, at least 20% of the market is luxury by design. You can speculate that the same thing should and will come to cannabis. Often, leaders in those spaces are brands that mean something to people and have an emotive connection. And that’s what we want to do with Tokyo Smoke, build an emotive connection and products that are consistent, reliant and beautiful. One thing that is scary about the cannabis space for people is that they don’t know what they’re going to get. We hope to bring something reliant and consistent so you know exactly what to expect.
You’re also associating cannabis with coffee and clothing. Why is that so important?
I think that cannabis is not a separate thing from our culture. If 10% of Canadians and Americans smoke pot every week and 5% smoke it every day, that is a meaningful percentage of the population. If you look at the urban segment itself, it’s likely over-indexing in downtown Toronto. I think we will see this beautiful change over the next couple of years as the law continues to evolve where people will be much more open about cannabis consumption and experience. We want to be a lifestyle brand that can exist in the market and beyond being a stoner brand. Our consumers don’t need to consume cannabis, but we can all realize that it’s part of the landscape and lifestyle that exists in the city.
Technology and the digital sphere are things that are continually playing a larger role in how businesses operate. How do you integrate these elements into your business?
I spent most of the last decade working at Google. I went to computer camp when I was little, so technology is a huge part of my life. I recognize and am very excited about the role that technology can play with Tokyo Smoke by providing the best possible experience. With social media, I would love to use it as a platform to educate about cannabis in general, but also about our brand and a tool to continue to integrate Tokyo Smoke into people’s lives and recognize that it is very much a mainstream thing.
It is such a new arena, there really isn’t much available in the marketplace. In a sense, you have to create your own standards and lead by example.
Agreed. I hope what we can do as a multi-tier brand that plays in the arena of the creative lifeblood is be great in each of these verticals so that we have legitimacy in all of them. If we produce a beautiful cup of coffee and use the best milk and have handmade cups from Japan, I can represent beauty and design in coffee. Hopefully that can translate and provide some legitimacy in cannabis, a lesser known space where the standards haven’t been set, and I can do the same in clothing.
The cannabis market is a very diverse one, with consumers coming from a variety of different segments. Who is it that is consuming your products?
As you said, I don’t think cannabis is a specific segment of the population. It’s really something that is pervasive. It’s hard for me to say who is consuming cannabis because I think it’s part of the lifestyle of the modern urban citizen. In terms of who we’re targeting, it is that person, someone who aspires to beauty and design in their lives. It’s part of the lifestyle that we’re trying to build around.
There’s also very much a stigma attached to cannabis. How do you think it has changed over the years?
It has changed and evolved. I’m so excited to look forward to a day, one that we get closer and closer to, where cannabis is a more accepted part of our lives. What everyone can agree on is that there are incredible medical benefits for cannabis. Even that journey, which we have witnessed in Canada, has been an interesting and empowering one. I’m excited for it to continue being part of all of our lives. It will continue to integrate.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about cannabis?
I don’t think people are aware that cannabis can do different things. It is such a dynamic and diverse plant, and there are so many things we can continue to discover about it that can help continue to improve all of our lives. There are a lot of nuances to that point because up until very recently, there has been a lot of stigma against it and misconceptions about it. Part of our responsibility as a participant in this market is to help educate everyone so they know they can consume it in a beautiful and consistent sort of way.
With Trudeau now in office, there has been a big push to legalize marijuana in Canada. What are some of the challenges that you think will arise if and when it is decriminalized?
I think it will be a long process, but I’m very excited about our government taking a thoughtful and methodical approach. For us as a brand, we produce marijuana in the US, so we have an opportunity to create a unique product line, build it across the border and bring it to market in Canada when we’re able to. In Canada, as a landscape, we’ll benefit massively by learning from the US states where it’s legal now. There will be a lot of challenges, like how we control supply and distribution, and how we can make sure that Canadians have access to a great and consistent product. But for Tokyo Smoke, we can play a role in that because we can build a pipeline in the US that we can then bring to Canadians.
What examples are you using from Colorado and Washington that will help you prepare for Canada?
It’s understanding the nuances on how consumer behaviours have changed, but also what players have been successful and unsuccessful. To be honest, I look at other consumer businesses. What’s most interesting to me is how other verticals have evolved over time, and how they best serve the consumer.
Your father has a background in producing medicinal marijuana. What advice has he given you on this topic?
My father has been the best partner. He is someone that has an immense amount of experience in the space, both in cannabis and clothing. One of the best things about being early is that you get to do a lot of learning, and one of the worst things is that you can often be before your time. I, along with my brand, have benefited massively from understanding the value of patience because timing is everything.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): A chemical found in the cannabis plant that is responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects. By activating specific receptors in the brain, THC can affect a person’s memory, pleasure, movements, thinking, concentration, coordination, and sensory and time perception.
Cannabidiol (CBD): A cannabinoid known for its medicinal properties, which include analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties with no psychoactive (“high”) effects. It has been used in a variety of treatments, which range from treating seizures to cancer.
Sativa: Arguably the most popular of the three cannabis families, these plants tend to have very high concentrations of THC and relatively low levels of CBD, resulting in the psychoactive effects associated with the former cannabinoid.
Indica: Unlike sativas, indica (one of the three cannabis families) is known to have much higher levels of CBD and lower amounts of THC. As a result, their effects are very different and have been used to relax muscles, help with sleep, increase dopamine production and more.
Ruderalis: A member of the cannabis family characterized by its fast growth and low levels of THC and CBD. Because of these low amounts, ruderalis is often bred with sativa or indica strains to retain their dominant traits, yet keep its low-maintenance qualities.
Strain: A hybrid of the three cannabis families in order to customize specific traits.
Hemp: A Cannabis sativa plant that contains trace amounts of THC and is primarily used for industrial purposes, fiber for clothing, food and more.