Next week, the Hunny Pot Cannabis Company will be among the first 25 storefronts in Ontario authorized to sell recreational cannabis. Assuming a final pre-opening inspection set for later this week goes well, owner Hunny Gawri will be among just a handful of provincial cannabis retail lottery winners to meet the April 1 opening deadline without the help of a major corporation, as many other winners have struck multimillion-dollar deals with existing legal pot retailers to help prepare, brand and operate their stores. Mr. Gawri spoke to Cannabis Professional about the retail licensing application process for someone going it alone, why he refused to entertain any outside offers and his hopes for a cannabis retail empire. That conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is reproduced below.
Cannabis Professional: Were you already planning on opening a cannabis store before the lottery system was announced, or did you just decide to throw your hat in the ring?
Hunny Gawri: I’ve worked in a lot of emerging markets in my previous businesses, tech and real estate. Cannabis was on the horizon, the issue was opening up, and with the lottery opportunity it just became perfect timing.
CP: So, no plans to open a store prior to lottery? Just decided it was worth the $75 entry fee?
HG: To a certain extent yes, but the most exciting part of all of it was just being part of [cannabis retail] from ground zero. that is what made me want to be a part of it. putting your name in a hat, that is one aspect, but the other side of it is can you actually create a business out of it? Can you actually make it real? That thought process had already crossed my mind before putting my name in, as in this is what I would do, but it wasn’t something that was pre-planned from before.
CP: If you didn’t win, was there another plan you had to enter the cannabis market another way?
HG: It is just like in my other businesses [real estate and cell phone stores], opportunities come up and I assess them at that time, so that was how I looked at it.
CP: Tell me about the moment you learned you had won?
HG: It was a text message. One of my friends just said “congrats” and I said “congrats for what?” It was around 630ish that I got the first message and then they sent me a screenshot and I saw my name on there and I called my friend and asked if his brother was good at photoshop. Then I got home and it was real. I was just pacing back and forth as phone calls were coming in, messages were coming in instantly, like right from that very moment.
CP: More friends and family or people trying to do deals?
HG: Everyone. People I didn’t know. For the past five years I’ve been plastering my name everywhere for the real estate business - I wasn’t hard to find. It was a mix of everything but it got to a point where, once it sunk in, I had to decide my plan of action and I wasn’t answering any calls after that. It was just overwhelming. Really, really overwhelming.
CP: How soon until the offers started to come in?
HG: There were so many calls and messages from LinkedIn and Facebook to texting on my phone and trying to get through to me by people I knew. Often I didn’t know who it was and so I really just wasn’t even entertaining those conversations.
CP: You really weren’t tempted by these offers, they were for many millions of dollars?
HG: The thing about that was, the money is one side of things. The business, the challenge of taking on this business within a two-month timeline. That was what really got me going.
CP: You’re saying it was more the principle than the profit?
HG: It was the principle of it and also that first weekend I secured legal counsel, that was instrumental [Blakes] in helping navigate everything. People are going to be calling you, they said, but this avenue is for sure where you can do it on your own. Financially you can do it on your own, you have the [retail] experience already so [working with others] is an unknown. So there was no need, since I’ve had cellphone stores for more than 12 years.
CP: Many have argued that given the timeline, most lottery winners had no choice but to work with someone? Consultant, management firm or what have you, how did you fend off the advice?
HG: The lottery itself is random, but getting to the finish line, it takes experience. If I wasn’t confident in being able to do it then it might be a different story, but this is what I do.
CP: What happened with your other businesses while you were focused on this process?
HG: We had to put them on auto-pilot. I told my team you guys are capable, take this and I’m going to focus on this [AGCO application] for now. Then just putting a team together over year, it was fun, it was very challenging but it was fun figuring out who you’re going to be working with and figuring things out.
CP: Are you are planning to open more than one store?
HG: The way we are setting up this one is as a flagship and then the rest will be as opportunities come.
CP: What about the specific location, is it a coincidence that you ended up directly across the street from one of the city’s most well-known cannabis accessories stores? [The Friendly Stranger]
HG: With the deadline that we had it was really just a matter of seeing the different spaces that happened to be available and doing what we could. Walking into this space though, it was just perfect and the landlord said he got a lot of offers but only wanted to work with someone who won the lottery. So, once I told him that, we were off.
CP: Getting back to the AGCO process, we have heard reports of inconsistency in the way they dealt with different applications and lots of surprises along the way, has that been your experience at all?
HG: Actually been very open, the dialogue has been there so that any questions I’ve had they just answer and I move along. I would ask if they need anything else and they’d say they’re reviewing it and would let me know and then they’d let me know if there was something else and so from my side it has been a fairly smooth process. They didn’t ask for too many new things. It was just, you’ve passed this part, give us this now, then pass this part and give us this now. It was not really unexpected stuff.
CP: Aside from first-mover advantage, what is the pitch for people to go to your store as opposed to, say, Tokyo Smoke or Nova Cannabis?
HG: We call it the Hunny Pot Experience. It is a three-pronged approach. We have our educated budtenders for that one on one experience for clients that walk through. We have about 50 staff right now so it will be labour intensive in the sense that we will have enough people there to offer service. The second prong is the physical retail experience itself, it is a multi-level beautiful space so everyone can experience the space from a design aspect and the finishing touches we have put in place top to bottom and three hundred and sixty degrees. Then the third is responsible retailing, that is key to the message.
CP: Any other retailer would make the same promise though, wouldn’t they?
HG: We welcome people to come through and experience our difference. Everyone is going to have their experience and there is enough room in the market for a lot of stores. Everyone is going to have their preferences.