Bluewater Cannabis welcomes trend of craft producers, saying time for stigma has passed
Cannabis had only been legal in Canada for a year when Bluewater Cannabis opened its doors in Oliver on October 26, 2019.
“We were the sixth store open in the province of British Columbia, and we were the first legal store here in Oliver,” says Ryan Graham, managing partner.
Since then, Bluewater, owned by Brian Kropp, has also opened a store on Nanaimo Avenue in Penticton, next to the Penticton Herald.
Graham, who is from Penticton, and previously worked in the liquor industry, manages both stores. He credits his staff for Bluewater’s success at a time when some other stores haven’t been able to make it.
“We are locally owned and operated,” he said. “We’ve got an amazing culture and great vibe here. We’ve got some of our original crew. It’s been an amazing run… What we’re doing is obviously working because we are able, month after month, year after year, to increase profits in a diluted market. The community of Oliver has been absolutely fantastic.”
At a time when some businesses have problems retaining staff, Graham suggests it’s no longer accurate to blame Covid relief programs that are no longer in place.
“I think a big thing is your culture vibe and how you treat your staff,” he said. “I give all my staff a sense of ownership and pride in our stores. I trained them. I don’t micromanage them… We want our employees to invest in us and we will invest in them tenfold.”
There are three legal cannabis stores in Oliver. The Higher Path, another private store, opened immediately after Bluewater. A provincial government BC Cannabis Store opened later. Those two stores are in the south end of town, while Bluewater is right downtown on Main Street.
Other stores – Nimbus and Tumbleweeds – opened, but later closed.
Graham suggests the government store, funded by taxpayers, is able to undercut the private stores.
“They operate on our taxpaying dollars, we fund them, they undercut us,” he said. “They are basically our competition, and they are our distributor, so it’s a very unfair disadvantage.”
But the legal cannabis industry has changed enormously since October 17, 2018, when Canada legalized it. When Bluewater opened the following year, there were only four licensed producers in all of Canada, said Graham. Today there are more than 200.
In four years, the products have improved, wholesale pricing is “exponentially better,” and edibles are available and improved.
Most significantly, especially in recent months, there has been enormous growth in the number of micro licensed growers, producing a higher-quality craft cannabis.
“When we first opened up our wholesale pricing was crazy high, the products weren’t the greatest,” Graham said. “It’s come full circle.”
Graham points to Oliver-based Pineapple Buds, an independent licensed producer run by a young couple, as an example of the kind of craft producer he’s built a relationship with.
“It’s a no-brainer to go into that relationship and be an ambassador for them, not only to sell in our stores, but to help get their brand and their goods to the entire BC market,” he said.
BC Black, a joint venture based in Salmon Arm, is also working with small mom and pop “legacy growers” to help them enter the legal market and navigate provincial and federal government obstacles. Their black bags, said Graham, signals to consumers that it’s a quality product.
“It’s really like the wine and craft beer industry,” said Graham. “Craft beer wasn’t such a thing and now we see breweries on every corner. So craft cannabis is now its own little section… In the last six months, it’s blown up over probably 400 percent.”
The demographics of customers are wide ranging and what they buy varies.
“Our demographic really is 19 to 100,” said Graham. “We’ve got our seniors that are coming in and getting their CBD (cannabidiol) capsules, because they get their 30 pills every month.”
CBD is widely claimed to have therapeutic benefits, but Graham says cannabis stores like his can’t and don’t make such claims.
“We’re not doctors,” he said.
The most popular products are pre-rolled cannabis flower, for convenience, and vape cartridges, which are quick, clean and lack the tell-tale smell of traditional marijuana.
“We offer very good pricing because we understand the market, but more importantly, we understand what people bring home [in pay] every two weeks in this small community,” Graham said. “I think a lot of businesses lose sight of that when they’re pricing.”
Government regulations have been especially onerous for cannabis retailers, who face a double standard when compared to liquor stores. Graham suggests this is the result of continued stigma.
Store windows must be shaded, and minors cannot enter, even though liquor stores don’t face such rules. Cannabis stores can’t sell more than 28 grams equivalent to one person per day, while liquor store shoppers can buy as much as they want.
Graham said he sits on industry boards and tries to work with governments, “to right some wrongs and kind of get the ship back on where it needs to be going.”
He networks with others in the industry, does consultations with private retail stores across Canada, and works to understand the market.
He regularly receives calls from store owners looking to get out of the industry and seeking a buyer, but he’s cautious about opening new stores.
“Right now we’re going to wait on the provincial and federal governments to see what they do with this industry,” he says, adding that the possibility of a recession also suggests caution.
Meanwhile, he builds relationships with other local businesses, both in his industry and others.
“For us, we want to support local,” he said, adding that he is a past president of the Downtown Penticton Business Improvement Association.
Nonetheless, he’s disappointed that some elected officials haven’t been more welcoming.
“The cannabis industry is not a dangerous industry or an industry that has to have a stigma around it anymore,” Graham said. “There is a place for us. We are no different than going into a liquor store, or your favourite beer and wine store or winery and walking out with a bottle of wine or a sixpack of craft beer. Those days are gone.”
Story and photos by Richard McGuire
6341 Main Street
Oliver, BC V0H 1T9