‘The pandemic was not in the plan’: Pot shop launches struggle amid pandemic

‘The pandemic was not in the plan’: Pot shop launches struggle amid pandemic

TORONTO — When hospitality business Donnelly Group rang in the new year, opening two Hobo Cannabis Company stores in March and April were top priorities.

But shortly after it hired and trained 80 employees for the Ottawa stores and readied pot products to fill their shelves, trouble arrived: COVID-19.

“Just as quickly as we opened those two Ottawa locations, we had to close them because cannabis stores were delisted from the essential businesses list,” said Harrison Stoker, Donnelly’s vice-president of brand.

“We were super nervous. Our opening journey in Ontario has been anxiety-filled.”

The company scrambled to launch curbside pickup and delivery and tentatively layoff their new workers. To complicate matters further, Hobo opened another cannabis store in late May at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, but it too had to close temporarily as a precaution during anti-Black racism protests at the start of June.

Suddenly, Hobo and dozens of other cannabis companies across the country who were wading into pot retail just as the pandemic hit found themselves in trouble.

Stores in many provinces were forced to shut their doors to stop the spread of COVID-19 and licensed producers were busy laying off hundreds of workers as they struggled to stay afloat.

It was a very different outlook than the one anticipated by entrepreneurs, who had been plotting shop openings for months if not years.

“The pandemic was not in the plan and I don’t think I was the only one caught off guard,” said Corey Gillon, chief executive of Choom Holdings Inc., who opened a store on May 15 at the Olympic Village in Vancouver.

A handful of stores sprouted up alongside Gillon’s in B.C.

In Alberta, officials said 36 new private retailers opened between March 16 and June 11, bringing the provincial total to 469.

Over in Ontario, where restrictions were eased to allow another wave of entrepreneurs to open cannabis stores, the province’s alcohol and gaming commission said customers were welcomed to 13 stores in March and April.

Twenty-nine also received retail store authorization, which allows them to start buying product but requires them to pass further inspections before opening.

At the end of May, Alchemy Canna Co. joined the fold with a store fashioned out of a shipping container in Toronto.

“To open up and get a big crowd in front of your store is pretty tough, even without a pandemic,” said Richard Browne, Alchemy’s chief executive, who tried to drum up business with gift bag and bike giveaways.

“People are still staying at home and are not really used to going outside of their houses unless it’s for groceries.

Browne also had the challenge of dealing with an employee who tested positive for COVID-19.

He had to close the store temporarily, delay the opening and get all the staff tested twice.

“Everything is a-okay now, but it got us into the frame of mind that we have to be extra, extra careful moving forward,” he said.

Staff are being vigilant about wearing gloves, doing deep store cleanings and wiping off customer touchpoints as much as possible.

Those measures were also on the mind of John Arbuthnot, the chief executive of Winnipeg-based Delta 9 Cannabis Inc.

In the early days of COVID, he rushed to get Plexiglas barriers for a store he opened on June 10 in Calgary’s First Alberta Place.

“We got in before the grocery stores and missed the shortage of those materials,” he said, just an hour after his shop welcomed guests for the first time.

Usually, opening day brings senior management to town, but COVID-19 travel restrictions meant no team from head office was on hand.

Aside from travel, Arbuthnot said the biggest headache Delta 9 faced was shipping delays on everything from furniture to ancillary products.

It’s an obstacle Gillon knows well. As the pandemic ravaged Canada, he accepted that the large piece of millwork he hoped would grace Choom’s store would probably not show up on time necause it was trapped in Ontario.

But Gillon still counts Choom as lucky. Most of its stores are in Alberta and B.C., where businesses reopened sooner because COVID-19 cases pale in comparison to Ontario and Quebec.

“Overall, there was a bit of delays here and there but nothing that really threw us off too much,” he said.

Mimi Lam has faced far more challenges as she works towards opening a trio of Superette stores with diner- and deli-style flourishes in Toronto this summer.

Because of COVID-19, she has encountered construction delays on the stores and job fairs, onboarding and training have all had to move online.

“Typically retail store setups require hands on deck, but we are staggering our setup over two weeks to limit how many team members are in-store at a time,” she said in an email.

Even inspections are being done virtually, but she’s still enthusiastic about being a cannabis store operator.

Browne is too. He said he has no regrets about opening during a pandemic.

“You have to have to figure out whether it’s worth it for you to rush into opening up during the pandemic, but I think it is all worth it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2020.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

Cannabis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Photo submitted/ Rita-anne Fuss
Distancing Diamond Project in Millet for mental health

Distancing Diamonds allow for social distancing community gathering.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, confirmed more than 1,000 cases over the weekend Monday afternoon. File photo
COVID-19: Central zone active cases up Monday

‘We’ve now crossed the tipping point,’ says Hinshaw

The death of 19-year-old Jacob Michael Chitze of Edmonton has now been ruled a homicide following an ongoing RCMP investigation.
UPDATE: RCMP arrest youth for second degree murder of 19-year-old Jacob Chitze

Arrest made for the murder of Jacob Michael Chitze, 19.

Pumpkins for the 46th Annual WDACS Pumpkin Ball on display at Vision Credit Union Wetaskiwin. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
46th Annual Pumpkin Ball held virtually this year

This year the pumpkins were sold over a six-day online auction.

Manny’s Motel demolition underway. Shaela Dansereau/ The Pipestone Flyer.
Manny’s Motel demolition underway

The property has been vacant since the fire that destroyed most of the structure Jan.14, 2020.

Wetaskiwin Hospital staff join AUPE walk outs across the province Monday Oct. 26, 2020. Shaela Dansereau/ The Pipestone Flyer.
City of Wetaskiwin health-care workers strike in protest of province-wide cuts

Wetaskiwin Hospital staff join other front line hospital workers across the province in walk-outs.

Front-line hospital workers have walked off the job at the Rimbey Hospital, and across the province. Photo Submitted
Front-line health care workers on strike across the province, including Rimbey Hospital

The strike is due to cut of 11,000 health care jobs in the province, according to AUPE

(Black Press file photo)
Maskwacis RCMP welcomes new detachment commander

The Maskwacis RCMP detachment has a new detachment commander, Inspector Leanne MacMillan.… Continue reading

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

Leader of the Opposition Erin O’Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons Thursday October 22, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
O’Toole tells Alberta UCP AGM Liberals were ‘late and confused’ on COVID response

He says Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has taken charge and not waited to make things happen

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives for an announcement at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Inquiry into oil and gas foes to deliver report next year: Kenney

A lawsuit filed by environmental law firm Ecojustice argues the inquiry is politically motivated

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

This photo provided by Air Force Reserve shows a sky view of Hurricane Epsilon taken by Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter team over the Atlantic Ocean taken Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.   Epsilon’s maximum sustained winds have dropped slightly as it prepares to sideswipe Bermuda on a path over the Atlantic Ocean.  The National Hurricane Center says it should come close enough Thursday, Oct. 22, evening to merit a tropical storm warning for the island.  (Air Force Reserve via AP)
Hurricane Epsilon expected to remain offshore but will push waves at Atlantic Canada

Epsilon is not expected to have any real impact on land

A voter places her absentee ballot in the ballot box, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Robert F. Bukaty
American voters living in Canada increasingly being counted in presidential race

The largest number of Canadian-based American voters cast their ballots in New York and California

Most Read