CanadaCultureLegalizationRetailVancouver’s premier legal pot shop looks back on first two years

Radio-host-turned-weed-retailer Mike Babins's years of patiently playing the long-game is finally paying off
Nick Laba Nick LabaOctober 30, 202014 min

Well, almost two years.

When Canada’s recreational market came online Oct. 17, 2018, Mike Babins closed the doors of his previously city-licensed dispensary to maintain compliance under the new regime.

At the time, Vancouver terminated its program of licensing swathes of federally illegal weed stores, to fall in-step with the new sanctioned recreational market.

Babins was among a group of dispensary owners who chose to close and apply for the new set of provincial and municipal licences to operate legally. Despite warnings from officials, others stayed open — not wanting to participate in an indefinite period without sales.

So how did Evergreen Cannabis get in first, ahead of a hoard of other applicants?

First off, Babins and his business partner Maria Petrucci — who are also husband and wife — were relatively easy to audit. Without any numbered companies or financial ties to other businesspeople, going through their records was straightforward. Someone asks them for a form they already submitted? Boom, here it is again.

Other parts of the process came right down to the wire.

During the last part of the provincial review, they took Petrucci and Babins into separate rooms. Petrucci, who had taught English abroad, had a number of travel dates to clear. Babins only had one.

“It says right here in September of 2000, you went to Detroit for 24 hours,” an official said. “From Montreal, you took the train, went 13 hours either way to be there for 24 hours. What’s up with that?”

Babins replied: “If you check, that was the last time the original lineup of Kiss played in Detroit Rock City.”

“His story checks out. Give him the licence.”

On Dec. 24 of 2018, the store prepped with care, a provincial official passed the final inspection right then and there. But because no one from the city was in the office to green-light his municipal licence, he had to wait until Jan. 5, 2019 to finally open — with Kiss blasting through the speakers to usher in customers to a new era of Canadian weed.

Vancouver's premier legal pot shop looks back on first 2 years - Kiss concert
Before his days in cannabis retail, Mike “Metal” Babins was a radio host for Montreal’s CHOM 97.7. He remains a devout Kiss fan. Photo by KissBoy25 via Wikimedia Commons

‘It’s going to be legalized soon. Let’s be ready for that’

While other cannabis retailers were content operating as far from the letter of the law as they could, the Evergreen owners always made sure there was at least a stripe of legitimacy to what they were doing.

As soon as Vancouver started issuing municipal licences in 2015, but not before, Babins did everything he could to open up shop.

With the long game in mind, he didn’t want to ruin any future opportunities with a stain on his record — especially as more signs started to show.

Read more: Canadian cannabis laws kick Vancouver harm-reduction project to the curb

“I wasn’t ready to do it without some kind of hope that we could argue our way out if there was trouble,” he explains. “Our goal from the start was: ‘Okay, if the city’s doing this, and looking at the way things are going around the country, it’s going to be legalized soon. Let’s be ready for that.'”

Fast forward five years, and Babins is seeing his hustle and patience really start to pay off.

Because legal isn’t where it was even a year ago, when compared to less-illicit sources, you had to pay twice as much for doubly shitty weed.

Vancouver's premier legal pot shop looks back on first 2 years - Babins weed
‘The people I deal with provincially are great. They said to us on day one, ‘You’re the first store and you got that for a reason. You knew more than us. We’re gonna be working with you a lot.” Photo by Nick Laba

“I’m not sure if the other stores realized that I sold all the old products so they wouldn’t have to,” Babins laughs. “We dealt with it: with the higher prices, with the mediocre product, looking for the diamonds in the rough. We learned how to stock the shelves. Now I’m proud of everything on the shelf, from the most value brand product to the high-end stuff, because even the high end stuff at first was overpriced.”

‘I never had it that good when I was a kid’

Ongoing competition from the unsanctioned market and more small-to-medium sized producers coming online has skewed the market toward quality. But another, less-expected catalyst has shaken out the sector to what it is today.

This thing called the worldwide pandemic happens, Babins says.

People who weren’t convinced suddenly wanted product they knew was sanitary, that could be traced to who touched it. At the same time, a lot of the LPs realized these same people were about to run out of money, so they had to drop prices. They finally learned what was known all along: You do better selling large amounts for cheaper than overcharging for small amounts.

“Even though things are levelling out now, and one day this will be over, they’ve let the genie out of the bottle,” Babins continues. “They can’t go back and raise prices.”

Now Babins often has $100-120 ounces, cheap eighths as low as $15, mid-grade for $25–35 and high-end in the $40–50 range.

“I never had it that good when I was a kid,” he says.

Not everyone is convinced. Loud voices on the internet continue to slam legal as a whole between sips of Budweiser.

And promotional rules mean licit businesses are toothless to clap back.

“So you can have a quote-unquote activist yelling online, that it’s expensive, and dry and crappy. And we can’t go online and say, ‘Actually, we have BC bud for 100-bucks an ounce, and it’s fresh,'” Babins says.

Vancouver's premier legal pot shop looks back on first 2 years - Evergreen wide
Without the ability to educate consumers on even the most basic of claims, like high terpene content being more important than THC for a good user experience, customers have no real reason to come into a store. Photo by Nick Laba

Obviously the ability to better communicate with consumers is on his wish list of Cannabis Act reforms. But some of Canada’s much-decried marketing restrictions Babins actually agrees with.

“I don’t think that we should be able to advertise the same way alcohol can. I think alcohol should be drawn back to the same levels we are,” he argues. “I want people to come into my shop and choose their buds based on the quality not on the fact that it has Snoop Dogg’s face on it — nothing against Snoop Dogg.”

Read more: If Canada wants legal weed to succeed, it should ease marketing restrictions

He also wants to curb the market’s current obsession with THC percentage — which he says is shooting the industry in the foot — and drive more awareness to irresponsible ingredients in edibles, like palm oil and MCT oil that is derived from palm oil.

As for what else lies ahead through the haze of Babins’s crystal ball —

“As soon as the pandemic’s over I’m going to see Kiss again.”

 

nick@mugglehead.com

@nick_laba

 

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