Note from the editor: This article first appeared on Forbes.com.
Capitalizing on the link between good cannabis and the munchies, two clever entrepreneurs have reinvigorated a South Vancouver block, making it a destination for residents and suburbanites alike.
When cannabis was legalized in Canada in October 2018, there was a silent consensus among would-be retailers, particularly in provinces with stricter regulations, that it would be next to impossible for shops to differentiate themselves from one another—especially if they were all going to be selling the same assortment of Health Canada-approved products.
Fast forward to 2020: With more than a thousand stores now operating across the country and selling a much greater selection of cannabis than when the plant was first legalized, some franchises such as Superette in Ontario have emerged as destinations, with far more to offer than just weed. With a store each in Toronto and Ottawa and three more set to open between the two cities in the coming months, Superette sells a selection of niche merchandise that appeals to the millennial marijuana consumer.
But in B.C., Canada’s westernmost province, selling anything other than cannabis products or related accessories in a “cannabis store” (regulations prohibit the use of the word “dispensary” in business names) is strictly banned. That means no merchandise, no gimmicks, and of course, every stoner’s favourite impulse purchase, no snacks.
Making the transition from “grey market” to legal
After a major renovation, a dispensary that had been among the first shops licensed by the city of Vancouver to operate in its wild-west “grey market” back in 2016 successfully reopened as a provincially licensed store this past spring. THC Canada owner Spensir Sangara says the transition to the legal market has been a long road, but incredibly rewarding for both the store and the surrounding neighbourhood.
“We adapted and we’re here, and I’m loving the legal market,” he says. “As a guy who has been in the grey market for so long, I’m happy with it and I see the progression from the time I’ve been open until now. It’s improved night and day.”
Early on, there were concerns among consumers and retailers alike that the quality of cannabis from most large licensed producers was not up to par, at least by the standards of the average self-labeled connoisseur. Today, Sangara says he’s selling quality flowers to “day-one” customers who leave the store just as happy as they were four years ago.
“But the biggest thing I’m proud of in this whole transition… is Dank Mart. People told me, ‘You’ll never be able to make this legal store a destination again,’ but we managed to do that,” he says of the one-of-a-kind snack shop he and co-owner Amin Shahin “Sean” Shakur opened together in April.
The “dankest” snacks in the city
Back in 2016 when Sangara and best friend Shakur had their eyes on the Main Street retail location for what would soon become the first iteration of THC, the landlord insisted Sangara must also lease the adjoining unit for a total of six years.
“It was the biggest risk,” he says, “but back in the day I was willing to do anything to get that municipal license, so I took them both and used one for storage.”
Colin Bambury, a former Weedmaps rep who met the THC team in 2016, knew during his first visit to the store that there was something different about it. When he arrived, 30 people were lined up around the block.
“I knew then that they had something special,” he says. “They had a brand that people were willing to camp out overnight for, which didn’t exist in the industry at the time, or even now.” Bambury kept in touch with the team, and recently made the move from Toronto to Vancouver to join them.
After transitioning to the legal market, Sangara and Shakur knew they no longer required the space next door for storage purposes, and with tighter margins at THC, they couldn’t afford to let the extra unit sit empty.
“Clothing was something that was important to us, but we also knew just clothing in Vancouver wasn’t enough anymore, especially during these times,” he says. “And then the idea came into play that we wanted to make this block a one-stop-shop for cannabis lovers.” Though they both co-owned Dank Mart, Shakur took on the role of running the bodega. Dank Mart and THC may be side by side, but from a business standpoint, they are completely separate entities. (Regulations in B.C. also prohibit co-location and joint advertising with another business.)
The young entrepreneurs were able to create so much hype around the bodega’s grand opening that when the day finally came, not even the Covid-19 pandemic stopped hundreds of customers from lining up around the block and down the street.
Today, some customers drive more than 40 minutes to shop at the store, which has developed a massive following on social media. Walk in and find yourself transported to the promised land of rare snacks. Imagine every iteration of candy bar and sugary cereal your mind could ever conjure up, and then multiply that by ten. Consider coolers full of soda from as far away as Asia and South America, and chip and snack flavours you might have encountered on a vacation to Thailand, India, or the United Kingdom.
“I used to live in New York and go to the bodega every day, so it’s always been an idea I’ve been in love with,” says Sangara. “We’ve just tried to curate a menu of really hard-to-find snacks. We consider it stoner heaven here. There are a lot of stores for snacks but we want to be known as the spot with the dankest snacks around.”
“It really gratified and confirmed the fact that they are a special shop. There is little to no foot traffic in the area, because a lot of other local shops have closed down over the last several years,” Bambury says of the South Vancouver stretch referred to as Little India.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted the wild success of Dank Mart and what it’s now created,” he says. “We have people that walk by and go, ‘Oh hey, I was just in the neighbourhood and thought maybe I’d buy some weed.’ Dank Mart was always supposed to be the secondary business, but now it’s really bringing people from all over B.C.”
While the rare and imported snacks are the differentiator at Dank Mart, shoppers can also browse t-shirts, limited edition kicks, and high-end smoking accessories in the vibrantly designed store, complete with a mural of Nipsey Hussle, Kobe Bryant, and Tupac Shakur.
Thriving through tragedy
The three famed Los Angeles stars on the wall aren’t the only people being honoured at Dank Mart. In July, just three months after the store’s official opening, Shakur, 30, was unexpectedly gunned down behind the bodega. He died at the scene. Today, a street lamp outside the business’ front door is adorned with photographs and flowers. While the Vancouver Police Department has confirmed that its major crime detectives are working on it, the case has yet to be solved. Shakur did not have recent or extensive criminal history.
For Sangara, having the life of his best friend and business partner stolen away so quickly, and in the very store they worked together to build, has had a profound effect on the way he continues to do business.
“We’ve been invested in the neighbourhood since day one,” Sangara says. “The last conversation I had with Sean before he passed was about building a basketball court for local kids. He didn’t even have money for sports growing up. He was the most selfless, humble person, and such a community driven guy. We’re going to be going hard in his name.”
Today, Sangara splits his time between THC and Dank Mart, taking on some of the work left behind by Shakur and promising to uphold his selflessness, both within the business and in the neighbourhood. He’s currently working on creating a memorial fund featuring Shakur’s nickname: The Snackie Chan Foundation.
“I’m so grateful for everything. It’s taught me to really appreciate everyday being in this store, and not to take a single thing for granted,” he says. “Slow down, and put work second sometimes. I’m just proud we were able to create something so legendary.”
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