Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Before I entered the cannabis space in 2014, I was a commercial real estate broker for a little over a decade. Prior to that, I managed our family’s fast food restaurants throughout Northern CA. When I entered the cannabis industry, my initial goal was to help cannabis cultivators find legal places to grow. In 2015, no one did that; it was very rare. The more I got involved, the more I discovered that cannabis regulations were in a very grey area, and not clearly defined in Monterey County. I saw an opportunity to advocate for clearer regulations, so I spoke with politicians to help create ordinances that made sense for the county and local businesses alike.
As I moved further into cannabis, I started meeting all of these salt-of-the-earth people. There’s something more powerful about this plant than just real estate. I’m conservative by nature and cannabis — known in Arabic as hashih — is not a very flattering word in my family’s language, but today they take the credit for my transformation into the industry.
I became particularly interested in opening cannabis retail stores after I entered a Prop. 215 shop for the first time at the end of 2014. Over the following few months, my partners and I visited a thousand locations across six states. To be frank, we felt intimidated and rushed when entering the majority of these establishments. As a person new to cannabis at the time, I felt judged for my ignorance on the product types and I was scared to ask a stupid question. I was afraid. I realized there are many people like me who are new to this and weren’t comfortable with the ‘headshop feeling’ in dispensaries at the time. That’s when I had an ‘Eureka’ moment and realized I wanted to lift up, to elevate, the experience of purchasing cannabis.
When we designed our first dispensary, I was thinking of my mom and grandmother. Could they walk in and feel comfortable here? That’s the problem I was working to solve. When you come into our locations, you see everybody there — your mom, your doctor, your neighbor. We’ve had 77,000 unique visitors since we opened East of Eden in Salinas in 2018, but there’s only 440,000 people in our county, total. It’s like Main Street now: one in four residents have visited us.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
To be honest, I was naive and innocent when it came to cannabis. Coming from a conservative background, I definitely felt a stigma around it being a dangerous drug. In 2014, I thought that smoking cannabis meant smoking the leaves. I didn’t know there was a flower. You only see pictures of the leaves. I didn’t see a plant until the end of that year and I had wondered what all the hoopla was. I was very fortunate to really have a basis before I tried it, my friend Gavin — who is now my partner — would throw mixers and we would converse about cannabis. I’ve learned from friends, family, colleagues, and consumers about the benefits of cannabis.
At least once a week a customer will come into our dispensaries with a bag of prescription pills they’re on, saying, ‘How do I get off of this stuff for pain management?’ It feels like we are making the world a little bit better with every sale. A customer is leaving with pain relief, a better way of life that they can cope with. To relieve the pain or anxiety of the consumer, is in my eyes, priceless.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors and colleagues throughout my life. But what has really helped me is the core group of our company and its founders. We come from a diverse background, and we each bring something special to the table.
My brother, Omar, has been in the industry for 20 years and understands cannabis culture probably more than anybody. He keeps us ahead of the pulse when it comes to consumer and brand trends.
My business partner, Kaz, helped me connect with different politicians and government officials who helped us draft the ordinances and legislations in the cities that we operate.
Our COO and business partner, Darren, started his first cannabis retail store five years ago. We learned a lot from his successes and pitfalls in the industry. Thanks to his guidance, we were able to avoid common mistakes because he lived through them.
And my partner Gavin has really helped cultivate our company to be something special. Having a cannabis law background, he has helped us build a foundation and maintain a defined structure. My family and I always operated our own business without living in a corporate world, so Gavin’s insight has been invaluable.