Life is like a box of medical marijuana chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
What the Weekly got when it sent out a wave of Public Record Act requests regarding local marijuana businesses was a doozy of an email to Salinas City Manager Ray Corpuz.
Two things jumped out:
1. Local businessmen have created Salinas-based Altai Brands. As the email states, it “manufactures and packages food products which combine lozenges and chocolates that are mechanically infused with highly calibrated byproducts/oils of medical marijuana.”
The businessmen estimate their company will enjoy revenues “in excess” of $15 million in its first year alone and employ more than two dozen people.
2. Those local businessmen include Rob Weakley, author of the email and co-founder of Pebble Beach Food & Wine. PBFW’s wildly ambitious parent company, Coastal Luxury Management, also launched Restaurant 1833, Cannery Row Brewing Co. and Los Angeles Food & Wine, among other ventures, in the space of just a few years.
In June, celebrated wine barons and entrepreneurs Charles and Ali Banks bought out Weakley’s partnership in the company under what would prove to be less-than-harmonious circumstances. While a flurry of nastily worded – and ongoing – lawsuits over the terms of departure flew, Weakley set about looking for a project paralleling the scale and influence of landscape-shaking CLM.
“I had time to sit back and look for an opportunity to create something that could really change things,” Weakley says.
He was drawn to a sphere so young he could mold it, one so infused with potential he could ride it to places society can’t yet see. In his words, “I could affect a whole industry.”
And that starts with a wholesale pot-food manufacturing facility Weakley plans to locate in an industrial area of Salinas.
The wholesale part is key: It allows Altai Brands to avoid any of the legal risk that accompanies the growing (they’ll receive oils) or sale (they’ll supply dispensaries) of marijuana. That means Altai would comply with city laws that prohibit pot collaboratives but do not prevent manufacturing.
“They came to us and asked whether they could do it under existing code,” Salinas City Attorney Chris Callihan says. “We evaluated it and it’s not prohibited by code that prohibits dispensaries.”
The food part tastes like fun and represents a natural outcome for a guy who’s spent a career in food and beverage. (Before CLM, Weakley worked in restaurants at a range of swanky Hyatts around the country.)
“The biggest thing I didn’t see in the industry was people with food backgrounds,” he says. “I saw people in the marijuana industry manufacturing food products.”
Altai just signed a chef to help develop recipes for the beginning portfolio of three product categories: solid chocolates, gourmet chocolates and lozenges, or hard candies. They’ll have separate products for the two types of cannabis strains, sativa and indica, to achieve more specific benefits. (The name of the out-of-the-area chef hasn’t been released because he is still making exit arrangements from his current job.)
Think caramel sea salt chocolates and rich, flaky chocolate ganache, rendered in single low-dose servings of 10 or 25 milligrams.
“It will rival non-infused gourmet chocolates that could stand alone at Whole Foods or even great dining rooms with great pastry chefs,” Weakley says. “A product that tastes great and looks great.”
Even with all the intrigue, Weakley and his pioneering partner, local marijuana-business attorney Gavin Kogan, were hoping to keep things quiet for at least a few weeks longer. They’re learning you don’t always know what you’re going to get.
Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream has gone all-in on weed-infused ice cream. He keynoted the Marijuana Business Conference in Las Vegas two months back, telling the assembled pot professionals, “The opportunities to combine making a profit with serving your community are limitless.”
Former Staples executive Bob Mayerson has hatched a family of dispensaries. First Security Bank of Nevada’s boss just made a similar move. Bob Marley’s family recently raised more than $75 million for a Marley Natural brand of medicinal products.
These were the things Weakley found as he went searching for his next project post-CLM. And while he won’t disclose how much Altai has raised, he does proclaim medical marijuana the fastest-growing industry in the world – and happily rattles off stats demonstrating that medical marijuana enjoys greater public approval than gay marriage or President Barack Obama.
The biggest difference between Weakley and his fellow entrepreneurial partner: Kogan saw this coming a lot farther off.
His practice made a bravely pot-committed turn – on both medicinal and recreational fronts – several years ago. But he has represented growers since 2006, and he grew up with friends cultivating Mary Jane in Carmel Valley and Big Sur decades earlier.
“I was blown away in my 20s when I met someone who hadn’t seen marijuana,” he says.
He visits dozens of dispensaries to analyze trends and pores over resources like ArcView Market Research’s $500 tome, The State of Legal Marijuana Markets, which estimates 14.9 million customers for legal marijuana in California. The national market has already reached nearly $2.7 billion, even though recreational use remains illegal (see story, p. 26).
Kogan watched closely as edibles bloomed from a tiny fraction of the dispensary business to 35 percent of revenue today. “We’re just scratching the surface of this thing,” he says.
Pebble Beach socialite and aspiring dispensary owner Valentia Piccinini (see story, p. 28) brokered a meeting between Kogan and Weakley, marking a turning point for the CLM co-founder.
Kogan helped school Weakley on why safety and consistency are paramount in this kind of product.
Unlike Forrest Gump, clients are better off knowing what they are going to get: For novice users often drawn to edibles – including the curious, the cancer patient and the senior seeking relief for a variety of ailments – a consistent low dose prevents the type of experience that discourages repeat commerce.
“You don’t want to scare off new users with a psychoactive experience that freaks them out,” Kogan says. “It’s bad for business.”
And they need to know their kids aren’t going to get into it. The child-proof packaging Altai is workshopping represents an industry frontier for the West Coast. Not only that, with Colorado requiring child-safe casing a month ago and California leaning much more consumer protective as a state, that preparation could position them nicely.
“We’re trying to bring a new product and vision to the industry,” Weakley says.
Members of the Russian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk didn’t know what they were going to get beneath the Siberian permafrost back in 1993. They were digging around in a remote corner of southern Siberia known as the Ukok Plateau, and what they found dated back toward 500 B.C. – and will affect Altai and modern-day Salinas.
They discovered an underground burial chamber and a long log coffin, and within it an intricately tattooed corpse with traditional goods for the journey into the afterlife, including bridal horses, all conveniently preserved by thick ice.
The woman now known as the Ice Maiden proved strikingly young, 25 tops. Her burial mound’s position, a tall headdress and gold-and-wood jewelry suggested she enjoyed the status of princess or shaman; later MRIs revealed she suffered from serious breast cancer.
The kicker: She was also buried with a container of cannabis.
In her name Weakley found inspiration, and the name of their new medical edibles line: Altai.
“You’ve got to have a story behind it,” he says.
As the landscapes of marijuana law and commerce continue to shift with the speed of an exhale, the country and California can count on what they’re going to get: namely, a bumper crop of compelling stories behind the marijuana revolution.
For Monterey County, this daring attempt to be first to market will be one of its most formative.