Frenchy Cannoli teams up with Aficionado Estates to set the standard for high-end products in the cannabis industry
By Greg James
When Marijuana Venture began interviewing new cannabis business owners and applicants more than two years ago, several themes emerged.
The most common was that every grower said they “grew the best weed,” and would be producing a “premium, top-shelf” product or brand. Those growers typically cited the hiring of a “master grower” and the belief that they possessed genetics unavailable to their competitors as proof they’d be successful.
After listening intently to dozens of these interviews, it became obvious that the majority of growers had the best intentions, but lacked a real understanding of what goes into developing a premium product.
Simple math dictates that if everyone in the business attempts to create a premium product and no one wants to be a “value” brand, the reality of consumer demand would likely result in many producers being crushed by fierce competition and market forces.
In simple terms — to use automobiles as an example — not all manufacturers can be Rolls Royce or Ferrari. The vast majority of auto sales come from the Fords and Toyotas of the world. Companies that want to be Rolls Royce or Ferrari must know exactly how they’re going to get a small segment of consumers to pay a very large premium for an upscale product.
Companies like Ferrari, Louis Vuitton, Dom Perignon, Swarovski and Château Lafite Rothschild reach the pinnacle of consumer brands because of numerous important elements that combine to create something special. Explaining everything that goes into the creation of a premium product is beyond the scope of this article. However, elite consumer brands usually have a few things in common: great product, remarkable history, compelling back story, driven founders, limited availability, superior packaging, tightly-controlled retail partners and premium pricing.
The price paid for premium brands is often many times more than the actual delta in quality between it and a less-costly competitor. In other words, a Louis Vuitton purse may cost $3,000, while a Coach purse might only be $300. However, the Louis Vuitton purse is unlikely to be 10 times better.
Likewise, a $300,000 Ferrari is certainly better than a $30,000 Mustang, but is it really 10 times better? Or 10 times faster? No, but an extremely small percentage of consumers will buy a Ferrari because of the company’s unique history and exclusivity. Consumers are buying the “brand” at a huge premium because the product in question represents more than just a purse or car.
Therefore, the price premium is mostly about the perceived value and scarcity of a brand.
Will there be super-premium products in the cannabis industry in the same way there are high-end wines and spirits in the alcohol business? Probably. However, it’s going to take a lot more than just saying “it’s the best weed.”
It will likely involve the same factors that have powered many successful premium brands in other industries, as well as a driven founder with a single-minded commitment to excellence — somebody like Frenchy Cannoli, who has built a strong following for his hash, and has recently partnered with Aficionado Estates to deliver connoisseur-level products to medical dispensaries in California.
Marijuana Venture recently sat down with both the legendary hash-maker and Aficionado founder and CEO Leo Stone to discuss how they’ve begun to create a premium brand in the cannabis industry.
Marijuana Venture: Ultra-high-end brands in other consumer categories are able to command huge premiums compared to their competition. Do you think that can happen in the marijuana business?
Leo Stone: Absolutely, and it’s already happening. If I may, the reason all of these brands command an extraordinary premium is the unique heritage, and privileged know-how that accompanies each brand. The common denominator, which threads the marijuana business and the aforementioned brands together, is unmatched levels of execution, attention to detail and commitment to the craft.
In the marijuana business, the region where the product is from is what dictates quality and higher premiums — similar to exclusive wine. With that said, Aficionado has already surpassed the necessary prerequisites for being perceived as ‘ultra-premium,’ and our highly-exclusive lines of aged hashish and limited designer genetics command heavy premiums way beyond the industry status quo and are often sold out due to high demand.
Frenchy Cannoli: Yes, I believe so, too. The wine industry is a better example, I think, in our case. Bordeaux and Champagne vintages have been commanding huge premiums since the birth of modern wine, 160 years ago. The wine industry has bequeathed to us a ‘how-to’ blueprint in the history books. Like wine, the value of my product is dictated by the connection to the land that nourishes the plants, the climate, the genetics and the know-how of the growers. In French we call this combination that results in a superior product specific to a region ‘terroir.’ This is the foundation of the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system used by the wine industry to evaluate and control quality. I believe the cannabis industry needs to adopt a similar system to protect the small farmers and the consumers equally.
MV: How did you develop such an impressive following?
FC: It all started five years ago, in part, simply by being controversial.
I believe in traditional hashish-making methodology — by that I mean sieved resin that has been pressed with a source of heat — which sets me apart from what other hash makers were doing in the U.S. at the time. The following developed mostly through going to cannabis events and setting up a hash bar where I offered people the experience to smoke high-quality, traditional, hand-pressed hashish.
The special working relationship I have with Aficionado Estates, which gives me the chance to work with the best material from the Emerald Triangle, is all a hashishin could possibly wish for. This, along with the mentorship and friendship of Subcool and Mz. Jill from TGA, was the foundation of my acceptance and recognition in the industry.
MV: How important is the ‘back story,’ and what sort of significance does a traceable history play in developing a premium brand?
FC: In my case, it’s plural. The back stories are everything. My years of travel in producing countries are the source of many adventures that made me the person I am, and they are the reason for my dedication to the plant and to producing a quality product, and my passion for understanding the science that validates traditional methodology.
Leo Stone: Our heritage and unique industry roots are the essence of our identity and what we stand for as craftsmen. Frenchy Cannoli VSOP and PRESSE are living extensions of the Aficionado Estates brand universe. We don’t approach our craft as a ‘brand’ per se, but as an opportunity to communicate our unique story to the world.
We celebrate the Emerald Triangle’s rich history and preserve the formulas that olde world cannabis artisans passed down through generations of family craftsmen. Discerning connoisseurs expect not only a high level of prestige and heritage in a premium product, but also an unparalleled authority and legitimacy within its specific territory to be recognized as ‘a step above.’
This is one area the Aficionado family excels at. Aficionado is a family of multi-generation cannabis craftsmen. It’s the first company to win the Emerald Cup four years in a row, and has solely been in the business of crafting the highest quality cannabis possible. Perhaps nobody embodies the values of high-level craft more than Frenchy Cannoli, who is among the last of a dying breed who has been preserving the artistry and traditions of master hashishins found throughout India, Nepal, Morocco and Afghanistan. For over 40 years he has practiced and observed the art of preparing olde world hashish, a pedigree not commonly found in today’s cannabis industry. A unique story and heritage is the keystone in creating and maintaining any upscale brand.
MV: Super-premium products are often tightly controlled as far as pricing and where they can be purchased. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus carry Louis Vuitton purses, but people obviously can’t buy them at Walmart or Target.
FC: The greater limitation in this pre-recreational legalization environment is interstate commerce laws. But to your point, since we focus on quality and everything we do is hand-processed, the dispensaries we work with are carefully chosen and limited. Our core outlets are Buds & Roses in Los Angeles and Medithrive in San Francisco.
MV: How do you determine who can sell the brand?
FC: We visit the facility, and discuss their commitment to organically grown, preferably outdoor medicine. Also, we want the farmer/grower acknowledged, so we request that dispensaries carry their flower as well.
MV: How many retail outlets currently carry your premium hash brand?
FC: We have only begun our retail efforts recently, so we are ramping up slowly. Up until now, the product has really been used to educate the American consumer about traditional hand-pressed hashish, genetics and terroir.
MV: How do you control pricing?
FC: We are a small-batch artisanal producer that focuses on releasing only the highest quality to market. Our pricing does not change with market fluctuation.
MV: Your packaging is striking. How important is package design?
LS: As in fine cuisine, presentation is everything. All in a single blink of an eye, your packaging is the first impression of who you are and what distinguishes you from the rest of the crowd.
When I was designing the Frenchy Cannoli VSOP and PRESSE lines, they had to be uniquely ‘Frenchy,’ but unmistakably ‘Aficionado.’ The black and gold elements that are ubiquitous within the Aficionado brand universe are fused with Frenchy’s unique character, bravado. He embodies olde world techniques and values, and celebrates the virtues of ultra-high-level craft. All of this had to be communicated flawlessly in Frenchy’s own private line.
The goal was to celebrate the maximum expression of olde world pressed hashish.
MV: Are you thinking about licensing your brand, and how do you get around the interstate transportation issue?
LS: Licensing can be dangerous to a brand and will only ever be done if the Aficionado family maintains production and quality control oversight of anything we offer under our umbrella.
The interstate transportation issue is a subject that will need to be addressed in the near future. Companies like Louis Vuitton and Ferrari manufacture all their offerings completely in-house at a specific location. Additionally, Aficionado celebrates its practice of crafting the best cannabis possible within the Emerald Triangle terroir. Our terroir and our region of origin are the backbone of our brand’s heritage and prestige, and until we can transport craft items from Humboldt and Mendocino, the notion of licensing out of state remains slim.
We find that much of our brand equity is based in that we are authentically an Emerald Triangle brand with roots that permeate both the world of craft farms and the shadows of outlaw business in the Triangle. It’s this element that makes us who we are, and until we can lift the interstate transportation ban, (out-of-state) consumers can’t experience the true essence of what our brand stands for.
FC: We cannot step into the future without creating the foundation mandatory for a legal market, may it be interstate or worldwide; by that I mean we need to create a classification of today’s genetics to set standards of quality, as was done in the wine industry. We also absolutely need a common vocabulary, as well as a recognized scoring system to comprehensively define quality for flowers and sieved and extracted resin.
We need to set the values that will define the future of the cannabis industry so that we can nurture the production of quality and therefore protect our small farmers.