Restaurateur-turned-dispensary-owner experiences massive growth, rapid change in Oregon’s medical market
By Sue Vorenberg
Consider Brad Zusman the chess player of Oregon cannabis.
The fast-talking 49-year-old, who co-owns Canna Daddy’s in Portland with his wife Christina, is always looking three moves ahead, always speculating about where the market will go next. Over the past few years, his strategy has grown well beyond developing the dispensary he founded in 2014, moving him into both cannabis distribution and product creation.
“What makes me so unique in understanding this industry is that I see things in terms of infrastructure,” Zusman said. “Some people call me a visionary, but I’m a visionary with a plan to execute.”
With an eye for detail that he gained from more than 30 years in the restaurant industry, Zusman first jumped into the cannabis world about eight years ago, as a medical marijuana patient.
“I was a wild and crazy kid, and I was in a skiing accident,” Zusman said. “I’ve had five back surgeries, two hernia surgeries and two neck surgeries. I feel everything now.”
The pain didn’t stop him from becoming a well-known restaurateur in Portland, and he still owns Rivers Edge Cafe, which has operated in the city for 18 years.
When he became a medical marijuana patient, Zusman began to see deficiencies in the market. Instead of just rolling with the existing market, he decided to act.
In 2013, he founded a cannabis farmers market where medical distributors could go to talk to growers and purchase products. But changes from the Legislature added more structure and regulation to Oregon’s cannabis industry, thus putting an end to cannabis farmers markets.
In the wake of increased regulation, Zusman decided to open his own dispensary. He founded Canna Daddy’s on Division Street in March 2014 with three employees.
Within about 18 months, that business has grown to be the single highest grossing marijuana shop in Portland, with 33 employees and revenues that have continued to grow since Oregon allowed dispensaries to sell to all adults on Oct. 1.
“We’re on target to do $5.2 million in sales this year at one dispensary,” Zusman said. “And we think that will just increase from here.”
But Zusman didn’t stop with the dispensary. He also realized that Oregon’s cannabis industry desperately needed a distribution network to replace the old farmers markets. About a year ago he founded Busy Bee, a collection of growers and vendors that distributes cannabis products to more than 125 dispensaries across the state.
“We have extraction processors, farmers that grow flower, all sorts of companies wanting to join our distribution network,” Zusman said. “What I’ve been hearing is that there are a lot of distribution companies in the market, but none are particularly accountable. I wanted to change that.”
Vina Wilson, store manager at Divine Kind, a Portland dispensary that uses Busy Bee, said the service has been vastly helpful to her business.
“They do a phenomenal job,” Wilson said. “They’re always on call if I need them. They check in on me every week and if I need anything they get it for me.”
Besides providing an array of products, Busy Bee also helped Divine Kind set up exclusive deals with two growers, Wilson added.
Zusman’s Busy Bee network also includes software that closely tracks where product comes from and where it goes. And it’s not just handy for dispensaries that want to broaden their range of offerings, he said.
“It’s nice for farmers,” Zusman said. “They can go to one site and pick up their cash, rather than having to go to 12 or 15 dispensaries individually to get their money.”
Busy Bee also has a team of sales representatives that teach budtenders about the products available in its network, and it provides software and consulting advice to a wide array of customers.
“It’s about creating infrastructure for expansion and preparing to meet new demands,” Zusman said. “And we’ve already brought several growers and dispensaries through the black market into the legal market by providing those services.”
While he was creating Busy Bee, Zusman also noticed issues with edibles in Oregon’s medical marijuana market. One of the primary concerns was that THC content of many edibles on the market didn’t match claims on the packaging.
“With my background in the food industry, I wanted to make a product that I could stand by,” Zusman said. “What it says is in there should really be in there.”
With that in mind, Zusman created a third business, THC Confection, which makes 100-milligram THC-infused chocolate bars called Blazed Bars.
“We actually threw away about $25,000 worth of product as we developed those, because we wanted to be sure we got the dosing right,” Zusman said.
Working with three companies can be a bit hectic at times, but the strategy has greatly helped the business grow, said Andrew Courtenay, the company’s inventory specialist.
“When I first started at Canna Daddy’s in 2014, it was just us,” Courtenay said. “Now we have distribution and we have the Blaze Bars and it’s just a great three-headed monster.”
That said, Zusman still has a strong eye on the future for his dispensary. He anticipates a large increase in traffic from legal recreational cannabis customers, and he’s well into constructing and moving into a new larger location across the street from his current site to meet the higher demands.
The new $600,000 facility will nearly double the Canna Daddy’s space from 2,500 square feet to 4,500 square feet when it opens early next year. The site includes a distribution center, separate areas for medical and recreational customers and office space, among other things.
Zusman also anticipates growing his product offerings at the dispensary from a few hundred to about 700 in November, he said.
“I do eight times the volume of your average dispensary,” Zusman said. “What is the key to successful retail? Variety.”
But with the increasing volume, Zusman also insists on retaining an open, inviting feel at the dispensary as he ramps up for the new traffic. Part of that will include kiosks in the entry area of the new building that provide information about cannabis strains and products for consumers, he said.
“You need every customer that walks in that door,” Zusman said. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the joy of the journey. I love this industry, but it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”