For the past 12 months, the editorial staff at Marijuana Venture has compiled a list of candidates for our third annual 40 Under 40 feature. This year, we narrowed our list down from hundreds of worthy candidates to come up with a cross-section of personalities across the U.S. and Canada, from salt-of-the-earth farmers to tech savants. All of them have unique stories, successes and ambitions and all represent the excitement and promise of the cannabis business. We feel honored to share their stories and look forward to watching them push forward in our ever-evolving industry.
Everyone knew Las Vegas was going to be big, but few people realized its full potential.
The blending of Vegas-style extravagance, a massive tourist market and the novelty of legal weed has created one of the hottest marijuana markets in the country, with sales in Nevada’s first six months of legalization surpassing those of Washington and Colorado combined. And while the state’s fledgling cannabis industry is still dwarfed by the casinos, it’s easy to draw comparisons between the two.
At the north end of the famed Las Vegas Strip is Essence, a cannabis retail shop that screams Sin City with its bright lights and chic branding.
“Yeah, that’s definitely Las Vegas,” says Armen Yemenidjian, the 32-year-old CEO of Essence. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Yemenidjian grew up in the gaming industry and worked in casinos for several years prior to joining the cannabis industry. His father owned the Tropicana back when casinos faced a lot of the same scrutiny that marijuana businesses face today, including challenges with banking and the watchful eyes of the federal government. During the 1980s Yemenidjian watched his father help the Las Vegas gaming industry transition toward the more family-friendly entertainment capital it is today.
“He had a front-row seat for that pioneering time in gaming and I thought it would be cool for me to have that seat for cannabis,” he says.
Essence opened in 2016 and now has three locations in Nevada, including the only cannabis store on the Las Vegas Strip. Business Insider called it “Las Vegas’ premier dispensary,” and ranked it as one of the top 25 cannabis retailers in the U.S. The Las Vegas Review Journal included the store in its “Best of Las Vegas” list.
“As much as I am honored to be a part of all this, it’s hard to stop and smell the roses because this industry is moving in dog years,” Yemenidjian says. “There’s still so much game to be played. This is not even the first inning, it’s the opening pitch.”
Marijuana Venture: It feels like a lot of the Las Vegas old guard opposed the legalization of cannabis. Is that accurate?
Armen Yemenidjian: Well the reason why gaming is against cannabis is that gaming has been the backbone of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is Las Vegas because of gaming. The casinos and Gaming Control Board took a very conservative approach because if they allow one thing that is federally illegal, then why wouldn’t we allow several things that are federally illegal? Why open Pandora’s box? That was the stance that they took.
Right or wrong, you have to play the hand you’re dealt, right?
The Gaming Control Board doesn’t care how much revenue is generated. All they care about is that it’s a federally illegal activity that is taking place and they want no part of it. It literally stops there for them. Unless the state starts making more tax revenue from cannabis than gaming, then it’ll be a different story.
MV: Did you have to choose between gaming and cannabis?
AY: Yeah, I was given an ultimatum. I had to pick, and I chose cannabis.
MV: Who gave you the ultimatum?
AY: The Gaming Control Board.
MV: Considering that you come from a gaming family, was there any reaction from your father?
AY: No. My dad has always been really supportive of me expanding and doing something in cannabis. It was never an issue. There wasn’t any tension.
MV: Having worked at the Tropicana before opening Essence, what did you want to bring from your experience in casinos to the retail experience?
AY: We didn’t want to just sell cannabis. We wanted to create an experience, bring the hospitality mentality from gaming to cannabis retail. That’s been our goal: exceptional customer service, variety and quality. We’ve stuck to those fundamental principles and we’re hopeful that it works.
MV: A lot of cannabis entrepreneurs across the country have those same sentiments. How is it different when you put it through your gaming filter?
AY: The parallel between cannabis and gaming is high-quality customer service, high-quality product, high-quality employees and doing all of that while maintaining a compliant framework.
In gaming, I worked at a property that I inherited — meaning it was an existing brick-and-mortar facility — whereas with cannabis I started with a blank canvas. I really got the opportunity to put my own flare and ideas into it and create something, instead of what we did at the Tropicana, which was turn something around.
The ability to really have your fingerprint on the culture, look, feel and experience — from scratch — is a very different experience from inheriting a culture. That was the most exciting thing, to start from scratch and build from the ground up. Don’t get me wrong, turnaround projects have been fun experiences, but really being able to put your fingerprint is a different process.
MV: Now that the building has been opened, what’s on the horizon for Essence?
AY: Expansion. We’re currently looking to expand into multiple states. Surprise, surprise, California is one of them. We haven’t finalized anything yet, but our goal is to be in California by next year and three to four other states after that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.