How Caroline Frankel became a force in Massachusetts’ cannabis retail market
Caroline Frankel had ignored the warning signs for too long.
But the shortness of breath, headaches and acute pains in her neck, jaw and back finally caught her attention just as she realized she was having a heart attack at her Massachusetts home with her husband and three children in the other room.
“In retrospect, I didn’t sleep a lot,” Caroline says. “I was a worker. I was up with my kids all day. I would hustle all night, and it took a toll on me. But I think when people are chasing their dreams, they forget about their health a little bit.”
As the owner and namesake of Caroline’s Cannabis, a growing cannabis retail chain in Massachusetts and the state’s first wholly woman-owned cannabis business, she had achieved her dream and then some.
But dreaming big was also a major factor as to why, at just 38, Caroline was being rushed to the hospital June 6, 2021.
“I think that was a turning point for me last year,” she says. “I realized that I need a team that can support me, and because of it, we’ve flourished this year.”
Authentic and Homespun
A massive part of Caroline Frankel’s success is her tireless work ethic and preparation, but another sizeable factor is the company’s earnest, ongoing branding effort that is simply an extension of Caroline herself.
The stores have a local, grassroots feel, from the white trim and wooden exterior to the warm earthy tones used inside to the homemade wood signs Frankel used to break into the industry. The stores and the Caroline’s Cannabis brand evoke an authentic, homespun, New England woman-owned business … because that exactly who they represent.
Those in Massachusetts may already know Frankel. She’s been a fixture in the local cannabis community for nearly a decade and has billboards across the state with her face promoting her retail chain.
Caroline’s Cannabis has grown from humble beginnings, from its initial 480-square-foot location to now working on a third store and building out the processing side of its business.
Frankel was the first general applicant and first social equity participant for an adult-use cannabis business license in Massachusetts, and then became the first woman in the commonwealth to receive a license. Not only does she take her role in the industry seriously, but she fully understands that she is a model for other aspiring business owners and an ambassador for the industry.
Caroline’s prominence in the local industry isn’t something a PR firm could simply cook up and deliver in a marketing campaign; it was years in the making. When recreational cannabis landed on the ballot in Massachusetts in 2016, Caroline knew she had to be a part of the new industry. Using a desk she found on the side of the road, she set up an office in her basement with three baby monitors and her laptop. There she spent countless nights studying the existing recreational state markets, their application processes, requirements and seemingly endless minutia.
She knew her home state would most likely use pieces of other states’ regulatory framework, so she devoted her time to being prepared for any eventuality.
During that learning process, she also opted to get a certificate of competency in the cannabis industry from the Northeastern Institute of Cannabis, despite already having a degree in business management from Johnson & Wales University.
But while she was preparing for Massachusetts’ adult-use launch, the state’s industry was already developing at medical dispensaries, farms and cannabis events. She needed to be actively involved, so she found a very “crafty” way of doing it.
“I had to come up with something creative to position myself as a future boutique retailer,” Caroline says. “So I would make these rustic wood signs that were cannabis driven, and I would go to freedom rallies, trade shows, harvest cups, and sell hundreds of signs at these events.”
Hitting every cannabis event she could, Caroline started getting recognized by other regular vendors and attendees — many of whom would later become her peers in the industry.
Steve Frankel, Caroline’s husband and the wholesale buyer for Caroline’s Cannabis, says the signs helped Caroline successfully cross the threshold to where her face and name are now synonymous with her cannabis business.
“A lot of them have supported us to this day,” Steve says of the sign-buyers.
“You know how hard it is to be the first woman to successfully tie her face to a cannabis brand?” he adds. “It’s unbelievable.”
“They’re hanging my signs at different farms across the state,” Caroline says. “It made for a nice transition into retail.”
Opening the Floodgates
At the stroke of midnight on June 1, 2018, Caroline became the first general applicant for an adult-use cannabis license in Massachusetts. Four months later, she became the first general applicant to receive a license.
“It was a ton of pressure,” she says. “It was a lot of pressure for my family. I put every financial dollar into it, so it was my game to lose and that’s how I felt.”
Caroline’s Cannabis officially opened on March 15, 2019. The retail launch was so successful the store had to restrict its operating hours to eight hours a day, six days a week for the first 18 months because demand was so high.
“We had three registers running with a line out the door, every single day for the first year and a half,” Steve says.
“I don’t think we’ve hit a bigger milestone than opening up that first store on our first day of recreational sales,” Caroline says. “It was unbelievable.”
The small, 480-square-foot store in Uxbridge was an unmitigated success. With the Uxbridge location successful beyond her expectations, it became a springboard for larger opportunities, which Caroline handled personally to ensure success.
“That store allowed me to get in the game, but I’m a big believer in building a business to scale,” she says.
She saved all the money from her first store, allowing her to buy a property in Hopedale that would house the second location of Caroline’s Cannabis — a personal milestone, as well as a key acquisition for the business.
“I never thought I’d even own my own piece of commercial property,” she says.
It was during the buildout of the second store when Caroline suffered her heart attack.
“I reevaluated at that point because it put things in a little bit tighter perspective — I knew at that point that I needed to expand my team,” Caroline says. “I have a really good-size staff now, 30 employees.”
Caroline’s Cannabis opened its Hopedale store in October 2021.
Caroline is currently scouting locations for her third store, the limit for cannabis retailers in Massachusetts. The company is also readying to start home delivery and, having recently received its processing license, Caroline is developing plans for a suite of infused products available soon at retail stores across the state.
“I never realized while in the hustle of building my business that one day I would be looked at as a pioneer in the cannabis industry or pivotal part of Massachusetts’ cannabis history,” Caroline says. “That my store opening was not only a special moment for me professionally, but for all small business cannapreneurs, especially women who have been fighting to find their foothold in this new industry.”
If all of that wasn’t enough to keep Caroline busy, she also plans to expand her business into other New England states once she reaches full capacity in Massachusetts.
“I have always felt like the underdog,” she says. “Starting this business was a big, big deal for me, not only as a cannabis enthusiast, but professionally and personally. I’m a mom of three and this is what I’m doing — and I am good at it.”