Pure Oasis is a first in several categories. It is the first recreational marijuana store to open in Boston. It is the first business to open through the state’s social equity program. It is also the first Black-owned, adult-use cannabis store to open on the East Coast.
Finally on the Fast Track
The High End becomes Massachusetts’ first certified women- and minority-owned cannabis business
By Garrett Rudolph
What started with a whim, a dream and an inside joke between a woman and her husband has taken a major step toward becoming a reality.
In June, The High End LLC became the first cannabis company in Massachusetts to be certified as both a minority business enterprise (MBE) and a women business enterprise (WBE). The certifications fast-tracked the company’s process to receive its provisional state license for cultivation, manufacturing and retail, allowing the company to begin construction. At the time, there were two cannabis companies that were certified as women-owned and one that was veteran-owned.
“It was a very happy day,” says CEO Helen Gomez Andrews. “We were really proud of ourselves, but it’s also heartbreaking to some degree that after all this time, we were actually still the first. Why weren’t there more?”
She and her husband had long joked about starting a cannabis-infused chocolate company. Eventually, the New York couple simply decided, “Let’s just figure out how we’re going to do this,” Andrews says.
They started scouting real estate in Massachusetts, eventually buying a building in Holyoke that previously housed a notebook bindery.
“We made it in just before the green rush attacked the real estate here,” Andrews says. “We sold our home in Brooklyn to buy this property, put all our eggs in this basket, made our way up here to Holyoke and began the application process.”
Although chocolate “was the genesis of the whole thing” — building off her husband’s background in the restaurant industry — Andrews says the goal is now to open a retail shop in the next six months. The company is looking at nine months of construction for its grow facility, so it could be 18 months before The High End is online with production and manufacturing.
Andrews spent the previous 13 years in finance, working in private wealth management at Lehman Brothers and Barclays, before ending up at Morgan Stanley. It was at Morgan Stanley that she was introduced to the idea of impact investing, which uses investment capital not just for profit, but also to benefit people and the planet (“the triple bottom line”). It inspired some of the philosophy upon which The High End was founded, as Andrews views the cannabis industry as a vehicle for positive change and a model for other industries to follow.
“There’s so much that this plant is going to heal,” she says. “And I’m not just talking about aches and pains and illnesses, but the ills of this industrial world. I know that’s lofty and corny, but I really believe it.”
The company landed on the vertically integrated model, in part, because of the desire to use “organic, natural, sustainable and ethically grown cannabis” in its products, “which at the time was not very prevalent in this market,” Andrews says.
The couple eventually developed relationships with people in the industry who shared their philosophy and “have demonstrated that not only can it be done, it can be done at scale and very profitably,” Andrews says.
“It just became evident that in order for us to be able to deliver the end product that we wanted to deliver, we would have to control our cultivation as well,” she says. “Almost everybody scoffed at us for wanting to do it the way we wanted to do it. ‘Why not just automate? Why not go for high yield? Why are you making it so hard for yourself?’
“Yeah, a lot of people thought we were nuts, but we kept going and going and going,” she says
The business is a landmark victory for both social equity and the greater cannabis industry, and co-owners Kobie Evans and Kevin Hart have had to overcome massive hurdles just to get the store open and then keep it open in the turbulent months that followed. The past few years have been stressful, Evans says, but not much more than what the two men have grown accustomed to.
“We come from places where life is hard every day of the week,” Evans says. “These are just trials and tribulations.”
A Rough Launch
After years of planning and dreaming, Evans and Hart opened Pure Oasis on Monday, March 9, 2020, and served about 1,500 people. To the longtime friends, the 2,700-square-foot cannabis store was more than just a business venture; it signified them coming off the bench and stepping into the limelight.
Living in Boston, they had watched billions of dollars flow in and out of their city as new industries brought surges of wealth to already affluent venture capitalists and business owners. Repeatedly watching rising tides of opportunity fail to reach some of Boston’s Black neighborhoods was both frustrating and the status-quo.
“I think that overall, here in Massachusetts, we have a very storied history when it comes to race relations and some of that still plays out today,” Evans says. “There are just so many industries that start here — it’s the jumping-off point for all this money, but we don’t see those benefits and we don’t see those gains.”
Although the Pure Oasis grand opening was smaller than expected for the first cannabis store in Boston, it allowed them to assess some weak points and fine-tune their operations. Local politicians were there, right alongside the city’s chief of police.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh attended the event, but had to leave early to attend a press conference on the coronavirus.
The following day, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in response to the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
Within two weeks, every adult-use cannabis retailer in the commonwealth was shuttered as part of the state’s pandemic-response lockdown (medical dispensaries were allowed to remain open). When the shutdown notice came through, Evans and Hart were shocked.
“We were wondering how we got labeled as ‘non-essential’ when we saw that the alcohol stores and the tobacco stores could remain open,” Hart says. “We thought we were going to be open too.”
While nearly every other state declared cannabis as an essential business, Governor Baker forced the industry to halt operations. At first, it was a 10-day shutdown. Later, when a 20-day shutdown was announced, Evans and Hart felt the only responsible thing they could do was lay off nearly everyone on staff.
“We wanted to give them a chance to collect unemployment, and we didn’t know what the future held,” Evans says. “But it was crazy because we opened this new business. We hired all these employees and then we get this crash course because now we have to shut down our business and lay off 30-something people all within a month.”
Pure Oasis wasn’t allowed to reopen until Memorial Day, May 25 — the same day a man named George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, igniting a nationwide movement protesting racial inequality and police violence.
On May 31, as protesters marched through hundreds of U.S. cities, Pure Oasis was vandalized and looted. In a coordinated effort, thieves broke into the store and made off with about $100,000 worth in cannabis products.
“Going through the store, seeing windows broken and the place just ravaged, it definitely was very sobering,” Evans says. “It took an emotional toll.”
Hart says he didn’t know how to feel about the destruction.
“At another time in my life, I would have been out there fucking shit up with them, but there were people out there exploiting it for personal gain,” he says. “I just can’t get behind that.”
Evans and Hart didn’t waste any time lamenting the damages. It was, again, the hand they were being dealt, Evans says. Leading up to the reopening, the company had rehired the majority of the furloughed staff. Now, they were even more determined to get the business back on track.
Together with several crew members and the support of cannabis industry partners who replenished the stolen product on terms, the Pure Oasis team quietly repaired the damages to the store and reopened once again on June 1 at 11 a.m.
“We opened back up nine hours after the robbery,” Hart says. “That was our stance — that we would persevere, that we are resilient.”
Getting into the Game
Between the coronavirus pandemic and losing more than $100,00 in product and damages, Pure Oasis has endured what is perhaps one of the rockiest launches for any cannabis business. But those challenges merely punctuated a years-long effort to get the business licensed and operational.
In 2016, after a brief trip to Maryland, Evans met up with Hart for a couple beers. Maryland had already legalized medical cannabis, and at the time, Massachusetts had a pending ballot measure to legalize adult-use marijuana. It was another example of opportunity coming to Boston that someone would surely take advantage of. This time, Evans and Hart figured: “Why not us?”
For more than two years, they met for weekly planning sessions to get a head start on the application process.
While larger cannabis companies often hire attorneys or a consulting firm to handle the application process, Evans and Hart couldn’t afford those additional fees.
“We ultimately did a lot of homework on our own to try to solve the problem,” Evans says.
Although they were well-prepared for the application process and benefited from the state’s social equity program, Pure Oasis needed a host community agreement, the requirement that marijuana businesses meet with the municipality where they want to do business and negotiate terms on how the business will operate within the community.
“We found out the hard way that it’s almost impossible to connect with the mayor of some random town or on the phone to talk about the potential for a host agreement,” Evans says. “Those conversations are reserved for people with connections, and if you don’t have those connections then it’s a dead end.”
“There’s nothing you can do to sway their opinions one way or another,” Hart adds. “It’s really a black hole.”
Essentially, Evans says, the host community agreements are decided in terms of the net gain for the municipality — and it halted the momentum the two entrepreneurs had been building.
“If you or your company didn’t have some sort of cache in their name or the ability to buy school buses and make donations to designated nonprofits or charities, then it wasn’t going to happen,” he says.
Rumors were spreading that the host community agreements could be the death knell for several businesses, particularly those in the social equity program. To date, Evans says very few people from the social equity program have gotten a meaningful meeting with a municipality.
Then, out of nowhere, a seemingly random phone call from a Boston cannabis department representative told Evans and Hart they had a received a no-strings host agreement for their business.
Evans says it was almost like their names had been drawn out of a hat.
“Some people can kind of call their shots and know for sure, but we had no idea. It was a total surprise — a happy surprise — but a total surprise,” Evans says. “There definitely was something that happened with the city, and I would love to know exactly what it was, so maybe we could repeat it somewhere else, but it was just a phone call that kind of changed our lives.”
All eyes were on the two men as they took on the roles of being the ambassadors of recreational cannabis in Boston, the first graduates of Massachusetts’ social equity program and owners of the first Black-owned recreational cannabis store on the East Coast. Evans says too many people were counting on them, and they refused to let this opportunity pass them by.
“We, as people of color, are used to getting doors shut in our face with no excuse or rationale and that’s normal,” he says. “It was this weird situation where we were always on the sidelines for these things as they were happening and now, all of a sudden, we’re on center stage and part of a bigger cast.”
Hart says Pure Oasis is now running at full strength. It is working with a dozen vendors and has approximately 100 different products available. Evans says now, after six months of turmoil and years of waiting, the store is hitting its projections and they are looking for expansion opportunities.
“This is just our infancy,” Evans says. “We have so much more in store. It’s going to be a great story.”