Childhood friends Brett Feldman and Cameron Damwijk gravitated toward cannabis at an early age, often daydreaming of a world in which cannabis was legal — and they never lost that passion and imagination.
Their company, Wonderbrett, was built on self-taught business savvy and the strength of their product and branding. And although California is rife with storied cultivators, Feldman and Damwijk are among the very few to replicate their success from the Proposition 215 era in today’s heavily regulated recreational market. According to Headset, Wonderbrett has accumulated more than $37 million in sales since California began allowing adult-use sales in 2017.
But their success didn’t come easy and Feldman and Damwijk learned a great deal about cannabis the hard way. The Wonderbrett co-founders officially joined California’s medical market in 1997 and quickly gained notoriety for their top-shelf flower, but Feldman was arrested for cannabis possession with the intent to distribute in the early 2000s. As the industry gained legitimacy, Feldman and Damwijk took to heart the lessons they learned over more than two decades of experience. Wonderbrett now has five cultivation facilities, more than 200 employees and its own distribution center. Plus, Feldman’s arrest allowed the company to apply for retail licenses through the state’s social equity program. The company expects to have three Wonderbrett stores open by the end of 2021.
“We have had a lot of growing pains throughout the past two years,” Damwijk says. “That’s really allowed our team to learn a lot and figure out how we can do things better in the future.”
Marijuana Venture: What assistance did the social equity program provide?
Brett Feldman: I was one of the unlucky ones who was arrested and charged with cannabis crimes and that qualified me for the (social equity) license. We were fortunate in the sense that we were able to use that terrible experience to our benefit and get a license down the road.
But when it comes to the structure of how it’s done, you are on your own, for the most part. You have to raise the capital. You have to find the partners. You have to find the real estate. You have to be savvy enough to navigate the system and understand how it actually works.
Cameron Damwijk: To really make the program work as a social equity applicant, you have to have a good group of people you trust around you, and you have to be a reasonable person in that spot. We already had a brand, and we had already built a business, and then we were awarded a license.
MV: Now that you’ve successfully received a retail license through the social equity program, how does social equity factor into the company and its business plans?
BF: We are going to work within the program and with other social equity applicants that we can help. We feel that we can share a pathway for success for other social equity applicants who have the same dream as us. We don’t feel threatened by other groups. We just feel like we should all work together to build this system up. Right now, we are working with two social equity applicant partners to help finance their situation and help run their cultivations to make them successful. We embrace the social equity partners.
MV: What is the philosophy behind the Wonderbrett brand?
CD: Our whole concept of our brand was to make good flower. You start with good flower and you will get respect and repeat customers.
BF: I think the core of the brand and the philosophy is really quality and consistency. Cam and I have always been connoisseurs of great experiences in great food and great clothing, and we like to enjoy the finer things in life. With cannabis it just translates over that same exact way.
CD: That philosophy leads into the Wonderbrett store. A partner in our business comes from the hospitality industry and so he understands the customer experience, and we’re bringing that into the retail space.
MV: What did you want the store to feel like?
BF: We didn’t want this store to feel like everyone else’s store, where they rush you in and out. We wanted our store to feel like a place to walk around and look at all the beautiful artwork, like you’re at Bloomingdales or Nieman Marcus. Sometimes when I shop, I want to check out how crazy and nice these displays and products are and enjoy the experience and not be run out of the store.
That type of experience is not what we are going for.
MV: How were you able to maintain a high level of quality while producing cannabis at a commercial scale?
CD: We were looking to expand our cultivation, so we partnered with these guys because they were building a facility in Long Beach that was conducive to small-batch, craft cannabis. The facility is 22,000 square feet of space but it’s contained within 35 flower rooms with 36 lights in each room. That’s conducive to multiple harvests a week, smaller batches, so you can pay attention to the rooms a little better. It causes some operational difficulties, but it allows for a small-batch style grow.
By having those smaller rooms, you are able to maintain specific temperature and humidity levels in each room, so you can grow strains that like specific environments.
MV: With all the new taxes and regulations of California’s recreational market, what were the biggest challenges Wonderbrett faced in the transition from medical to adult-use?
BF: There were a lot of challenges to overcome during the transition. First off, the regulations changed every few weeks. So you try to adjust and then it would change again or a new guideline would come out and you would need to readjust.
But really, I believe the biggest hurdle in the beginning was distribution. We never found a good distribution partner. We had disastrous outcomes with the people we worked with that were tying up money and really handicapping our business for the first six months to a year in the recreational market, before we went to having our own distribution and controlling it out of Long Beach.
Taxation at 37% has killed the culture.
CD: I would definitely say one of the biggest hurdles early on was running a professional company. Brett and I started the company with a bunch of friends, and we were packaging our flower and driving it up and down the state trying to hit dispensaries and trying to sell it to them. We were doing 30 jobs. We were managing that with the 40 lights we started the brand in a small warehouse where we were producing.
Scale was a big hurdle too. When you decide you want to build a company, you need to feed more mouths and you need more canopy, more people to work for us and we needed more money. To grow, you take on those growing pains too, trying to manage more people, trying to build a professional company, then it rolls into the regulations that we need to start following. We brought in some more professional people, like CEO Matt Costa, to help us run the business end of those aspects so Brett and I can focus on the brand and the flower.
MV: A good percentage of Prop 215 operators did not successfully transition into the recreational market. Has that affected the industry in California?
BF: Yeah, I think the culture has changed. There are only a few guys like Cam and I left in the industry that are from the Prop 215 era and before that have really made it. This process that they built with licensing and sophistication that we have to adapt to just doesn’t sit with a lot of growers and their skill sets. They’re great growers but they’re not great businessmen and neither were we when we started.
In some context we have become better at business, and maybe we had a little bit of a leg up on people because Cam ran his own electrical company before this and I worked for my dad’s catering business. We had a little bit of an inclination on how to run a business, whereas a lot of other guys were just focused on growing and not really focused on building a team or having the vision of building a brand and creating that groundwork.
While all of our friends were stuffing their pockets full of cash, we were spending money on packaging and killing ourselves trying to sell cannabis to the stores. We were building an infrastructure that was making us no money at the time but we had an idea that it would build this into something much bigger.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.