Friendly Stranger Cannabis Culture Shop is no stranger to the cannabis industry, or the culture that binds it. The original location opened its iconic doors 26 years ago as a head shop on Queen Street in Toronto and has been a key player in the evolution of the cannabis retail industry as we know it today, having spent a quarter of a century fighting cannabis prohibition in Canada.
At the core of their business is an earnest belief in the strong potential of cannabis for our culture, our environment, and our economy. Even with the substantial growth of the business, which has evolved from an accessories-based store to a holding corporation with six cannabis retail establishments and more in the works, they have held true to their brand and customer experience, which ultimately revolves around being remembered as a friendly place.
From Head Shop to Bud Shop
The journey from headshop to cannabis retailer has not been without some unfriendly bumps though, an experience shared by many, if not all, in the industry. James Jesty, president at the Friendly Stranger Holding Corporation, was the first employee brought on when expansion of Friendly Stranger began as the industry transitioned to legal cannabis retail. He chuckles at the memory of navigating the new legislative waters of opening a legal cannabis store, most specifically the last-minute government change from open licencing to a lottery of only 25 randomly distributed licences, in late winter of 2018, only months before stores were slated to open. Thousands of businesses that had preemptively invested time, resources, and finances to opening in spring 2019 were severely disappointed to suddenly be denied a licence and be forced to wait until further notice. Friendly Stranger did not win at that stage.
It is not hard to imagine the frustration at a lottery system that is not based on merit in any capacity, especially for a company that has been deeply involved in the cannabis culture of Ontario since 1994. However, with heads held high, Friendly Stranger held out and a second lottery was announced. This one came with much more stringent application requirements (such as real estate and money in the bank) but “we were fortunate in this one,” Jesty recalls, and adds that a trademark deal allowed them to partner with six of the winners and pull new brands in. The government has since moved forward with a third phase of licencing, and has committed to opening more stores than the 20 per month originally slated. It may be slow, and many willing businesses are holding their breath—just think of how many jobs are on hold—but progress is still being made.
The Creation of a Legacy Market
With a new multi-brand strategy (Friendly Stranger has since acquired Happy Dayz and HotboxTM, both long-time brands with existing stores) the corporation is now focusing on getting new doors open, while being careful to update the brands without trampling on their DNA. Each brand has its own feel and its own following, and those qualities are to be respected. The Friendly Stranger brand currently has six stores open: the accessory shop at 241 Queen St. and cannabis stores at 237 Queen St., Church St., and Danforth Ave. in Toronto as well as stores in London and Burlington. Although each location has its own personality, Jesty comments on the diverse demographic that frequents the stores, even being hesitant to call it a demographic and rather a consumer culture. “We get every walk of life and there is nowhere else in the world that these ten people would be in the same room.” Continuing to appeal to such diverse consumers requires a focused commitment to brand identity.
Different Locations, Same Formula
To maintain brand consistency while still adapting to the needs of each unique community (for example, the London location sits at the gates of Western University campus, versus the Burlington location, which is located in a plaza mall), Jesty claims they don’t mess with their formula. The original Friendly Stranger store on Queen St. sets the tone, with each location mimicking the dark, warm, friendly space it is known for. However, their business focus is on accessories and consumption methods, of which Friendly Stranger has 25 years’ experience. This is their key competitive advantage: a deep knowledge of how best to consume, and how to relay this process to the customer, in an approachable and unpretentious manner, no matter who the customer is. This expertise is integrated in the company’s hiring and training programs as well, and all staff is equipped with 40+ hours of training before setting foot on the floor.
The Future is Friendly
It both seems like a blink and a lifetime since legislation passed allowing legal cannabis sales, and the effortless integration into our culture is partly due to companies like Friendly Stranger having laid 25+ years of prior groundwork, setting a standard for what cannabis culture can look like. Passion and authenticity drive the brand, and with a number of new stores already slated to open this year, we can look forward to a friendly future in the Canadian cannabis industry.