Purple Haze, a cannabis retail boutique in Toronto, was inspired by an era where people fought for what they believed in and stood up for each other, says co-owner Rihana Mahmoud.
“It’s an important era to look back on in terms of young people having fun and standing up for things they thought were wrong,” Mahmoud says with a smile. “You know—love and revolution. We are all about that here.”
Mahmoud and business partners Vera Alekseenko and Ben Luong began the process of opening their store in February 2020, blissfully unaware of the impending global pandemic. For months, while the world reeled, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) wasn’t issuing licenses, and between lockdowns and material shortages, Purple Haze wasn’t able to open until December.
Fortunately, the delay granted Mahmoud and her cohorts time to research. As someone who hadn’t come from the cannabis industry, Mahmoud used the downtime to experiment with products and educate herself about cannabis.
From her research, Mahmoud found herself drawn to the wellness benefits of cannabis. “Aside from working against the stigma of cannabis, I was drawn to its alternative ways of treatment,” she says. “I think that’s what we’re trying to offer: that wellness factor. Cannabis can help with many things in your life.”
Because of this, her and Vera’s original business concept revolved around wellness and beauty, however, there was, and still is, a large gap in the market for these products. While more products are released every day, the group had to adjust at first.
“Ideally, we would love to focus on wellness, but education is the most important thing,” Mahmoud says. “We want to educate people and make the right match with products. Cannabis can be a great experience, or it can be a really bad experience if you consume too much. We don’t want anyone to feel overwhelmed about their experience.”
The store, a 3-storey, 100-year-old building nestled among condos and high-rises, sees a wide variety of customers from college students to young professionals, to the older generation who have lived in the neighbourhood for years, so Purple Haze tries to stock something for everyone.
“We want to make sure it’s the right fit every time. I think our customer service is the most important factor of all, and it goes hand in hand with creating a great experience.”
The team at Purple Haze is a carefully curated collection of characters that perfectly complement each other, and according to Mahmoud, the eclectic mix is what makes the store’s atmosphere so welcoming.
“It’s very important to us to be a family; it’s part of the environment we want to create. Cannabis is supposed to be fun!” she laughs. “It’s a team effort. What I lack in my skillset, they will make up for; collectively we come together to make each other perfect.”
Each team member brings something specific to the table, whether it’s a love of concentrates or an encyclopedic knowledge of terpenes, and everyone’s expertise is appreciated.
“This is the first job where I’ve been very comfortable being myself,” says Carolina, a budtender at Purple Haze. “These people are my tribe.”
Safe Space for Art
Purple Haze not only welcomes staff into its tribe but the community, too. The store’s walls are populated by multi-media art from local artists and the team has taken it upon themselves to beautify the neighbourhood. Outside, the building stands out with a colourful mural painted by local artist LoveBot, whose creativity spilled over inside, as well. What was originally a frosted glass wall (to meet regulations) is now a bright, attention-grabbing centrepiece of rainbow coloured paint drips.
“Cannabis and art go really well together,” Mahmoud explains. “Why not create a space that is visually appealing and give people in the community the opportunity to participate?”
She says that the entire space was built and designed like a blank canvas. “We are an art gallery, but pieces are for sale, as well. We want to give exposure to local artists and bring awareness to Canadian art and let them know they have a safe place to create.”
While the team behind Purple Haze does have plans to expand their small-concept, customer-focused, boutique approach into a few more stores one day, stigma and over-saturation remain obstacles, although not insurmountable.
“It is a very young industry, but I love a challenge,” says Mahmoud. “It’s the right place to grow and discover new things.”
Purple Haze exterior photo credit: Daryna Myroshnichenko