BY STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON—Three 20-something dudes open a weed shop in a small Vermont town…it sounds like the plot of a Seth Rogen movie. But these dudes—Greg Yelnosky, Ben Hsiung, and Nate Reitman—aren’t bumbling stoners out of their depth. Instead, they’re serious entrepreneurs hoping to do for cannabis what craft breweries like Foley Brothers and Red Clover have done for beer.
“We want to be the leading edge of the craft cannabis movement,” said Yelnosky in Pine Grove’s new shop on Route 7, just north of Brandon village.
Originally from central Pennsylvania, the three were childhood friends. The shop’s name, Pine Grove, even comes from a mountain near where they grew up. Yelnosky eventually went off to Denison University in Ohio, while Hsiung and Reitman attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. As laws prohibiting marijuana were either relaxed or completely repealed in various states, the three started thinking that their recreational interest in cannabis could be something more.
“I’ve been passionate about the plant for a long time,” said Yelnosky. Whereas Reitman and Hsiung held corporate jobs in the health and medical sphere, Yelnosky was out on the West Coast learning the cannabis trade, working at retail and growing facilities in Seattle, Portland, and Spokane.
When they decided to make a go of it as cannabis retailers, they came to Vermont specifically because of the state’s attractive legal framework. “I read the bill [legalizing retail sales],” said Yelnosky. “It looked appealing to a bootstrap entity.”
Reitman added, “Within Vermont, we conducted a very large search. We needed a town that allowed sales. We had to find a suitable commercial building. It had to be affordable. And it had to be someplace comfortable for us to be. We found Brandon.”
“Everything is happening as we hoped. Permits, licenses…the town has been easy to work with,” said Hsiung.
“And having Grassroots [medical marijuana dispensary] in Brandon was a plus: people were already driving to Brandon to buy cannabis,” said Yelnosky.
“And it’s hard not to draw inspiration from Red Clover,” added Hsiung.
Indeed, Vermont’s craft-brewery craze of the past decade provides something of a template for the trio. A range of extremely high-quality products, chosen for both flavor and “effect profile,” is central to their business model. Just as a craft brewer might hold forth on the subtleties of different small-batch IPAs, these guys can discourse on the nuances of the various strains they offer. Their menu could most definitely be called “curated.”
“I’ve toured over 200 [marijuana] farms,” said Yelnosky. “I can pretty quickly assess whether [growers] are doing things the right way. The standard for quality here is really high.”
“We see our growers as partners, not just suppliers,” noted Reitman.
When asked if they personally sample everything before they sell it, the guys laugh.
“We try it all,” said Hsiung. “We get lots of solicitations from small growers. But a lot of it is ‘just some weed.’ That’s what we call the mediocre stuff. ‘Just some weed.’”
Yelnosky adds, “ I like to say, ‘Everyone can make a pizza, but not everyone can make a great pizza.’”
What they sell, however, is not “just some weed.” They’ve got 12 strains currently on their menu, plus a range of edibles. 75% of what they sell is “flower,” the actual buds of the female marijuana plant; 20% is edibles; and 5% is pre-rolled joints.
When they open a jar of flower, they hold a small fan over it to bring out the aroma. Sounding very much like wine stewards, they point out hints of cherry in a particular strain. They insist that all the edibles they sell taste good on their own. In fact, on Fridays they invite vendors to their space to hand out uninfused samples of cookies and gummies, to prove that their products are delicious as well as effective.
But don’t be intimidated if you’re not an experienced user. Pine Grove sees cannabis education as part of its mission.
“I love talking to newbies,” said Yelnosky. “Breaking it down so they can get the most out of their cannabis experience.”
“There’s no better feeling than when people come back because they had a good experience,” added Reitman.
For now, the guys are focused on getting Pine Grove off the ground, but their long-range goal is “vertical integration,” where they would grow and sell their own product. While other states allow retail sales, most don’t allow both cultivation and distribution by a single entity. Vermont, however, does offer both licenses to single businesses.
According to Yelnosky, “the future of cannabis is in Vermont.”