By Justin Allec

Branding, for local cannabis stores, means using a combination of storefront displays, music, products, and pricing to distinguish themselves. Branding helps bring consumers in and send them away happy. Perhaps the biggest factor in this retail experience is your interaction with the budtender. It’s their job to help meet your cannabis needs, but who are they?

I was invited by Gayle Buzzi, store manager of both local J. Supply Co. stores, to spend some time with some of her budtenders. Combining the best qualities of a server with the encyclopedic knowledge of the Leafly website, budtenders are at the front line of the local cannabis industry. Buzzi has 18 full- and part-time employees of various ages and experience levels between the two stores, but all are passionate about bringing cannabis to the people.

Like all retail jobs, a budtender interacts with customers, so the right personality is necessary. A police records check is also necessary, and new employees have to pass the online CannSell program, the cannabis equivalent to the Smart Serve program. After these steps, learning the store’s inventory and all the twisty genetics of cannabis is probably the biggest challenge. To make that easier, J. Supply Co. uses an app to keep employees informed of new products and information.

I first met Julia Faria, a part-time budtender who uses the job to help put herself through university. She’s part of a new generation that experienced the massive shift of legalization while she was young. From behind the counter, Faria calls out to her regulars or greets those entering the store for the first time. She teaches me about how she sells. If a regular knows what they want, it’s easy enough, but if someone has questions, she’s happy to share her knowledge with them. “If someone tells me what they’re looking for, I can give them choices. Usually, I’ll start with what I like and why I like it, then show both premium and budget options,” Faria says. “THC isn’t the best indicator if you’re going to enjoy something, either. A higher terpene level—over 2%—will give you more flavour and a better experience. And everyone forgets how important CBD is!”

Further down the counter is Daniel Mitas, assistant store manager. He’s older than Faria and knows how the legacy market worked in the olden days. Mitas explains the daily routines to me, which are pretty similar to any retailer (save the reinforced vault full of cannabis in the back). Aside from that feature, you turn on the lights, get the computers running, check the website for orders and updates, and count the tills. Stock will need to be received and shelves filled.

“Thunder Bay is a hot spot for cannabis,” Mitas tells me, “and anything with a high-THC level will sell, but we’re also seeing the influence of craft cannabis and microgrowers. […] I’m all about smaller growers who put the emphasis on quality.” Mitas is interested in cannabis genetics, especially how legacy strains have been updated and modified. If you need to trace a strain, he’ll go into detective mode and find what you’re looking for.

Given their position, the budtenders I spoke with were also eager to see their industry evolve. There’s no shortage of ideas on how to make working in the cannabis industry more equitable, ranging from unionization to involving local growers. While the Ontario Cannabis Store still controls much of the industry, it feels much friendlier when you have the chance to talk to a knowledgeable budtender.