A Look at Kia Ora Kannabis

By Justin Allec

Local cannabis retailer Kia Ora started out as a dream for friends DJ O’Connors and Matt Harrison. Post-legalization, Ontario was only granting a certain number of cannabis licenses through a lottery, but O’Connors and Harrison, filling the roles of business developer and general manager respectively, decided to break ground at 1111 Victoria Avenue as an accessory retail shop in the hope that they would be approved. The founders built the store to exude an earth-friendly vitality that ties into O’Connors’ New Zealand roots, and focused on quality accessories made by local and national artisans that meet Health Canada’s regulations, integrated Cova software to speed up transactions and searches, and above all, trying to be a part of the community.

When Kia Ora was granted its license in June, the store already had a substantial foundation. “We’re actively reaching out to the community trying to bridge the gaps. We want to be a warm, welcoming space for people to shop in, but we also want to form local partnerships and go on to support other local businesses,” Harrison says. Being awarded their license during the pandemic’s restrictions meant having to be adaptable. Kia Ora briefly closed but was then allowed to open for delivery and curbside pickup during the phased pandemic re-openings. When Ontario introduced stage three, the delivery option was sidelined in favour of an even more customer-friendly service. O’Connors laughs as he describes how they flipped their Toyota Prius from delivery vehicle to shuttle service. “We decided that we’d bring people to the store if we couldn’t bring cannabis to them.”

With around 30 employees, Kia Ora puts a lot of emphasis on their staff’s knowledge. Thunder Bayers like “any strain that has a cookie or a cake name,” says Harrison, but “budtenders” need to understand the complexities of terpene profiles to meet customers’ needs. “It’s not just about shopping for the highest-THC strain anymore. It’s about how terpenes react with you, to give you the experience you like.”

This knowledge is valuable given the natural fluctuations in the cannabis market and the tricky balancing act between the Ontario Cannabis Store, licensed producers, retailers, and consumers. The founders are quick to remember that the industry is still young, the pandemic was unexpected, and there’s lots of room for innovation and expansion. Another location on Red River Road is close to completion for accessory sales, which will hopefully lead to another license, and they’re toying with the idea of other satellite locations or pop-up stores in more distant communities. O’Connors muses that it probably won’t be more than a few years before we start to see licensed, local artisanal growers able to supply retailers like Kia Ora, which matches their focus on community. In a short amount of time Harrison and O’Connors have become cannabis veterans, but they’re well aware of what’s important when someone walks into their store.