Sustaining a Plan
Helen Gomez Andrews and her husband, Chris Gomez, have been, as she tactfully put it, “cannabis enthusiasts for longer than we haven’t.”
But when their 5-year-old daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2015 — and became one of the first medical-marijuana cardholders in New York — their interest in cannabis became intensely personal.
At the same time, Helen was starting to feel uninspired in her finance career; she spent 13 years growing a career in private wealth management at Lehman Brothers, Barclays, and Morgan Stanley.
Inspired by the triple-bottom-line approach to impact investment she had become increasingly aligned with, she was looking for a different sort of investment — and found it in cannabis, where the High End, a cultivation, production, and retail enterprise now under development in Holyoke, became the first cannabis company in Massachusetts to be certified as both a minority business enterprise and a women business enterprise.
During her last few years at Morgan Stanley, “I was looking for passion in my work life, and not finding it,” Andrews said. “The confluence of that and my daughter’s diagnosis, and my husband itching to do something different, really pushed us to take the plunge.”
To call it a major leap would be an understatement; the couple sold their home in Brooklyn to buy the historic Eureka Blank Book building on Winter Street in Holyoke and begin the long process of renovating it. A second site on Dwight Street will become the retail face of the business, as well as a coffee shop.
Oh, and they’re not taking any shortcuts, aiming to use a sustainable growing process known as organic living soil.
“People told us we’re totally crazy to do something so labor-intensive when there’s so much great technology around automatic cultivation, focused on the highest THC and highest yield,” she told BusinessWest. “But that’s a departure from what’s really important to us, which is low impact to the environment and the sustainable, clean growing of a plant, staying away from synthetic nutrients. We’re trying to create as natural an environment as we can.”
Feels Like Home
In seeking out a host community with abundant real estate and a business-friendly attitude toward cannabis, Holyoke was an obvious choice.
“It was five times cheaper the next-cheapest town — and then we discovered the history of Holyoke; it was so amazing how it was the first planned industrial city in the country, largely built by Irish immigrants,” Andrews said, which was appealing to her Irish husband. Now, this multi-cultural couple — Helen was born in the Philippines — is feeling right at home.
Also appealing is the city’s abundance of carbon-neutral energy generation. “It makes perfect sense in the cannabis industry, and perfectly aligns with our values. We’re building a truly sustainable company in a welcoming city.”
“As we learned about vertical integration and the economics of cannabis and edibles manufacturing, it made perfect sense to pursue cultivation. So we pursued the full vertical.”
Chris’ background is in restaurants and retail, and the couple’s initial vision centered on marijuana edibles, but has since expanded significantly.
“As we learned about vertical integration and the economics of cannabis and edibles manufacturing, it made perfect sense to pursue cultivation,” she said. “So we pursued the full vertical.”
As for the spacious former mill, “we put all our eggs in this basket,” she said. “We’ve been in Holyoke since January 2019, working to build this business and really embedding ourselves into the Holyoke community, which has such a strong entrepreneurial spirit.”
Indeed, Andrews serves on the EforAll Holyoke advisory board, helping other budding entrepreneurs find their way. “There’s such a rich, diverse history here, and Chris and I both feel very grateful to be a part of this community, and have found this to be a great city to build our business.”
The economic impact of COVID-19 certainly set the project back, but the extended timeline helped the couple streamline and become more “laser-focused” about their priorities. They’re licensed for 30,000 square feet of cultivation, as well as manufacturing and retail, and plan to apply for a research license as well.
“Last year was rough, but it’s finally starting to pick up some momentum,” Andrews said, adding that the hope is to open the dispensary and coffee shop by the end of 2021, and the cultivation and production facility later in 2022, with the first harvest arriving months later.
Until the cultivation and production sides of the business come online, Helen and Chris are pursuing “a very differentiated, curated inventory according to our core values of ethical and sustainable cannabis,” she said. “So we’ve spent the better part of the last year and a half building relationships with individual farmers and small businesses. By the time our doors open, we’ll have some products from some amazing businesses that we can introduce to this market.”
Those products will include commonly sought-after items like cannabis flower to edibles. In regard to the latter, “the plan is to make some things everyone likes — chocolates, gummies, and mints — but also do something more elevated,” Andrews noted. “My husband has a network of culinary talent partners working on limited-edition chocolates. And, of course, we’ll have vapes and pre-rolls and all those other things.”
Have a Seat
Another reason for opening a coffee shop, she said, is to avoid the scenario she’s noticed at many dispensaries, with lines of customers circling the building, waiting patiently to get in.
“We thought we wanted to change that experience and be more welcoming with the coffee shop, to give folks in line somewhere welcoming and comfortable to wait, but also provide education.”
She wants the shop to be a place people can find information, as well. “They can stop by, collect some literature, and have a great cup of coffee or a delicious pastry — and Holyoke needs a coffee shop.”
It’s a city that also wants to continue growing its reputation as one of the region’s most cannabis-embracing communities, and this couple is happy to oblige, Helen said. “We’re excited and eager to go.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]