As more cannabis retailers open their doors across Canada and the rest of North America, Superette is a refreshing break from the default cannabis shopping experience with colorful shops drawing inspiration from a variety of other classic shopping experiences. Some of Superette’s locations include a cafeteria-style shop, a cannabis convenience store (which focuses on immediately consumable products like beverages, edibles, and pre-rolls), and, most recently, a colorful cannabis supermarket.
In this Q&A, we ask co-founder Mimi Lam about the founding and rapid growth of Superette, where she finds the inspiration for her shops, and how the company works to integrate their dispensaries with their local communities. Mimi also shares some of her biggest obstacles and successes, offers advice for upcoming cannabis entrepreneurs, and more!
Read the full interview below:
Ganjapreneur: When did you decide to found Superette and what was your starting vision for the company?
Mimi Lam: Back in 2018 in the months leading up to federal legalization of cannabis in Canada, I got the itch to start my own weed business. By the fall of that year, Superette was born! While at our previous positions, Drum and I were inspired to take a different approach to the buying experience in cannabis and saw it as a large opportunity. Rather than sticking to accepted norms of what dispensaries could be, we wanted to create spaces that infused familiar retail elements in a cannabis setting, and to build community around our brand.
The starting vision for Superette, and what we have stayed true to, is to make buying cannabis fun! In such a highly regulated space, it seemed like companies interpreted rules as necessity to be sterile – we are the antithesis of that.
What was your career background before founding Superette?
My career began in venture capital, working on a small team focused on seed stage investments in the tech sector. This experience gave me a glimpse into entrepreneurship and the excitement of building something from the ground up. I then jumped into investment banking, where I had the opportunity to be involved in many M&A transactions for large publicly traded clients. Learned lots, but safe to say I quickly found out that the banking life wasn’t for me and I was using cannabis more than ever before for my emotional and mental wellbeing. Despite having smoked my fair share of weed in school, this was the first time I actually took the time to learn more about the plant from a medicinal point of view. It was eye opening and it was that moment that I knew I had to be a part of the industry.
I dove into the cannabis industry in early 2017, which was a big surprise to those around me who were confused why I would leave my fancy Bay Street job. I joined a startup to be in a space I am passionate about, and finally, I got to be on the operational side of things across various parts of the business, from product to retail to marketing. I saw this as an opportunity to do as many things as possible in areas of the company I previously knew very little about.
I feel like I was building my toolkit, ranging from strategy and capital markets to operations, and all of these experiences prepared me for Superette.
You recently launched Superette’s first Sip’n’Smoke express shop in Toronto — could you explain the reasoning and inspiration behind this project?
Fun fact: Sip ‘N’ Smoke is the first express store for Superette! To us, express didn’t just mean smaller, but it meant an opportunity to rethink the service model and product offering. The inspiration of this space is directly connected to the experience, which capitalizes on the joy of convenience. The exterior is reminiscent of a German trinkhalle and the interior has the feeling of a cafeteria. With this store bordering Toronto’s most iconic park, we took advantage of the surroundings to primarily carry ready to enjoy items such as pre-rolls and infused beverages (we also have a secret menu shhhhh). The shop has limited categories, which gives us the luxury of offering an abundance in each. It is important to us to integrate ourselves in every community we open a shop, so at Sip ‘N’ Smoke we have a munchies phone that dials directly to our local sandwich shop and neighbour, Lambo’s .
As we build out our retail portfolio, we are taking the opportunity to lean into different elements of our brand universe and to draw inspiration from traditional retail environments found in local neighbourhoods all around the world. Sip ‘N’ Smoke is only the first of more concepts to come that are adjacent to our Superette shop formats.
What other steps have you taken to integrate your shops with their local communities?
The munchies phone is actually something relatively new to our retail experience, and you can also find them at our Summerhill, Spadina and Glebe locations (dial these for burgers, pizza and poutine, respectively!). These locations all opened during the pandemic, and what started as – how can we help drive traffic to business that might have been hurt by lockdowns – has become a fun and unique element that our stores are known for. I mean, food and weed, name a better duo.
In all seriousness, community is a core value of ours as a company. From showing off our neighbours (eg. Glebe Guide, Bellwoods Guide) to dedicating time for regular garbage cleanups around our stores, finding ways to be a good neighbour has always been a priority for us. We are also passionate about diminishing food insecurities in the communities we are in and focus on ways we can make a positive impact. In Ottawa, we have been growing our partnership with the Ottawa Food Bank since 2019, volunteering year round on the farm and in their warehouse as well as hosting in-store food drives. In Toronto, we work with Daily Bread, Parkdale Community Foodbank, and most recently, Community Fridges Toronto where our teams clean and stock fridges with fresh produce, masks, hand sanitizers, and more.
What has been your biggest obstacle so far in growing the Superette retail brand?
It’s hard not to be cliché when identifying obstacles to being a growing company in the cannabis space. Aside from normal startup challenges, we all also face unpredictable changes to the regulatory framework out of our control, as well as the inability to communicate our brand story like companies in any other industry. These have a significant impact on our ability to grow and survive as a brand.
Something that might be a unique challenge to us is growing as a lifestyle brand with a cohesive product pipeline, outside of expanding our retail footprint. This means that on top of dedicating resources to our stores, we are also building out a supply chain with values-aligned partners to create products to service both our domestic and global audiences. This has been a tremendous amount of work and effort, but it is what we believe in!
How has the retail market for cannabis shifted in the years since your company’s launch?
It’s weird looking back to how different the market is today from only almost three years ago, it’s like night and day. Operating in Ontario (the largest province in Canada), we launched when it was a limited license environment with 25 stores for all of ~15 million people. Fast forward to today, the regulations had opened up to unlimited licenses and the market now has over 1,000 stores. What is even more challenging about this dynamic is the fact that most of these new stores came online during the 12 months Ontario experienced the world’s longest stay-at-home lockdown order due to the pandemic. With this drastic shift in the market, we have never been more confident in our thesis and are doubling down on how we create the best experience and emotional connection with our customers and community.
Could you share any great success stories or a favorite memory from your experience at Superette?
There have been so many success stories and so many moments to be proud of. Here’s a top 3:
- Opening the doors of our first store, with only 6 weeks runway, this was the moment the world officially knew who we were
- Surpassing 100 people on our team, with each individual having a big influence on who we are as a company.
- Seeing e-commerce sales of our branded goods go all around the globe within our first year of launching products
For me, I live for all the little things like overhearing a customer having a great interaction with a budtender and seeing someone on the street with a Superette hoodie. It’s moments like these that make it all worth it.
As the global industry grows and Superette expands its footprint, is there a specific region or marketplace that you are particularly interested in or excited about?
I’m really excited about bringing the Superette experience to places outside of Canada! More to come on our US expansion soon 🙂
Do you have any advice for people who are about to open their own cannabis retailer?
Identify your why and always go back to that. Remember that what you bring to the industry and the community has to be uniquely and authentically you. Don’t just open a door, sell weed (or anything) without thought or the aim to sell to some corporation down the road. Customers today sniff out inauthenticity, so if you are serious about opening a store, have a unique value proposition and a long-term perspective so you can be patient with what you are building.
Thanks again, Mimi, for answering all of our questions and sharing your expertise. To learn more about Mimi Lam or Superette, visit SuperetteShop.com.