Starting a new business in a new industry can be nerve-wracking. Starting that new business in a town that’s a 3.5-hour flight from Anchorage and has no road access to the rest of the state adds a whole new level of complications. But that just means the rewards are greater, says Heather Allen, one of the owners of Bristol Bay Bud Company in Dillingham.
“It’s going amazing,” Heather said in early July, just a couple of weeks after Bristol Bay Bud’s soft opening. “We’ve been welcomed into this community, and it’s really surprising the community support that’s shown up. We’re averaging 80 to 100 transactions per day right now. It’s incredible.”
Bristol Bay Bud Company has four owners: Heather and her husband, Richard Allen, along with financial backers Sue and Gorden Isaac.
Heather is a retired math professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She and Richard first spent a significant amount of time in Dillingham in 2011. They ended up moving back to Anchorage for work reasons but fell in love with the fishing community and returned every year until moving back full-time this spring.
Bristol Bay Bud Company is the first cannabis retailer in Dillingham, which has a population of about 2,300 year-round residents but booms in the summer when fishermen arrive to harvest the region’s world-class salmon runs. Dillingham is located at the confluence of the Wood and Nushagak rivers in Bristol Bay. The store is located in a small house on one of the main roads in town.
“The store has a lot of very nostalgic things in it,” Heather said. The cabinets are built from wood salvaged from the town’s original water tower. Japanese glass floats decorated with local beadwork and furs from a local trapper hang from the walls and ceiling. In one corner, a wooden box once used to transport aircraft fuel has been repurposed as a recycling bin. A big sign under a clock says “Sorry, we’re STONED.”
“It’s the first head shop they’ve ever had in the community,” she said in a call from her truck, which she said is “the only place that’s quiet in my life right now.” The store carries a wide variety of pipes — the small silicone versions were fast sellers — and many strains of flower, concentrates and CBD products. In the first two weeks, the store sold out of several kinds of cannabis and five kinds of concentrates.
“I brought a lot of product in,” she said. “We’ve been impressed by the wide variety of customer base.” Some come in for a pre-roll or a gram of flower. Others are focused on the store’s variety of CBD products.
The Allens spent more than two years doing market research in the Mat-Su Valley. Heather said she would visit different stores, purchase a couple of products and ask lots of questions. They source their products from several places but are also planning to open a cultivation facility in Wasilla.
Transportation of product has been a big hurdle. In the summer, Bristol Bay Bud can take advantage of abundant charter operations, but options are limited the rest of the year.
“There’s a limitation on how much product one human being can keep in their possession,” she said. On commercial flights, the products have to be kept at hand, which means they need to fit underneath the seat. “That’s a big limitation,” she said. “Bulk flower takes up a lot of room. If I’m carrying concentrates, not so much, but edibles — forget about it.”
Fortunately, most flights to Dillingham are considered in-state flights, so she doesn’t have to go through TSA security, she said, noting that most of the people she’s dealt with at the airlines have been welcoming and accommodating, “as long as you have all the appropriate paperwork.” She credits Michelle Cleaver, owner of a licensed cannabis store in Sitka, Weed Dudes, with charting the way for air transportation of cannabis within the state.
“She has blazed the way for all of us that live off the road system, and getting the regulations changed to protect us,” Heather said.
A bigger issue has been finding staff for the store.
For the first couple of weeks it was open, Heather and Richard manned the counter. Business is so busy that neither of them has time to leave to buy more products. She is hoping to hire at least two budtenders (“Hopefully, please God, today or tomorrow”), but living in a rural community poses roadblocks that would never come up on the road system. In Anchorage, it would be easier to find someone with a handler card or to set someone up to get their card, but it doesn’t work so well in the Bush. Mail is inconsistent, especially in the summer with additional tourism pressures, she said. The planes may be on time, but there’s no guarantee your mail will be on it.
Applicants are required to have a passport photo, but in Dillingham, that requires an appointment with the local university campus, which only shoots passport photos on Wednesdays. Just finding year-round employees is difficult.
“When you live in a fishing community, it’s difficult to find employees anyway,” Heather said. “Out here, it’s a very large subsistence lifestyle. They start getting ready for fishing in May. They’re out fishing in June until August, which is when the first moose season starts for subsistence. Then there’s berries — it’s very much the lifestyle. It’s very difficult to find employees, because you have to work around their lifestyle here.”
The company hopes to give back to the community in the form of tax revenues. The city, which welcomed the business, decided against levying a second tax against Bristol Bay Bud as it does to alcohol, hotels and bed and breakfasts. As soon as business stabilizes, Heather plans to go back before the city and ask it to raise the business’ taxes, so the money could go to repair local roads and infrastructure.
The rigors and expense of rural life are two of the reasons the Allens are planning their cultivation facility in Wasilla. The cost of energy in the valley is much cheaper, and cleaner, than in Dillingham, which relies on diesel generators. There are no testing facilities in Dillingham, so samples would have to be flown to Anchorage for testing, an additional expense. As it is, Bristol Bay Bud is in a partnership with a company that sets up the shipping manifests, so products don’t have to be manifested twice.
Another rural issue is waste. The cannabis industry has been criticized for its excessive requirements for packaging, and Dillingham has only limited landfill capacities and limited resources, Heather said. The store has begun a limited recycling effort, with plans to expand.
“As many air trips back and forth as we’re going to have to Anchorage, we plan on doing more of a recycling thing for the community,” she said. “Reduce our footprint in the community. One of our greater concerns is I don’t want to increase price out here by bringing in that hemp packaging; it’s beautiful biodegradable hemp packaging, but it comes at a price.”
Heather said the cost of shipping just the packaging shocked her. “It’s almost twice as much as the cost of the packaging purchase price,” she said. “It’s disgusting, when you try to get large, light things, it’s so expensive that I have to air freight that stuff in.”
She has turned to friends at the university for suggestions on how to mitigate the waste, especially plastic containers, and to encourage recycling in the community. Taking a leadership role in recycling is one way the company can give back to the community, she said, “like when you visit the woods, what you take in, you take out.”
Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at jstricker@AlaskaCannabist.com or 459-7532.