Herbal Outfitters in Valdez has the distinction of being the first marijuana retailer to open its doors to the public when it opened to a line of Alaskans from pretty much every corner of the state on the overcast afternoon of Oct. 29, 2016.

“We had no intention or knowledge of being the first store to open. That's just how it played out,” recalls Derek Morris, the store’s general manager. “We didn't realize we were going to be the first store to open up in the state until about three days until it happened. The next three days were a whirlwind and we've been opened seven days a week since, knock on wood.”

Herbal Outfitters also has the distinction of being open every single day since then. While being open on Day one was a bit of fortunate timing, it was hard work that kept the shop’s doors open Day 1,827, which marks the company’s fifth anniversary, and every day in between.

“There were a couple times where we thought we wouldn’t make it,” Morris said as he reflected on the company’s five years in business, “but we’ve been open seven days a week since then, even on Christmas.”

A challenging beginning

The company’s track record is a point of pride for Morris and the crew at Herbal Outfitters, who’ve had to put in the work and get creative to meet the challenges that the first few years of the legalized marijuana industry had in store. In the early days, finding product—not to mention good, quality product—was a real challenge.

"The first six months was extremely hard to get good quality product and just product in general," he said. "That first six months, we were grateful and lucky to get what we got, a lot of the time. ... A lot of stores had to close because they'd get product and sell out."

He said the remoteness of Valdez, which has a population of about 4,000, helped, as did the timing of opening during the off season. Even though people were making the trek to Herbal Outfitters, he said it wasn’t anything like what retailers in Fairbanks and Anchorage went through during those first few years.

Growing pains

Like many other smaller communities, Valdez was one targeted by an effort to ban marijuana businesses within the city boundaries. The sponsors of the measure argued that Herbal Outfitters and any other business could simply move right outside the city’s boundaries—a move that Morris said was totally unrealistic given that would mean trying to relocate to the avalanche-prone Thompson Pass without utilities. The community saw that and 76% of the community voted to keep cannabis industry legal.

“We're not the horrible business that some were so against. We're not harming anybody, we're not giving pot to children, we're not giving them gummies," Morris said. "We take pride in being a legal avenue for people to come and purchase their cannabis whether it's got THC or not. ... We're very transparent and our next-door neighbor on the backside of us is also city hall and the Valdez Police Department, so we're not trying to hide anything. We're very proud of what we do, and I think the community has appreciated that and grown along with that.”

Expanding inventory

As the community has grown to understand and accept Herbal Outfitters as another part of the community’s fabric, what’s on the shelves has changed dramatically. Long gone are the days of rush trips around the state to secure a pound or two of product here and there to keep the shelves stocked. Instead, retailers like Herbal Outfitters have a huge selection and variety of cultivators to pick from.

“It wasn't until after that first year until we saw that switch from where the cultivator was in the driver's seat to where the retailer was in the driver's seat,” he said, which has translated into Herbal Outfitters being selective with getting high-quality product on their shelves and even try out strains before committing to several pounds.

For some cultivators, that’s meant a race to the top in terms of high THC content, but Morris says there’s a lot of great cannabis to be found at lower percentages, with interesting terpene and cannabinoid profiles that amplify the high. Though you’ll find plenty of different cultivators on the shelves of Herbal Outfitters, one of the cultivators that was there since day one is Sterling’s GreenRushGardens.

“We still have them on our shelves, and we’ll always carry their product,” Morris said. “They’ve always had top-notch quality since day one.”

Weathering the pandemic

While things have been trending in the right direction for Herbal Outfitters since opening, the pandemic brought a whole new level of challenge. Morris noted that Valdez has been relatively safe throughout most of the pandemic with a city and community that has taken the virus seriously. The hit to tourism was tough, but he pointed out that cruise ships had not been a part of the community’s industry for most of Herbal Outfitters’ life. They only returned during the 2019 season before being canceled in 2020 and 2021.

Instead, Morris said they were buoyed by Alaskans traveling in-state.

"The year before last was the first year that Valdez had cruise ships back in town for years and years. Last year, all the cruise ships were canceled and this year the cruise ships were all canceled," he said. "Now it's been two summers without them. Thankfully, we've seen a lot of Alaskans this summer and even last summer. A lot of people came to Valdez, I think, as a safe place to take vacation and not leave the state. ... Alaskans have helped us with that."

Looking ahead, Morris says he’s just happy to see Herbal Outfitters surviving through the pandemic and said it’s too early to talk about plans. One thing, though, that he would like to see changed sooner than later is access to banking because it’d make everyone’s lives easier.

Herbal Outfitters has also brought significant changes for Morris, who was sought out by the company’s founder, Rick Ballow, for his experience in Colorado’s industry.

“Valdez has been great to me, and it will always be home to me now,” he said. “I don’t see being able to go back and live 365 days a year in a big city down south. Alaska just grows on you, and I think everyone who’s lived up here for a few years would have the same insight. It just grows on you.”

Matt Buxton is a freelance writer in Anchorage. Comments about this story? Contact editor@AlaskaPulse.com

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