Brands Entrepreneurship Mar 03, 2016

How Sweet Grass Kitchen Grew from a Tiny Trailer to an Edible Empire

 

IMG-1094

Sweet Grass Kitchen founder Julie Berliner in the company’s grow.

In many ways, Julie Berliner got her start in the same way many bootstrapped entrepreneurs do: in her kitchen, armed with with a great chocolate chip cookie recipe, about $1250 to invest in her business, and a dream.  Unlike most entrepreneurs, Berliner’s goal was for her company, Sweet Grass Kitchen, to become one of the largest marijuana edible brands in Colorado.  Now, with 23 employees and the company’s products sold in 300 stores throughout the state, Berliner reflects on her humble beginnings in 2009.

Berliner’s entry in the cannabis industry six years ago was quite accidental.  She explained that since everyone in the marijuana space was accustomed to lifelong prohibition, no one grew up with aspirations to join the industry, simply because it wasn’t a real option.  “There’s no way that we could have imagined that this is what we could be doing,” she said.  Berliner herself had studied to become a teacher, but graduated during the recession and had a hard time finding a steady job.  Then her friend, who owned a local medical marijuana dispensary, tasted her chocolate chip cookies and suggested she infuse it with some of his product, to be sold in his store “like a private label”.  Though Berliner initially had some reservations (how would she explain this to her parents?), she decided to take the leap.  “Had I been in any other place in my life, I wouldn’t have had the open door to say yes to something like that,” she said. “I saw though, how things were moving along and what an incredible place it was to be in.  It was really inspiring to me.  I saw how it helped people, made people feel better, and it really became a viable direction.”

In the very beginning, Berliner baked the cookies in her own kitchen, “which, by the way, was immaculate”, she assured me.  Then, because of changing regulations and growing demand, she moved to a 200 square foot racecar trailer, which she stationed inside a warehouse.  She laughed as she explained to me that this setup was her version of an “insurance policy.”  While the trailer was hooked up to the building’s electricity and plumbing, it could be disconnected and wheeled to another location in case the laws or her landlord’s mind suddenly changed.  With one or two employees helping her run the business from the tiny trailer, Berliner was all hands on deck.  “All in the same day I would be running a business, doing the accounting, baking, delivering, and cleaning the bathrooms.”

In 2014, when recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado, Berliner’s business was given a sudden boost of adrenaline.  The same trailer that could have handled ten times the company’s demand in previous years was now way too small to handle the new influx of business.  She hired a professional baker and chef to design a new, bigger facility.  This time, the structure was permanent – no need for wheels.  “Not to say I’m not worried about things going backwards, but I feel the industry is much more solidified today and it will only continue to be that way,” she said.  “There have certainly been growing pains and mistakes made – but it’s turned out to be an incredible industry, not only in terms of the tax dollars it’s bringing in but the jobs it’s creating and what I truly believe to be a detriment to the drug trade from Mexico.  It’s so far-reaching in its benefits that I really think it’s here to stay.”

IMG-1009

Sweet Grass Kitchen’s customer favorite, the chocolate chip cookie.

The staff rapidly grew to include 23 people, ranging from bakers to accountants and administrators.  Sweet Grass Kitchen also opened it’s own in-house marijuana cultivation, so the team can control the products’ quality from seed to sale.  Unlike many other edibles on the market, Sweet Grass Kitchen uses the full flower, rather than trim, in its products.  When I asked her about the difference in quality between the two, Berliner explained, “It’s like a fine wine versus a boxed wine in my opinion.  The best that you can possibly get.”

Berliner says the customer favorite is still the original chocolate chip cookie, but she believes Sweet Grass Kitchen’s soon-to-be released butter-based bonbons will be an instant hit.  Since it’s a low dose product, it will be “super shareable”, great for long hikes or a night out.

By the way, dosing is very important at Sweet Grass Kitchen, which works to ensure that novices and experts alike can enjoy their products.  “Marijuana is very new, so while there’s no case of marijuana actually killing somebody, you can overdo it,” Berliner said.  “I think that proper dosing and having very tight testing regulations allow people to build that cultural intuition and understand what it means to consume this product, because everyone reacts differently.”  Sweet Grass Kitchen offers guidelines to its customers about how much they should eat based on their familiarity with marijuana. “Start low, go slow is the motto,” she told me.