I sat down with Joseph Lekach, founder and CEO of Apothca Inc, a Massachusetts-based dispensary, to discuss his journey into cannabis, what’s next for them, and whether or not cannabis actually has medicinal properties.
For Joseph Lekach, there was only ever one path- to be an entrepreneur.
It was the family business after all. The child of immigrant parents from Panama, Lekach started his first business fresh out of college with his brother in 2009. He left in 2014 without knowing what was next, looking for his next challenge.
Even in 2014, he wondered if it wasn’t too late to enter the industry. But never one to shy away from a challenge, he pushed on.
He was eager to prove himself and find success, but his goals were also more personal than that.
Cannabis can help manage the symptoms of neurological diseases, something that runs in his family. His father had also just had surgery, and Lekach saw cannabis as an alternative to the opioids they pumped through his system for a month.
Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone in his family was happy about his latest venture. Cannabis was still taboo in 2014 when he started, and Lekach says he’s most excited about the changing attitudes and the acceptance for the industry at a national and personal level. Even his uncle and his father use cannabis now.
But he didn’t see quite how big the challenge would be to get a cannabis dispensary up and running. There’s more than securing a location and a business license; there’s also human capital issues with finding growers, regulatory issues that vary by state, and consistently finding quality product- quality of their standards, along with the host of pit falls any start up faces.
The company hit a breaking point in 2018 when their first harvest came in full of mold. The grower resigned that same day and Lekch was faced with a choice; sacrifice quality to get product on the shelves sooners, or take a hit and wait out the right person. Never one to take a short cut, he picked the latter to ensure a quality product and a verifiable supply chain.
So how is Apothca handling an industry where federal regulations keep the waters muddy and supply chains are almost completely unverifiable?
By doing it all themselves.
Lekach and his team built the first greenhouse for growing in Massachusetts and their new master grower brought in all new genes, starting from the seed. They take the curing process seriously, aging their flower for 60 days or more and they also don’t use remediation machines
You could almost call if craft cannabis, but Lekach eschews that. The production volume Apothca grows is too high to be called craft, but they treat each batch with great care and appreciation, bringing the quality to the plant that only craft can.
So what’s next for the ever ambitious Lekach and his team at Apothca?
Big things it turns out. They’re expanding their greenhouse growing capabilities and opening their third retail location in August. From there, Lekach is eyeing expansion into New Jersey, New York, and eventually Florida. They’re also experimenting with outdoor growing for the first time in 2021. Unlike most growers, his team started the plants in July and used pots rather than planting directly into the soil. It’s been a big year for the team here, but they’re not done yet. In fact, they’re just hitting a stride.
Cannabis Creative Blog: What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome?
Joseph Lekach: Lack of product, high infrastructure costs, and trying to turn that around so the product you’re producing is at least able to cover your costs and giving you a little positive cashflow. That was 6 months of almost no sleep, sleeping 3, 4 hours a night. My CFO and I, we were texting each other at 3, 4 in the morning.
How you pushing for diversity and inclusivity within your organization?
JL: It’s baked into the regulations in Massachusetts, and it is a big push. My personal viewpoint is I want to hire the best. I want the best person, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status – regardless of all of that, I just want the best people. And when you push that mentality from the top down, you get the right results. I look at my employee pool and we have north of 65% women, minority, veteran, disabilities, people who live in places of disproportionate impact [of the war on drugs]. That’s 65%+ of our staff. That’s not because I gave any of my managers quotas to hit, it’s because I instill in them that I want the best. I don’t give a crap about anything else about them- I just want the best.
What you most proud of?
JL: I’m very proud of my team. Outside people don’t understand what goes into making this business work and a lot if it is human beings. You get complaints like any other business, but our whole team really works very, very hard to deliver excellent product with great service. Everyone from the cultivation to the retail side and everything in between.
People don’t really get to know the team and all the work that goes into it, and I do intimately. I’m just very proud of that- of the team that we’ve built and the people we have.
What do you want people to take away from an experience with you?
JL: I want them to know they could learn as much as they want. Our staff, our budtenders, are trained to really provide 1:1 service, even if it takes longer. We want that experience to be translated for the guests and the patients, for them to have an excellent experience with us.
You can walk into any cannabis store, but when you walk into ours, we want our people to be smiling and helpful, knowledgeable, and we do a lot to train them.
He later continued:
JL: You gotta treat your people right… from our perspective, everyone starts at least $15 per hour, we give good promotions, we promote from within a lot. We offer health insurance and dental, good PTO, we’re pretty flexible with our people. Our staff, we treat them with respect and we treat them the way we would want to be treated and that reflects in terms of their performance and their interactions with the guests and patients.
How have you seen the push for social equity in licensing play out in Massachusetts?
JL: It’s an admirable goal, but it’s complicated to achieve, especially in highly regulated markets like Mass because a lot of money is required to start any of these businesses. And it’s not that easy to find it. You gotta really network your way in, you have to have a solid plan, you have to be able to execute and you have to show that you can execute to keep raising money.
I think that’s the biggest barrier and you see a lot of well-off companies and people taking advantage of those programs. It’s an admirable push but more has to be done to help these people get started.
What’s one thing you think needs the change?
JL: Intelligent regulatory frameworks are the biggest hurdle. A lot of times what they come up with from a regulatory perspective in a white room translates differently than their end goals when they put it out into the market that we have to follow.
Last year in the third and fourth quarter, testing in Massachusetts went from 5-7 days to 70 – 90 days. Part of that reason is the regulations said you needed to test in 10-pound batches which created a bunch of testing backlogs. Before the 10-pound batches, let’s say I have one room with three strains being harvested. Each of those strains are grown in the same room with the same timeline and the same nutrients the same everything; we create one batch out of each of those 3 strains. It could be a 100-pound batch because they were all the same. Now that 100-pound batch needs 10 bags versus 1. So that’s something that seems good on paper but then there’s huge delays that create issues they didn’t think about.
How does sustainability play into your plan for expansion?
JL: We’re expanding into more greenhouse. The power of the sun, as much as humanly possible. You can have supplemental lighting but we use the sun as much as we can. As a result, our utility bills are probably 15% of what a similarly sized indoor facility would be. I’m proud of that. Using the greenhouse creates more sustainability.
This year we’re also going to have an outdoor harvest, which requires little from an environmental impact. Another things to keep in mind is these are plants. They photosynthesize; take in CO2 and let out pure oxygen. And cannabis plants are particularly good at cleaning the air around them. We’re planting plants, and whenever we cut one down, we put a new one in. And I think that’s overlooked a lot.
JL: We look at cannabis and we say it has all these medical benefits. How could one plant have so many medical benefits in so many different areas? Someone once told me, it doesn’t have medical benefits, They explained it like this,
Your body needs cannabis. Not necessarily cannabis, but cannabinoids. We have an endocannabinoid system within our bodies. So for the last 100 years, cannabis has been frowned upon. Don’t use it, it’s the devil’s weed, it’s a gateway drug, all of that. So people were scared to take in these cannabinoids which our endocannabinoid system needs. Even breast-feeding babies are getting cannabinoids through the breast milk. From the moment you’re born you’re introducing cannabinoids into your system. The parallel was, imagine if for the next 100 years, water was demonized across the world. You can’t drink water, water is terrible, you must drink coca-cola. So for the next 100 years, all humanity did was drink coca-cola. In 100 years when the first person drank water again and their body starts reacts well, and they start feeling better and their health improves in so many different ways. Is it that water has medicinal properties or is it just what the human body needs?