In this Cannabis Creative Blog, I sit down with Zach Sarkis, founder of FLWR City Collective, a Rochester-based cannabis company. We talk about why regenerative practices must take precedence over sustainability, his commitment to investing in the Rochester community, and the future of the New York cannabis market.
One of my favorite business philosophies (brought to me by a guest on this blog) is “think globally, act locally.” When I look around my hometown, one organization that is undeniably doing just that is FLWR City.
FLWR City Collective is a seed-to-sale cannabis business that grows and sells CBD in Rochester. I first came across FLWR City in a stall at our public market and I was instantly hooked. Their flower was fresh, aromatic, and colorful, and I walked away feeling like I had bought weed for the first time. I returned time and time again to their public market stall and was delighted when the founder of FLWR City, Zack Sarkis, agreed to join me for a blog feature.
Sarkis has a deep-rooted appreciation for the plant that’s evident in their end product. He began working in the cannabis industry back in 2012 on the West Coast where he rose the ranks from trimming bud to starting a small farmer-run cooperative in Northern California. His time at the cooperative opened his eyes to the challenges of the industry, where even the best product can fail if there isn’t the proper marketing and consumer support.
The vision for FLWR City was born in 2018, and though Sarkis was reluctant to enter the volatile CBD market, his passion for the plant and desire to bring high-quality products to market won out. Their plants are hand-planted and tended in a no-til, living soil with other plants growing and thriving alongside the hemp.
But FLWR City is more than just a cannabis company- it’s a company with a mission to invest in the community. Sarkis is a third-generation Rochester entrepreneur and his hometown pride is evident in the name (Check out the history of Rochester’s nickname.)
He’s made it his mission to invest in the community he loves. Not only does FLWR City donate $1 of every product sold to local organizations, they also host the annual FLWR City Cup, a cannabis competition that raises money for local organizations. In 2021, the competition raised $6,000 that went to ROC Food Relief as well as Flower City Noire Collective and Massachusetts Avenue Project, two youth empowerment organizations. Their 2022 competition is currently underway, with judging events taking place across New York in February and March and a fundraising goal of $20,000 to give back to Western New York organizations.
One of the greatest opportunities consumers have in the cannabis market is the ability to vote with dollars. Every time you make a choice to invest in a local organization rather than an MSO, you cast a vote for the industry you want to see and the community you want to live in. With organizations like FLWR City, it’s easy to do just that.
What’s exciting you about the industry right now?
ZS: The fact that the market is opening up is exciting in itself, and the ability for home grow, I think that’s super exciting for me. Like I always want to grow the plant, not necessarily for a production purpose, but it’s such an incredible plant to work with.
I’m definitely excited for New York state consumption sites and the craft industry. I think there’s just going to be a really strong, small-scale, high-quality boutique industry across the state in particular, and that’s super exciting.
What’s something you think needs to change in the industry?
ZS: I’m really concerned about the large-scale production. First and foremost it’s incredibly unsustainable. Secondarily drives down market price and it makes it very much a very uncompetitive market.
I think there’s a very strong, existing cannabis ecosystem in New York state right now and i don’t believe it necessarily needs to be replaced. I have questions around integration, making sure folks who have been working with the plant for some time also have a seat at the table, not just these, multinational companies. That’s pretty scary.
How has Rochester influenced your company?
ZS: I’m a third-generation entrepreneur, based and born out of Rochester, New York. This is very much a city that has brought a lot of creativity to service that to the arts, through its culture, through its progressive and social movements as well as its industry. I think that’s something that I really consider deeply.
I’m not the only person who has a company it’s called flower city something. It’s obviously a good play on words and we did our branding a little bit differently, but flower city, anyone who lives in Rochester knows that by its name, but most folks outside of the city don’t know that this city by that name. And so there is from a branding perspective, the potential for something that carries far beyond just the proximity of the city. It can help put this city on the map, especially if we’re focusing on local regional production and distribution out this town. Our logo, in particular, the way we’ve worked with this logo and the name is something that can carry in any city across this country, let alone in this state. And I think that’s something we’re going to work really hard to leverage.
How are you pushing for social equity, diversity, and inclusion in the industry?
ZS: We are fortunate enough to have a pretty diverse group of friends and in turn folks that we’re working with and employed. Our team is predominantly women-based. We have a lot of people of color on our team and continue to grow in that direction. So just from a focus of who we’re employing, off the bat, it falls into those categories of equity and diversity. It’s a reflection of our community and that’s what we’re trying to build.
Secondarily, on a more granular level, equity means a piece of the pie. It means sharing. So we’re trying to build out our platform, our business model to have a healthy, robust employee equity program. Um, because I want the folks who are helping me build this business to be folks who are going to benefit long term.
Beyond that, we’re committed to doing at least a dollar per product sold at retail to go back to community reinvestment, as well as putting on events and competitions that are all raising money for community giveback. So it’s really a cornerstone of what we’re doing as a business and how we’re trying to carry ourselves. And it comes naturally in many ways and also we have to be upfront and really push the rest of the industry to meet us and step there as well.
How does sustainability factor into FLWR City?
ZS: There’s no such thing as sustainability. We cannot sustain the levels of consumption that this world’s operating under. You know, most industries are not sustainable, even if they’re green and there’s a lot of greenwashing and sustainability washing and really the option for a better tomorrow is regenerative practices and that’s environmental, social, economic, et cetera.
At the very bones, what we’ve been doing from a cultivation perspective, we work on a regenerative farm. It’s all, no-till low tail. We’re always using cover crops; we’re rotating our cultivation in our raised beds. To cultivate in that system, small scale hand, planted hand-harvested; all those things contribute to more of a regenerative cycle and less waste throughout the process.
We are intentional, for example, in our boxes sourcing from a high-quality manufacturer and then making sure that our product is recyclable, making sure that it’s compostable as an option. There are places where I think we were really pushing the edge of what regenerative looks like, what sustainability looks like, and really focusing on sun-grown, soil-grown.
If we’re looking to get into indoor, then it’s really the emphasis on small-scale, LED production offsetting through carbon emissions, either purchasing some kind of carbon credit exchange or being dialed into a place that does hydroelectric and or solar.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome?
ZS: Knowing that we entered the market offering the highest quality product, at the most competitive price, besides one of the biggest companies in the country, knowing that this is medicine, we want it to be affordable to our community.
My goal coming into this industry was not to be a CBD company but to be a cannabis company in general. The reality is there’s a pretty saturated CBD market right now, but most of that’s because it’s been flooded with out-of-state low-quality product. And so much of it’s not moving because it’s not consistent.
There’s been millions and millions of dollars of advertising and marketing for CBD, but now it’s disrupting and kind of capturing part of that market share to talk about what craft cannabis is. Disrupting the supply chain has been challenging. But once folks really do know that we have an incredible product, then it’s easy.
What’s something you’re proud of?
ZS: I’m proud of the team that we’ve been training. It’s a really diverse, awesome, eclectic group of people. We’ve been able to pay livable wages through this whole process and that’s huge. We have great relationships with our farms, we have great relationships with the community that we’re supporting. And the feedback we’ve gotten from customers is just like, people love this product. It really is medicine. And I think that’s something that I am proud of for sure.
What’s one thing you want people to take away from an experience with FLWR City?
ZS: That quality goes all the way back to the seed, and that this whole process of cultivation and processing, et cetera, there’s a different level. The plant responds to touch, the plant responds to being loved. And I think you can really tell in our product that these plants have been carefully tended in a living soil system.
I also think it’s great for people to know that I literally planted every single one of those plants and I probably harvested every single one of those plants with a small crew, and that level of like intimacy and quality control, makes sure I know exactly what you’re getting every single time. I’m trimming, I’m seeing what product is going into these bags. And that level of quality control goes a really long way when it comes to people getting the best that they can get.
Where do you see the market going in New York?
ZS: It’s going to be crazy. I think we’re going to see the illicit market, the unregulated market boom, and I think that it’s going to be a pretty painfully slow start to adult-use unless there’s some proactive engagement with the farming and legacy market community. It’s going to be kind of a slow start to market.
We’re probably a year out before we actually can begin the licensing process on the early side. Hopefully, we see the right regulations within the next six months and then there’s going to be a comment period. Then there’ll be adjusting the regulations and a comment period, and then maybe licensing.
I think there’s going to be more cannabis available, more out-of-state cannabis available as well as in-state cannabis available to consumers. We’re going to see a boom in demand for flower. I think we’re going to start seeing some really high-quality extracts coming out. The lounges, the delivery, all these things are going to keep on booming and making it just so much more tangible. And I’m super excited about that.
What’s your favorite fun fact about cannabis?
ZS: The amount of cellulose that can be extracted from an acre of fiber cannabis and, or carbon that is taken in is so substantial compared to an acre of trees. That is something that would highly disrupt the paper market. That’s something that absolutely could be leveraged for carbon sequestration on a large scale. I also love the fact that the cannabis seed is a superfood; 30 plus percent protein, really healthy balance of omega3 six fatty acids. And that’s also amazing.