Innovating, Exploring, and Growing in a New Industry
Minerva Canna is a leader in medical cannabis, with head offices in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With outlets throughout New Mexico and in Oklahoma – with more to come – the company’s growth has been spectacular and its reputation stellar. And all because a boy in the eighth grade thought it would a good business for his dad to get into.
Company President and Founder Erik Briones was taking his eighth grade son to school one morning when a report on medicinal cannabis and the associated business opportunities in New Mexico came on the radio. At that time, medicinal cannabis was a hot topic, and one that had crossed Erik’s mind, perhaps because he had owned a couple of garden centers that had closed in 2008.
“I had it in mind to enter this cannabis space, but it was very controversial back then,” he explains. “It was very dark, with a lot of ignorance and prejudice against the plant. That’s when my son said, ‘Dad, you should get into that because you know how to run a business, you have a horticultural degree, you ran nurseries and you can grow plants. It would be a perfect fit!’”
Battling the stigma
With the stigma surrounding cannabis in those days, Erik was concerned that it might affect his son at school. Nevertheless, he tracked down an application for a commercial cannabis license and set to filling it in, which was a major task in itself. There were so many details to the form, with more than 13 categories of information required, covering things like packaging, security, delivery and growing techniques, and very much else besides.
For months Erik treated his application project like a full-time job. From 8 a.m. To 5 p.m. he researched cannabis and all the details of his proposed operation that were to be discussed or reviewed during the application process. At the end of a six-month slog he submitted the initial application. The response, which took nearly five months, asked for more information. That took another few weeks and then was submitted again.
“I had to wait for another couple of months as more information was asked for… Took me a week to complete it, I submitted that and by the end of the year Minerva was approved as one of the few licenses in New Mexico,” says Erik.
Licensed at last
Getting one of only 25 licenses that were approved at that time in the state, Erik built a grow facility. The allowance for warehouses at the time was capped at 150 plants, but jumped to 450 a year later. Erik acquired more warehouse space and grew the maximum allowed. Within a couple of years, Minerva owned the entire warehouse space, some 11,500 square feet. Recently the plant count increased to 2,500, but has since been reduced to 1750; the timing of the purchase turned out to be fortunate.
It’s not all peaches and cream, however, as cannabis companies pay authorities a high fee per plant. For 450 plants Minerva pays $90,000 per year, so the fee for 1750 plants is proposed at $180,000.00 (currently under discussion with the state on NM DoH). The Department of Health (DOH) has sent out a letter indicating that new fee structures will be released in September.
“We started initially delivering to people’s houses. We would meet them in parking lots with the Mini Cooper I bought. That was our delivery car and there was a lot of back and forth all day long from the grow op to all-over-town delivery. Then we acquired our first dispensary location, which is a small space in an office condominium complex. It encompassed about 800 square feet,” Erik says.
The first business model called for patients by appointment only, but after a couple of months of laboring under a mountain of regulations, Erik decided it was time to shift gears. Minerva was constantly pushing the envelope as to what was allowable and what was not. The DOH wasn’t sure itself because it was all a new program, and they too were trying to figure things out on the fly.
Minerva Canna was the first Licensed Non-Profit Producer (LNPP) to tell to their customers to forget about reservations or making appointments and just come in whenever they liked. Each morning from then on as it opened, there were about 25 people in a line, and it stayed that way all day.
“We quickly outgrew that space and moved in next door to a 3,200 square-foot space, divided into different uses. There was a dispensary with two waiting rooms. We had a shop with growth supplies including fertilizer, soil and lights. We put in a wellness center and lifestyle store with pipes and anything for cannabis, along with Minerva gear like t-shirts and paraphernalia,” says Erik.
Come to The Cannabis Mall
This concept was christened The Cannabis Mall and was intended to create an exceptional cannabis experience within that facility and make it a one-stop shop. As a bonus Minerva could take the 280-E deduction on the space that surrounded the dispensary, but not on the dispensary itself. This greatly helped with the tax situation.
The Cannabis Mall made a deserved splash. Erik and the designer with whom he had worked were invited to the International Design Conference to speak as one of its featured projects of the year, and to appear in their magazine and website.
“We gave a talk, on dispensary design and flow, at the conference in Miami, and then gave a few more at the MMJ Cannabiz conferences in Las Vegas. We were also invited to speak in Europe and Brazil, although I didn’t go because of the costs of travel,” says Erik.
These were the early years and Erik participated in the very first MMJ Cannabiz conference held in Denver in an old three-story building where everybody was up and down the stairs all day long. Attendees recounted horror stories. One guy from Montana was raided by the DEA, his partner put in prison, and he was awaiting trial and perhaps the same fate. He was growing plants legally, according to the laws of Montana, but this was a federal crime.
“We had invested a lot of time and money initially and you didn’t know if you could be raided, with everything confiscated, including your house and car. It was quite the gamble back then. People were leery of getting into the business,” says Erik.
Good to grow
How times have changed, as everybody is trying to find any which way of getting into the business. Minerva started on 4th street in Albuquerque, then Erik bought a building and established a second location in Los Lunas, New Mexico, with a third in Bernalillo, and a fourth in Santa Fe. Minerva is currently looking to establish two more dispensaries in Albuquerque and additional ones in Las Vegas and New Mexico; two of the three new locations will open in July, 2019.
In 2018 Erik joined forces with a couple of partners and started Minerva Oklahoma, with a 32,000 square foot grow facility. The company also opened its fourth dispensary in May 2019 in Oklahoma and is seeking out two more locations by the end of the year.
Earlier in its expansion process Minerva started the Canna Café Bakery which is now the largest bakery in New Mexico and Oklahoma. In New Mexico it makes close to 80 different cannabis infused items. This covers everything from ice cream and ten different types of chocolate bars, to cakes, cookies, brownies, salsa and drinks like lemonade and teas. Included are candy skulls, truffles, and many other delectable items including cheesecake.
“They are literally the best in the state! We are starting a wholesale division of this in Oklahoma, but the licensing is different from New Mexico, so we don’t have it there. It’s just not obtainable as they are not releasing any more,” says Erik.
By adding the bakery Minerva could vertically integrate its product line even further. Not only does it grow the flower, process and package it, but it is taken and made into distillates before being loaded into Minerva cartridges and syringes. The distillate is used for the bakery and dispensaries. Every part is used, and Erik has found that by being vertically integrated the company adds efficiency to all processes and products because it is done in-house.
“It’s nice to be in control of all aspects of your business, rather than dealing with a third party. We do however buy and serve certain third-party products of the quality that meets our standards,” says Erik.
Some of the most popular offerings from the Canna Café include gummy bears that involve a micro-dose of 2 mg, with 40 in a package. These fly off the shelves and are gone within an hour of the store opening. People love the convenience of the micro-dose. Canna Café’s artisanal chocolate bars are top sellers. Additionally, the fresh strawberry lemonade infused with THC sells thousands of units per week.
Aside from the bakery, Minerva has seen success with its vaping products. Vaping is currently the most popular way to consume the plant. More people are buying cartridges than the flower. A lot of flower is still purchased but Minerva allocates a significant amount of resources to creating as many strains as possible for its vape cartridges.
“Sometimes we will have eight to ten different vape strains available. It’s something we seem to never have enough of. I see the market shifting from flower to vape consumption,” says Erik.
Erik believes that the market has not reached its peak. A host of states have yet to legalize for medicinal or recreational use, countries around the world are getting into the cannabis space, and research is expanding the uses, onset, benefits of micro cannabinoids. Multi-national beverage companies are entering the cannabis arena and big pharma is becoming entrenched in the industry. Erik believes that the cannabis space will look very different in five years than it does now. As the walls of legality fall in the U.S. and globally, Minerva Canna will be poised to expand further to take advantage of this burgeoning industry.