Forget the magic brownies — how about a Del’s Lemonade designed to really help you chill out?
Or perhaps some Original Italian Bakery pizza chips that give a new definition to the …
Forget the magic brownies — how about a Del’s Lemonade designed to really help you chill out?
Or perhaps some Original Italian Bakery pizza chips that give a new definition to the term “fresh baked”?
From coffee syrup to clam cakes, a number of iconic Rhode Island foodstuffs have been making their entry into an unexpected new market since the legalization of recreational cannabis sales in December. A number of legendary local brands and restaurants have already introduced spinoffs of their most popular products spiked with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the most important, active chemical component of marijuana). Several more are expected to enter production this summer.
Most of these munchies have their origins at Hapi, a cannabis extraction facility near Cranston’s Pontiac Avenue.
“We try to keep a low profile,” said co-owner Andrew Irby of the unmarked building. The location doubles as a storage garage, with yachts of questionable seaworthiness and what appears to be a Model T parked in front of the electronically locked interior door. Stepping through that portal, however, one enters a world where high science meets big business.
“We get food shipments delivered right to us from the brands we have a contract with, together with fresh cannabis flower from our cultivators,” explained Irby. “Then we extract the THC from the plant matter and refine it into a distillate, which we can then add directly to the food. All we need to do after that is ship the product off to the dispensaries for sale.”
It sounds like a straightforward approach, but it’s designed to create room for a new niche within RI’s fledgling market for recreational cannabis.
Vertical vs Horizontal Integration
According to Irby and his Hapi partner, Jason Carlson, the operation will operate within a challenging space in the Rhode Island cannabis industry.
“Since the days of medical marijuana, the vertical business model has really dominated,” Irby said. “By vertical, I mean a business which grows, refines, and sells its own cannabis products. It’s tough to enter the game with a horizontal model that focuses on just one stage of that process.”
Hapi is rather proudly positioned to serve as a ‘middle man’ in this schema.
“We receive batches of flower from cultivators all over the state,” Irby said. “Our niche is creating something out of that which the dispensaries can’t make on their own.”
The process begins by inserting raw cannabis flower into a device designed to extract its THC using carbon dioxide as a solvent.
“We don’t use ethanol or butane or other, lower grade solvents,” said Carlson.
Carlson is a veteran of Colorado’s cannabis industry, who traveled eastward with the advent of legalization in New England.
“There’s an expression in the trade: fire in, fire out,” he said. “If you use the best source material and the highest quality solvents and techniques, you’re always going to end up with a better product.”
The end result of the distillation process is a thick, tarry, resinous substance that is almost pure concentrated THC. This distillate can be combined with a propellant to create liquid for vaping, or added to food to create an “uplifting” spin on a favorite local snack.
Its intended source does much to determine the terpene profile which the refiners target.
“Terpenes are the molecules of plant material responsible for a whole range of tastes and scents,” said Carlson. “Everything from citrus to mown grass is a result of terpenes, and many of those compounds can be found in different strains of marijuana. When we’re creating a vape cartridge, we try to focus on combining terpenes that will create a comparable flavor profile to the strain itself. For edibles, however, we often try to avoid adding any additional cannabis taste.”
Irby agrees: “Just because I’m drinking a weed lemonade doesn’t mean I want it to actually taste like weed,” he said. “Most people just want it to taste like lemonade.”
Entering the Munchie Market
Even after putting the final touches on their extraction process, Hapi still needed something to set them apart from competitors.
“It’s really tough to get a foothold with this business model unless you can pitch something that the vertical operations can’t create on their own,” Irby said. “In the Rhode Island market, it seemed obvious to me what that was: our local food brands. I grew up here, and I knew which brands to target and I knew the kind of customer loyalty those labels had.”
The first local eatery to “come on and get Hapi” was Johnston’s Original Italian Bakery, whose popular pizza chips can now be found on adult use menus at dispensaries throughout the state.
“It was an amazing idea for a product,” said Don Depetrillo, the culinary maestro at the helm of both the OIB and Depetrillo’s Pizza. “Andrew approached me with it and I knew right away that he was onto something. They had it all worked out — right down to adding the extract underneath the sauce layer so you can still heat them up at home if you want.”
Depetrillo says the company buys several “chip-ments” a week, which they then repackage for sale at dispensaries.
“There have been points where they’ve been buying about 720 pizza chips a week,” he said. “Both original and jalapeno. It’s been good business for both of us — but I was still pretty impressed when I heard they’ve gotten Del’s to sign on now.”
Stop At the Sign of the Lemon
Irby says that Del’s was a targeted brand from the outset.
“We had a wager going, actually,” he said, turning with a laugh to Carlson. “Some people were saying that we could never get Del’s. I kept saying we could — and I knew that if we did, it would really sell.”
Based on the demonstrated success of the pizza chips, Hapi was able to convince the lemonade giant to allow them use of the Del’s license. This is not the first time Del’s has entered the adult beverage market; they have long maintained a partnership with the Narragansett Brewing Company, beginning with the introduction of their popular Lemon Shandy in 2014.
“We first allowed them to start remarketing our bottled lemonade during the medical market,” said a Del’s representative. “Their orders have really taken off since December. So far they’ve been ordering shipments of our regular and pink lemonades, and we’ve been talking about introducing tangerine.”
For Hapi, the Del’s connection has been invaluable.
“Because we released it before recreational sales, our initial targeted customers were compassionate care patients,” said Irby. “And we thought, ‘if somebody has just started this treatment, what will make them feel more comfortable than seeing a brand they’re so familiar with on the menu?’”
The THC extract used in the Del’s lemonade is created using nanoemulsion technology, according to Carlson.
“It’s almost like shearing the mixture down to the smallest possible particles,” he explained. “That allows it to blend in smoothly with the lemonade. It also makes it much more reliable in terms of onset and efficacy.”
Irby adds that simplifying the edible experience is a key company goal.
“We try to keep serving sizes small and we target a lower price point,” he said.
The four ounce beverage typically sells for $7, and contains 10 mg of THC distillate.
“We were envisioning something along the lines of an energy shot — a small dose that kicks in quickly and is easy to track.”
Some companies have been less enthusiastic about participating, however.
“We had wanted to partner up with another major local brand to produce our coffee syrup, but it didn’t pan out,” Irby said. “But we’ve been making our own syrup, and that’s been selling well.”
The Expanding Market
By localizing their product, Hapi has tapped into what appears to be a successful angle in the local cannabis market. Although their products are not yet available at Warwick’s newest dispensary, Irby confirms that there have been talks about introducing their goods at Apponaug’s Solar Cannabis Company.
“Our products are entirely sourced from local cultivators and producers,” said Solar’s Derek Gould, explaining that Rhode Island regulations keep the entire trade in-state. Although the Somerset-based company grows their own cannabis for sale in Massachusetts, they have to rely on the local market for their Warwick location.
“We knew that we wanted to enter the Rhode Island market as soon as an opportunity became available,” Gould said. “And we’ve been lucky to set up good relationships with a lot of local companies. A lot of our items really showcase their Rhode Island roots.”
The menu includes strains with nautical titles such as “Captain’s Catch” and “Ocean Boats,” the latter of these grown at Warwick’s own Zen Blend Farms.
For edibles, Solar features another company to emphasize localization in their marketing - gummy manufacturers Rhodies, whose candies include flavors like “Goddard Park Grape,” “Block Island Blue Raspberry,” and “South County Strawberry.”
Looking Toward the Summer
There are additional Hapi products slated for a summer release, including a collaboration with a well-known local beachside restaurant.
“We haven’t officially announced it yet, but we’ve put the final touches on our doughboys and clam cakes from a certain local institution,” Irby said. “Those should be available in time for the summer. And, if we can get the mustard right, we were approached by a popular local hot dog company to try to create a NY System wiener. So there are some exciting things in the works.”