As students at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Cambridge, Christopher Kittredge and his buddy Michael Villaronga had a running routine about their plans to open up a pot dispensary and launch a line of cannabis edibles after graduating. “The instructors would always laugh at us,” Kittredge recalls, “and tell us to stop smoking so much weed.”
This was a few years before the recreational use of marijuana became legal in the Commonwealth, and Kittredge says his dispensary dream was just that. “We didn’t think it was going to happen,” he says. But in 2016, just as Massachusetts voters legalized it, Kittredge got hired as head chef at Garden Remedies, a fully integrated cannabis cultivation center in Fitchburg. He was tasked with hiring a sous chef, so he called up his old culinary school pal, who’s nicknamed Chef Bleu. “I was, like, Bleu, you’re never gonna believe this.”
Today, Kittredge, Bleu and their team of six cooks take a culinary approach to creating cannabis-infused gummies and chocolate edibles for Garden Remedies, which has retail locations in Newton, Melrose and Marlborough, and also sells its products to third-party dispensary partners across the state. “We’re chefs first,” Kittredge says. He sources high-quality Callebaut Belgian chocolate, and uses cheffy techniques like dehydrating marshmallows to create enticing flavors, like this summer’s seasonal THC-infused Campfire Milk Chocolate Bar.
But like other cannabis entrepreneurs trying to navigate a burgeoning, yet tightly regulated, industry—marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, after all—the chefs’ creativity is somewhat hindered by rules and regulations.
Survey the Massachusetts dispensary scene today and you’ll notice a rainbow of gumdrops and a veritable Wonka factory of flavored chocolate bars, plus a few infused seltzer brands and the occasional lemonade. Local cannabis chefs agree there are several reasons to explain why the majority of edibles on the market are candy-like, from logistical issues like a lack of refrigeration available at dispensaries, to consumer demand and expectations. But the industry’s oversight capabilities are a big reason why edible products are limited.
For one thing, turnaround time on independent test results required by the Massachusetts-regulating Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) can be up to three weeks, explains Julien Rose, director of research and product development for Western Mass.–based cultivator INSA. Rose grew up around pastry as the son of chocolatiers, but he came to the cannabis world after years of consulting work for large food brands, including Callebaut Chocolate, and—once it became legal in Oregon—cannabis companies.
“On the West Coast, we did a lot of baked goods, but the testing [only took] two days,” Rose says. In Massachusetts, “we tend to stick with much more conventional products that have a good shelf life.”
Besides gummies and chocolate bars, there are few examples of other products on the market. Garden Remedies makes an infused olive oil, for instance. The boutique dispensary Bud’s Goods, which has retail outposts in Worcester, Abington and a Watertown location opening in early 2022, sells an infused hot sauce made locally by a Puerto Rican cannabis brand, as well as more unique candy formats, such as INSA’s peanut butter cups and a taffy-esque chew called Betty’s Eddies. Consumers can find some cookies at Massachusetts dispensaries, but despite being the stoner’s stereotypical signature dish, pot brownies generally do not have the necessary shelf life to make it through the testing window.
Massachusetts has a handful of testing facilities, and the growing cannabis industry is certainly keeping them busy. Framingham-based MCR Labs, for instance, reported a 38% year-over increase in samples received for testing in 2020, despite the cannabis industry pausing sales for two months because of the state’s initial COVID-19 shutdown. “There is a need for more labs here,” Rose says.
The cannabis regulating body in Massachusetts also appears to lack an understanding of culinary products, based on hurdles that artisan edibles company Plant Jam founder David Yusefzadeh had to cross to bring a cutting-edge brand of infused ice cream and vegan frozen desserts, Cloud Creamery, to the adult-use market. Since 2018, Plant Jam has had numerous products fail the state’s testing regimen because of naturally occurring, food-safe bacteria found in dairy and certain fresh fruits, Yusefzadeh says.
A former sous chef at the Michelin-starred Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong as well as its Boston sibling, Yusefzadeh also has a graduate degree in food policy from Boston University’s gastronomy program. Cloud Creamery finally landed in recreational dispensaries this past June, and the cool confection was voted Best Cannabis Innovation in the latest New England Canna Community awards competition hosted annually by the region’s leading trade group, NECANN.
“Not having food representation on the CCC prevents us from innovating at the speed we’d prefer,” Yusefzadeh says. He would like to see local health inspectors, who are in charge of food safety regulations in Massachusetts, empowered to oversee cannabis culinary operations, he says.
“So many dispensaries want innovation. So many customers want innovation,” Yusefzadeh notes. “But [mostly] all they have access to is candy.”
Cannabis entrepreneurs do see ways to get creative within the current parameters, however. The main driver? Flavor. The majority of dispensary edibles available today are made with flavorless, odorless cannabis distillate, derived from the chemical compounds found in different strains of marijuana. Those compounds include not only cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, which relate to the strain’s psychoactive and therapeutic effects, but also terpenes, which affect the bud’s aroma and flavor. Yusefzadeh sees untapped potential to play up terpenes in edible products, he says.
Slow & Steady Edibles are the first cannabis products from Kush Groove, a Boston-based lifestyle brand that’s sold hats, hoodies and smoking accessories since 2011. Kush Groove is provisionally licensed by the CCC for cannabis sales, and is currently building out three dispensaries to open during the first quarter of 2022 in West Cambridge, Jamaica Plain and Brockton, says co-founder Marcus Johnson-Smith. In the meantime, Kush Groove has partnered with the cultivator and manufacturer Revolutionary Clinics to produce four flavors of Slow & Steady gummies—papaya, soursop, lulo and passion fruit—inspired by Greater Boston’s Caribbean diaspora.
“We wanted to have fruit flavors that were different from what’s on the market today,” Johnson-Smith says. “There is a lot of demand for these sorts of flavors that connect with folks who are from these places and that travel to these places.” Look for Slow & Steady Edibles at more than 100 Massachusetts dispensaries beginning around Thanksgiving.
Chefs are also trying savory applications: Garden Remedies introduced an infused spicy gummy this fall, made with ghost pepper extract, and Yusefzadeh’s Plant Jam wants to develop finishing salts and spice blends. (Editor’s note: In early November, after our deadline, regulators approved Fare Provisions, Plant Jam’s new line of seasoning salts for retail sale. Look for two Fare Provisions products, an infused Porcini Mushroom Salt and a holiday blend, in dispensaries just before Thanksgiving.)
“We’re trying to open [consumers] up and get them out of the candy space,” Yusefzadeh says. “We feel like food is the biggest connector across all ethnicities, genders and economic classes,” he says, and that greater variety of edible products will bring more people to the cannabis community’s proverbial table.
Retailers like Alex Mazin, founder and CEO of Bud’s Goods, also see packaging as a way for edible producers to innovate—and help the industry become more equitable. Massachusetts regulations allow up to 100 milligrams of THC per edible package, as long as the products are designated into servings of five milligrams or less. The vast majority of producers maximize their offerings with 100-milligram packages of individual five-milligram gumdrops, or candy bars that can be broken into 20 one-serving pieces.
“The market is already oversaturated with [100-milligram] options,” Mazin says. He would like to see more edible producers making 50- or even 25-milligram packages, which he could sell at a lower price point. That’s the idea behind Bud’s Goods first white-label brand: Lil’ Buds, a pre-tax, $30 eighth (the standard-size package of cannabis flower). The average eighth sold in Massachusetts dispensaries is $50, before the state’s 10.75% marijuana excise tax and the normal 6.25% sales tax.
“Social equity and fair justice for all [in the cannabis industry] will not happen until the pricing comes down,” Mazin says. So he’s doing what he can, with the support of producer Revolutionary Clinics, even though he is currently taking a loss on Lil’ Buds. “We’re building a loyal customer base, because we know, as the market continues to mature, that those margins will come up,” he says. That kind of risk-taking appears to be paying off: Bud’s Goods was voted the Best New England Cannabis Company in the latest New England Canna Community Competition.
Education is key to developing the cannabis customer base overall, the entrepreneurs agree.
Bud’s Goods takes cues from the hospitality industry, says Mazin, who worked in restaurants for years, in roles ranging from dishwasher to floor manager, before getting into cannabis. (Incidentally, Bud’s first dispensary location took over the former Gold Star diner in Worcester.) Bud’s employees are trained to ask consumers a few specific questions, such as what time of day they plan to consume cannabis, to guide folks toward products they are likely to enjoy, Mazin says. The idea is “you’ll feel comfortable with our staff to take the time [to be confident about your cannabis purchase] because of the environment that we’ve created,” he says.
For Kittredge, the head chef at Garden Remedies, who leads trainings about the effects of edibles for the company’s salespeople, “It starts at the top and works its way down. It is our responsibility to get rid of that ‘reefer madness’ fear that’s been hanging on for a long time,” he says.
Despite what his culinary school instructors may have thought way back when, cannabis edibles aren’t just for “the guy in the Grateful Dead T-shirt and Birkenstocks,” Kittredge says. “It can be for people who really enjoy food and cuisine.”
After all, it’s foodie folks who are leading the way for cannabis edibles in Massachusetts.
This story appeared in the Winter 2022 issue.