Lisa Bigioni, My 15 Minutes of Fame, Part II

Opening Day of Legalization 

“Lisa, I’m in the parking lot with my wife, I’m having a panic attack, I’ve never had one before and I don’t know what’s happening.” This was what my manager said to me less than 24-hours before my store, one of Ontario’s first legal cannabis stores, opened in June of 2019. 

The Back Story 

The timeline from the announcement that I’d won the lottery to the approval of the license took from mid January to the end of April. That’s 3.5 months that I was stressed to the max and crying multiple times a day that I was gonna lose everything I invested to get on this crazy rollercoaster ride. 

Lisa Bigioni, My 15 Minutes of Fame, Part II

To Get The Full Story Check Out Part I

A Partnership With Pros and Cons 

Partway through this wheel of stress, I decided I needed to partner with an existing cannabis retailer so I could defer some of the risk and get access to their money – this was gonna be expensive and I didn’t have the funds needed to do it. 

I was approached by multiple retailers – all 25 of the lottery winners were, and I was close to signing with one when they pulled the rug out from under me at the 11th hour. Cue more tears and less sleep. (With hindsight being 20/20, it turns out I dodged a bullet on that one.) Anyway, to make a long story a tad shorter, I chose to work with Choom, a retailer out of Vancouver with a super cool brand that I loved. In exchange for a shit-ton of money that would be enough to fund our own stores eventually, they would be able to use my licence in exchange for building, stocking, and branding my store in Niagara Falls as Choom Cannabis Co. 

They paid for everything, including a store that cost over $1M to build (I should have known then they were doomed to fail), and an initial inventory buy that was over $1M. Ultimately they filed for creditor protection and many of their stores, including my baby in Niagara Falls, were bought by High Tide in 2022. However at the time, with about 15 minutes to do my due diligence on them, they appeared to be a legit organisation with expertise and I agreed to the partnership. 

Regulations Still A Mess 

The agreement with Choom involved 7 contracts – a sublease, a licensing agreement, the main partnership agreement, and I don’t remember what else. I didn’t understand much of it (WHO INVENTED LEGAL LANGUAGE ANYWAY?!) and thank goodness for my brother Don who joined all the conference calls and offered phenomenal advice on how to handle it all. I mean, he saw me cry a lot as a kid, why not as a 52 year old?

The AGCO still didn’t have their shit together and one of the issues for me and many other lottery winners was that we applied for the lottery as sole proprietors. I don’t know if you know the tax implications of income in a sole prop vs a corporation – particularly when the deals we all negotiated with our partners were significant, but there’s a BIG tax difference. I shudder when I think of the tax I had to pay personally. But…this is Canada and hopefully a pothole was filled in my honour. 

More of an issue was that the AGCO was super unhelpful, and contributed to stress at every turn. They were vague, evasive and didn’t answer one question I had for them. They threatened to disqualify me for modest safeguards my lawyer included in the contract with Choom and forced me to move forward feeling unprotected. Brian and I felt like our asses were hanging in the breeze, but we kept going because what else could we do at this point? There was no turning back. 

Staffing The Store, Not As Simple As It Sounds 

Choom took the lead early and ran with the operations of getting the store built and staffed. We hired the staff way too early because the store build was delayed, and therefore so was our final approval. To try to use the time and money effectively, we sent everyone we’d hired on a Cannabis Sommelier course by CannaReps, which was amazing! We learned so much about the plant, its history, different terpenes, etc. That’s where I met current Stok’d GM Francesco (aka French of French Drop Friday) because he was one of the people hired as a budtender, and he sat at the front answering all the questions the instructor had.  

Opening Day -2 (The Soft Launch) 

Lisa Bigioni, My 15 Minutes of Fame, Part II

We hosted a friends and family night as a soft open so that we could figure out if everything worked. Someone came to me 15 minutes before everybody’s supposed to be there to tell me that everything has been loaded into the Point of Sale (POS) system – hundreds of skus – but it’s all at the wrong price! I ask them to find 10 products and fix those ones—because we don’t have time to fix everything—and those will be the only things that friends and family can buy, “and we’ll figure it out tomorrow.” That’s the point of a soft launch right? Worked like a charm to identify a problem and give us time to fix it before officially going live. This is Thursday night and we’re opening on Saturday – so we have ALL day Friday to fix it. Sounds perfect – until it wasn’t. 

T-1 to Opening Day (The Manager Quits) 

Everything else is good for the soft launch – staff get to test their skills at the cash register, find the right keys to open the cabinets, etc. and everyone is feeling ready. 

It’s now Friday and we have to figure this pricing situation out. I get to the store early and the manager is sitting in the office. His face is white. He looks at me with a blank stare and tells me that he’s been there for 4 hours and all the work he did just got erased! He gets up and walks out. 

I’m a problem solver so I spring into action – I call the POS company and get their commitment to have someone log into our system remotely and work with us to identify the problem and the fix. I’m thinking this is great – they’re gonna help and everythings gonna be fine! 

I phoned the manager to update him on the plan and he said, “Lisa, I’m in the parking lot with my wife, I’m having a panic attack, I’ve never had one before and I don’t know what to do. I’m not coming back.” 

This is the day before we open. We have to open the next day – media is coming from everywhere including the USA, the Choom execs have flown in from BC, and most importantly my mom will be there and WE HAVE TO FIX THIS. But…he’s the only one who really knows how to use the POS – a few of us have used it, but it’s new to everyone and none of us has worked with it as much as he had. 

T – 20 hours to Opening Day (Francesco Steps Up) 

By this time I had quit my job at U of T, and leased a house in Niagara Falls to set up and run the store. Choom hadn’t been super welcoming of me up until now. In fact, most of the build up to opening day they made me feel like I was an annoyance, even telling me “Lisa, you need to get out of the way.” It pissed me off but I was resolved to learn all I could in preparation for Brian and I to do it on our own. Cut to the Friday before opening when the Manager left – I turned to them and said “Guys, it’s your name on the sign so you need to figure this out. I won’t be stressed out about this anymore. I’m done, you fix it.” 

One of their guys offers to try and figure it out. Francesco walks up to me to ask if there’s anything he can do to help, so I send him to work with the Choom guy. They work with the POS company to the wee hours of the morning downloading reports, uploading reports and fixing all the pricing errors, and thankfully it all gets done. It was the next day – opening day – that Francesco was promoted to Store Manager. Someone who was willing to do what it took to fix a problem that big was definitely someone I wanted leading this new venture!

Opening Day, June 15, 2019 

Lisa Bigioni, My 15 Minutes of Fame, Part II
Lisa Bigioni, My 15 Minutes of Fame, Part II
Lisa Bigioni, My 15 Minutes of Fame, Part II

The next day the store opened at 9:00 am. I show up at around seven and there’s already a lineup at the store. A woman at the front says she’s been there since 5:30 am, someone else asks if I’m Lisa Bigioni and wow, he’s been following my story and he’s so excited to meet me. A few people ask to take selfies with me. WHAT IS GOING ON??? I’m practically famous 🙂This whole scene is absolutely bizarre and it becomes very clear to me that my life had definitely changed in the six months since I won the lottery.

When the store finally opened, I met people who’d come from far and wide to experience buying weed legally. I spoke to a woman in her 60s who drove up from Virginia just to be part of opening day. She was crying saying, “I’ve never seen this in my life, I cannot believe that buying cannabis in a retail store is legal. I’ve waited for this day for so long!” I spoke to someone else who had multiple sclerosis who said, “[Cannabis] is the only thing that helps me. I cannot believe that I can come into a store and buy this product.” 

My whole family’s there, the mayor does the ribbon cutting, I’m being interviewed by multiple media outlets and honestly, I’m riding HIGH. 

The opening day of Choom Niagara turns out to be one of the best days of my life! 

Stay tuned for the final chapter of Lisa’s 15 Minutes when I talk about our decision to start an entirely new company you know as Stok’d Cannabis