Canada “could be to cannabis what France is to wine,” Toronto coffee shop owner Alan Gertner said in June. He was speaking at The Economist's Canada Summit, and the aspirational analogy resonated far and high. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “absolutely disagreed” with Gertner’s assertion—but only because of the high “calibre of Canadian wines,” reported The Huffington Post Canada.
Gertner, who could be described as an entrepreneurial lifestyle futurist with as genteel an appreciation for kind bud as for a well-tailored oxford shirt, is CEO of Tokyo Smoke. He and his father, retail and real estate impresario Lorne Gertner, founded the company, which today runs two Toronto espresso bar boutiques: Tokyo Smoke Found, opened in May 2015, and Tokyo Smoke Green, opened in May 2016.
Gertner’s story is a woke, fun one. For years, the Canadian lived abroad and headed Asia-Pacific customer sales at Google, until one day, while on assignment in Ghana, he attended a voodoo ceremony. An epiphany came.
“His guide said something to him—and I’m paraphrasing—that you either work on something you love or you work to support the people you love. And that got Alan thinking about his life and what he was doing, and the reasons behind the work he was doing,” recounts Josh Lyon, Tokyo Smoke’s head of marketing and partnerships. Eventually, Gertner came “to realize he loved…working with family and people he liked, and he liked working on things he loved: coffee, clothing, and cannabis.”
Tokyo Smoke Found is the brand’s flagship. The shop occupies a space once used as a loading bay for its building located in the downtown neighborhood known as Old Toronto. Retaining a garage-like insularity, with strategically placed spotlights, the venue feels more like a speakeasy than a cafe. Yet there is plenty of room for its clientele—largely, young professionals who relish quality coffee, clothing, and/or cannabis. To be clear, Tokyo Smoke currently sells the first two products and only accessories related to the third.
“The beautiful thing about what we’re doing is we’re not doing anything illegal,” says Geoff DeGrasse, the company’s head of operations and people, in reference to the shops' selling paraphernalia but not pot itself. “We’re totally aboveboard. We’re waiting for legislation till we actually sell recreational pot in Canada.”
Canada still restricts cannabis consumption to medical use, but since Trudeau took office last November, the Liberal leader has initiated reforms in recreational marijuana’s legalization. Some observers see such laws taking effect by late 2017.
These days, the quickest turnover at Tokyo Smoke Found happens at the espresso bar. A shipping container elegantly built into the storefront holds a two-group Nuova Simonelli Black Eagle espresso machine, a Nuova Simonelli Mythos One Clima Pro grinder, a FETCO CBS 2131XTS drip brewer, and a Newco NHW-15 hot water dispenser. The city’s eminent Station Cold Brew supplies the nitro coffee on tap. Toronto microroaster De Mello Palheta Coffee Roasters provides the standard Tokyo Smoke Custom Roast, a blend of two types of Brazilian coffees.
DeGrasse is quick to praise De Mello Palheta, the roaster established by two Melbourne transplants and named after the Portuguese merchant believed to have brought coffee to Brazil. “They know coffee really well,” he says. “They’ve been really good to us, they help us with training, they help us with quality control.”
Surrounding the room’s workbench-style communal table are shelves of marijuana tools and toys for sale. The selection is broad, from the Pax 2 vaporizer for the high-tech toker to cannabis-free Malin + Goetz cannabis candles, for those who prefer just an aromatic estimation of the plant. Self-branded merch (rolling papers, coffee tins) and equipment—including the Velopresso, a rare pedal-powered coffee tricycle that could be seen shimmying across Toronto this past summer—bear the Tokyo Smoke logo. The red lantern-like oval is an aesthetic nod to Japan, where Gertner once lived.
Tokyo Smoke men’s apparel is now in its second run. The new fall collection, including button-ups, blazers, and jackets, can be purchased through the boutiques and via a forthcoming e-commerce platform. This marks a second coffee shop-anchored business developing its own ready-to-wear line, the other that Sprudge recently covered being Scandinavian Embassy in Amsterdam.
A more obvious hearkening to the Netherlands, however, is Tokyo Smoke’s ambition to sell its very own weed. The company is nearing a licensing deal to facilitate sales of four strains of Tokyo Smoke proprietary pot in territories where it is already legal and, perhaps one day soon, in its hometown. The names for the strains—Go, Relax, Relief, Balance—evoke spa treatments more than, say, reefer madness. And that’s intentional.
Tokyo Smoke “wants to bring a beautiful, design-oriented approach to the [marijuana] industry” and “a full retail consumer experience around the product,” DeGrasse says. “It starts with a place like this. You can have some coffee, you can have some food. But you can also feel safe and have a great time buying some cool cannabis paraphernalia.”
And maybe soon, some kind bud.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.