Imagine being the head of a sales team at Google before the age of 30, making more money than you could ever imagine, travelling the world, and basking in the halo effect of telling people you work for such a prestigious company.
Now, imagine giving it all up, without a real plan, to start a cannabis-centred lifestyle brand.
That’s exactly what Toronto young professional Alan Gertner did when he realized that his so-called “dream job” just wasn’t fulfilling anymore – and he has no regrets.
If you live in Toronto and have a thing for caffeine, cool apparel, or weed (or all of the above), you may have heard of Tokyo Smoke. Located in a shipping dock in between two buildings (850b Adelaide St W), it serves as both a gourmet coffee bar for a creative set of clientele and a showroom for the Tokyo Smoke brand (which is about to become a lot more renown).
The brand is comprised of quality coffee, apparel, and luxury pot-smoking paraphernalia that is designed to “elevate the cannabis experience,” as Gertner says. This experience is one that he refers to multiple times throughout our conversation as “delightful” or “refined.”
“It’s got a long way to go. There are a lot of pot smokers out there for whom the traditional Rasta-inspired or the existing weed culture doesn’t appeal,” says Gertner. At Tokyo Smoke, the belief is that weed smoking should be a refined experience if you want it to be. “Just because it’s cannabis-related doesn’t mean that the product should hold to a different standard,” he says.
Though not available in the Toronto spot right now on account of its illegality, the company produces four different strains of marijuana, which will soon make their way South of the Border to future locations in Washington, California, and Oregon.
Each strain – Go, Relax, Release, and Balance – will do something different for you. “We want to bring a degree of simplicity and clarity to the cannabis process,” Gertner says. “The differing experiences is one of the most exciting things about pot that I think people may not necessarily know. There’s a kind of cannabis that gives you energy; there’s a kind that makes you sleepy; there’s the kind that simply relieves pain, and so on. We’re trying to bring simplicity, clarity, and a bit of beauty to that world.”
When it comes to cannabis, it’s not a new world for Gertner. His father was the founder of a company called Cannasat Therapeutics, the first publicly traded cannabis company in Canada, and serves as a huge source of inspiration.
Of course, it’s not just about the cannabis-related offerings. Tokyo Smoke apparel (currently only available for men) is designed for the guy who “has great taste, who believes in beautiful and well-made clothing, and will go out of their way to have really great experiences with products,” says Gertner. The clothing is also found at GotStyle.
A sign of the times, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “We are entering a new cannabis era where it’s becoming mainstream. We’re at the point where Shoppers Drug Mart has said they’re going to carry medical cannabis; nobody could have imagined that five years ago,” says Gertner.
“We seem to get great feedback because I think we are unique to Toronto,” says Gertner. “The thing about Toronto is that there’s so much main street retail, but we don’t really have a lot of side street retail to offer serendipitous, delightful experiences. So, we’ve had great feedback for building something that’s a bit of a hidden gem that has a bit more of a discovery process.”
On his departure from Google, Gertner says that the biggest challenge was parting with his former identity. “When you work at a big company, especially one as prestigious as Google, that becomes a fundamental part of who you are,” says Gertner. “One of the first questions we inevitably ask someone is ‘what do you do?’ and the transition from saying ‘I work at Google’ to saying that you don’t know what you’re going to do next, or that you’re working on a side project, then building a modern lifestyle brand – that’s a big lifestyle change and a big conversation change.”
He calls this shift a “point of deep introspection.”
He also misses his former Google colleagues. “One of the most amazing parts about working at a big company, especially one like Google with such a great culture, is the quality friendships you develop,” says Gertner. “When you have a small business, it’s a very different experience.”
But that’s not to say he now spends his days sitting around and getting high.
“There’s no typical day,” says Gertner. “We’re still a very new business; we’re just over a year old. For us, I get the privilege of wearing many hats. I get to be a salesperson, a strategy person, an evangelist, a barista, and a PR person. I get to really do everything.”
So, what does his new life offer that Google didn’t?
“The most important change for me is having a more meaningful life,” says Gertner. “There are lots of challenges, but I’m working on content that I love and feeling like I’m making a difference in this revolution. One thing I love about Tokyo Smoke is that we can become stewards of positive change, and that’s more difficult to achieve when you work in a larger company.”