The Full Interview with John Kaye from Burb
Updated: Mar 6, 2022
An icon of Canadian Cannabis retailing, Burb has leveraged their private label product collection to grow their brand authentically since 2018. Starting with simple rolling papers, Burb now operates 3 stores in BC, has 3 more licensed, a loyal fan base, and international stockists.
Here is the full text of Burning Tree's interview with John Kaye (JK) from Burb:
It was great to connect with you via Justin through The Woods because I'm working extensively with them on their product development, both private label and bespoke. But prior to all of that, one my first retail clients was Edition. I think that was probably the first time your name was on my radar. Burb is such a highly respected brand across the country so it's awesome to make the connection with you and chat a bit about it.
JK: Yeah, much love. Happy to connect. Yeah, I love The Woods and what Justin and the crew are building there.
BT: They actually had reached out to me because of some of the work I had done with Edition. I'm really appreciating how they're leveraging product to grow their brand. You know, what they're building in terms of using the store for sales data to understand demand and then building on that with their own bespoke products to build a loyal fan base. I'm convinced they are gonna do well.
JK: It just takes like time and, you know, community building and just being there. Not many owners like hanging out at the shop all the time. He's there. He's putting out the vibe and really building a real connection.
BT: So, to start, I wanted to say that I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today. I don't know how much you know about Burning Tree, but my background is product design and product development for the last 18 years. The last five had been spent exclusively in cannabis, kicking off with a role as Head of Product Development at Tokyo smoke, pre-legalization, pre-Canopy, all of that. I built out their private label product line, built out the Van der Pop product line, and all as a team of one. From sketching, to prototyping, to sourcing, I had to go and actually find the vendors to manufacture the produces to stock the two cafes at the time. Balancing competitive retail cost against the MOQ is obviously very important. But from that, was that supply chain that I'm still using today for Burning Tree’s manufacturing & sourcing.
JK: Is Burning Tree a brand?
BT: Burning Tree is my design studio. I founded it four years ago now and I'm servicing retailers with private label bespoke product development, on the producer side vanity & compliant packaging & labeling. On the agency side, we build out any sort of physical product needs that they. The strength in each market segment is being able to go from an idea, to a sketch, move into sourcing, and end up with product on a shelf. It's a turnkey service, that's really what Burning Tree does.
JK: Well congrats.
BT: Thanks, man. Yeah, it's been good. I'm proud of the work that we've the work that we've done. I think what's really interesting about Burb, is in a market that is so saturated and so competitive, your products are being carried in other cannabis stores. Competitors are carrying your product in store because the stuff looks really great and the brand is known and has a great reputation. But I think the fact that a Cannabis retailer in the Canadian market would carry a competitor’s products in their stores is a pretty significant win.
JK: Yeah, I mean retail was our starting point out here in BC. But the thought process was always to build a consumer brand. So it is an interesting dynamic, and I feel like I'm definitely wearing two hats, one retail and one product. People that are our competitors, you know out West, are also our customers in Ontario.
BT: So what did the timeline look like when you said you went from Burb as a Cannabis brand to Burb as a Cannabis retailer?
JK: It was late 2017, early 2018. My partner, Clayton and I had a cannabis testing lab. We're like legacy crew from out here in BC but we had our first sort of jump into the legal market through testing labs. So myself and Clayton, linked up with one other guy and we built a testing lab in Langley, BC. It was just a small little lab and we got a controlled substance dealer license from Health Canada, so it was licensed to test. We did that for like two and a half years, and later that lab was bought by Emerald Health. Then around 2018, we just saw this wave of corporate big money coming in and we were like, “Let's build a brand for the people, for the culture.” We felt that retail would be a great avenue to do that.
Our stores in BC are like the Cookies model where everything is just Burb in the store. We don't have any other brands in there. I mean we sell other brands, but we don't do trade marketing or anything like that. It's less of a liquor store model and more of a slick branded retail space similar to Tokyo Smoke or Tweed. So in 2018, we opened our first two shops and have since opened our third one. Right now we have three more under construction, so we have six licenses and 10 leases. So our plan is to just continue building stores in BC and then outside of BC just focus on product.
BT: I think there is this whole play of leveraging product to build your brand. Leveraging product to increase sales, increase revenue, increase profit? As well, increase marketing reach by having your brand on a vape pen in a park somewhere that someone else can see is creatively compliant marketing. Like it why aren't we all doing this?
JK: It's like a walking billboard on the apparel side. It is something that I had experience in previously because I was in the denim industry for a minute in my early 20s. We had a company, had a brand, and we were doing wholesaling for TJX group which is like Ross and Winners stores. So, I really learned the cuts and the end-to-end clothing business. It was after that, that I was like I'm never fucking doing this again. I just don't want anything to do with it and then lo and behold here we are doing it again. You learn a lot of lessons and you know and now we have a better team.
BT: My worry had been with Canada and federal legalization that if we aren’t putting the gas pedal to the floor to build compelling brands, as soon as the US flips, the Canadian market just isn’t going to be interesting.
JK: It’s not interesting right now.
BT: True, true.
JK: I don't know if you've been following BC retail but the government is the wholesaler, they have their own shops, and now they're offering delivery from their own stores.
BT: I didn't know those like details. I knew something had changed with respect to branded products or products outside of cannabis being allowed in stores now.
JK: We can't sell Burb out here because we have our shops. We are selling in Ontario and we just submitted for Alberta, we are in Nova Scotia, but BC's not having it because we got the shops.
BT: An interesting time for sure. So now going from late 2017, early 2018 when legalization happened, when did you then decide to get into cannabis retail?
JK: Right away. We were one of the first. Yeah, we were in that first wave of BC retailers that got licensed right out of the gate. I think the brand has been supported by real relationships and the brand has always been tied heavily to music. I'm a musician and as a touring musician, I have a lot of friends, producers and just genuine, real relationships that have transferred over. These relationships ultimately led to the brand getting love. You know, on the West coast, we got we got really strong ties to the East Coast. One of our shareholders is Kevin Liles who is a 300 Entertainment record label guy, we've got him on the East coast. But it's all kind of been around these music circles and then just being in the streets. You know dropping packs and making sure people get their weed and yeah, just real hustle shit.
BT: So in all of that then, the authenticity is really baked in. Why did you prioritize product? Why was that an important part of this cannabis retail brand?
JK: Yeah, because it was the only thing that we could put our logo on in the really early days. Because we were passionate about apparel and we knew how to do it anyways, it made sense to go out and do it, but with quality. We saw the merch and the swag out there and its in your gym bag and in the trash pretty much like, after the first one or two times you're wearing it. So it's really just a waste of stuff. We wanted to bring a different aspect to it. We wanted to go a bit cleaner with it, match the whole aesthetic of the brand, which is more neutral and kind of clean, you know, calming sort of vibes. And then for accessories are just naturally the two ancillary products that you can put out and convey some type of brand loyalty.
BT: Yeah. And that would have been right around when I was working at Tokyo Smoke and like bringing their products to life.
JK: Yeah, like the early days Tokyo Smoke stuff was just like shapes.
BT: Yeah, it was a bit esoteric, and kind of hard for the average person to be really understand. I think the approach that Burb had with you guys using people, lifestyle, and demonstrating the products make the brand are easier to align with.
JK: We're completely just trying to bring legacy into the market. How do you even create the awareness that you exist when we're competing against people that don't have marketing restrictions, right?
BT: In the conversations I've had with retailers out here, Burb's product is often cited as good examples of private label. That is the stuff that resonated, because it was like beautifully designed. People are always like, "check out what Burb’s doing." So, to me, that really served its purpose of doing all that marketing for you. It had a reach far outside of any other marketing would have done and I'm sure the time could have even contemplated doing. You're now still doing product, so there's still an importance of continuing to build that product line as the business and the brand starts to grow.
JK: Yeah, for sure. I think we are looking at wholesale. We have wholesaled into Ontario, into cannabis stores. We've wholesaled to a streetwear shop in Japan. We think this is a big opportunity. We're kind of short on bandwidth to focus on it right at the moment. But yeah, we've had like celebrities wear the stuff it's helped tremendously with just the awareness and clout and hype to promote the brand. We're going to continue to make accessories and we're going to continue to release collections. They will be backed with campaigns and full type of rollouts, really mimicking fashion using those moments through apparel drops to create that feeling that people have when they see the word, Burb and logo. Ultimately our main focus is really create that love for that visual and have it mean something and have it be associated to something.
BT: So, what did you guys do for product development early on? Who was doing that for you? Did you guys have that resource internal?
JK: Yeah, pretty much all the products just come from me. We have a team now, but yeah, in the early days, it was just me. But it is a really good marketing thing and we've talked to some people like Chris, who was Burner’s partner on Cookies’ apparel. They have the model to follow. They've gone wholesale and they're in non-cannabis shops and would not wholesale to head shops, only clothing stores. They do all the fucking classic shit, drop a collection just sell it out right away.
BT: That's really impressive. Well, you know, Burning Tree plug here, if you need any of gaps filled, happy to have a conversation at some point down the road about it. Because custom product and private label goods are what Burning Tree does.
JK: Ya, I’d like to explore more what you guys do, for sure. What are you doing for The Woods?
BT: So right now we are doing their full private label collection: cones, papers, etc. On the custom product side, a family of hard good accessories and soft good item in leather. But yeah, it's a combination of bespoke development and then some private label stuff for them.
JK: So yeah, apparel. We were literally getting fabric, shipping it over here. My guys got a clothing factory here. We were working with the local pattern maker. We have patterns for our designs. We would like to do full cuts, sew, trim. And now with this last collection we went overseas and its like night and day for headaches and costs. Some of the stuff, like we have this flame collection, if you try to do that locally its just impossible.
BT: What was your first Burb branded product?
JK: First private label product was rolling papers. We still use the same manufacturer for rolling papers. Our rolling papers are loved. I've actually introduced like Emerald Cup people to the same manufacturer. We started making hoodies pretty quickly, just the basics in some of our neutral color tones. But then we weren't allowed to sell any apparel in our stores until like, three months ago.
BT: So, the accessories could live there, but not the apparel because they weren't directly supporting consumption.
JK: For a long time, we were like, people were coming in to get their weed and then we would do like cash for the hoodies at the Starbucks around the corner.
BT: That is pretty funny. So I haven't been I haven't actually been out to Vancouver in a few years but I and I think I heard you say that right now, going into a Burb store, you're not going to find RAW papers aren't in there. OCB is not in there. It is like through and through, Burb everything. That should be the goal and Cannabis retailers.
JK: If you want to be pure retail. But our goal is to be a products company. Retail is something that is experiential, and it's great. I feel like that's really how you can like grow a brand and take it, you know, international through licensing deals.
BT: Yeah, I find it frustrating. It's like, everyone's carrying standard products, why would you carry the same thing as them? You can private label your products at the same or better quality and have your brand on it.
JK: It is just a big undertaking for a lot of pure retail people that are like, “Oh, we got these shops. This is the business, you know, we're not trying to become a consumer brand.” That is more of an access point idea. It's a different business model and there's nothing wrong with it.
BT: John, do you know, for Burb stores, what portion of revenue is driven by the private label products? Do you know if it's significantly higher than what an average store would be doing?
JK: I don't know. I think it's tiny. We mainly just sell weed. Flower is big for us. Everything else kind of pales in comparison. We sell them but I mean, nothing compared to what we do in weed.
BT: What advice would you give an average retailer in BC, or Alberta, or Ontario, in terms of how to private label successfully?
JK: It's not an easy business and for the most part in Canada, you're all selling the same products. So, anything you can do to differentiate yourself and build that consumer loyalty to want to come to your shop. I think like community is big, private label products is big. So yeah, it's a really great thing to do to free advertising. If you even give away a pack of rolling papers, like that's sitting on someone's kitchen table for potentially weeks depending on their consumption, but like every time they're going to use something, they're seeing your logo there. So next time, they're deciding and they have like, 10 stores around them, you know where they're going to go. I mean, yeah, it's trying to get the edge right to try and have someone come back, create some type of loyalty.
BT: I think what I really love about products like that, too, is like, it doesn't matter where you buy the weed from, at the end of the day, it's all getting put into Burb papers, right? It's kind of like that last touch point, regardless of what's been put inside of it.
JK: It’s so cheap. I’m sure, you know, rolling papers are one of the most effective marketing opportunities.
BT: Yeah, marketing through private label product.
JK: Yeah. I mean, that's where we'll head to with a wholesale route. We just need to find the right people. It requires salespeople frankly to open up those accounts, because I think we have a good portfolio. Now we have like our line sheets are pretty full. If we had someone to drive sales and approach stores there is definitely a wholesale opportunity, and then we could devote more mindshare to.
BT: Yes, for less than $2 there's almost no cost to doing it.
JK: Yeah. I think it's part of a marketing budget. That kind of stuff like papers and grinders and trays. Literally just give it away to your key customers. You know, delight them when they're buying something. Hey, here's a free pack of rollies. That goes a long way.
BT: Thank you so much for time John. I really appreciate it. It's great talk to you and meet you.