While many in the fledgling cannabis industry are learning the ropes of new business startups, Green Dragon Co-Op CEO Manny Seferdjian and CTO Glenn Standridge carry more than a decade of experience as professionals in their vertically integrated cultivation operation in North Hollywood, and a decade more in cultivation experience.
With what Standridge calls a “farm-to-table” approach, the business’s 130,000 square feet of canopy spread across three indoor grow/dispensary locations in the state provides products for California’s seasoned cannabis consumer. The company boasted a 4.8-star rating (out of 5) on Weedmaps at press time, and more facility expansions are on the way, Standridge and Seferdjian report.
According to the duo, Green Dragon’s success has been largely a result of word-of-mouth marketing, as well as putting their own stock in the fine-tuning and sanitation of their grow room environments for product improvement and consistency.
Here, they speak with Cannabis Business Times’ Managing Editor Cassie Neiden about how they’ve built a sustainable cultivation operation that they’re confident will stand up to the expanding California market and its price fluctuations.
Cassie Neiden: Can you share a brief background of your business?
Glenn Standridge: We’re primarily a farm-to-table company, so we grow most of what we dispense. Not everything—if we see something amazing, we want to carry it as well—but that is [where] we come from as [cultivators]. I’ve personally been cultivating since 1996 on a commercial scale and then was working with many dispensaries in the Bay Area, which is where I’m from, for many years. When the Los Angeles market opened up, [Manny and I] started this, and we’ve been cultivating ever since. So we have a large, on-site cultivation here at the dispensary, … and our company also has approved cultivations in Cathedral City as well as Desert Hot Springs. … We’ve been in operation since 2006, and we’ve moved twice, but this final location we’ve been in for about five years.
Neiden: I’ve heard that your business has a significant focus on environmental controls. Will you talk about that?
Standridge: [It’s important to keep] the grows dry when the lights are off because that’s what it really comes down to. Most of the time in these controlled environments, when the lights are on, they don’t need as much help. … Environmental controls for us mean maintaining a static environment. When the lights turn off, the air conditioners are your biggest dehumidifiers; they are .. [what] pull the water out of the air. So when they stop working as hard because the lights are no longer on and generating that heat, that’s when [our dehumidifiers] really come in.
… [If a mold or pest problem results from high humidity], you’re not going to be able to lean on what commercial agriculture does—really heavy pesticides and herbicides. … As a cultivator, we really have to look at environment. ... [But] each dehumidifier inherently adds heat into the room, which—when you’re in an area like us, where it’s 120 degrees [Fahrenheit] during the summer—you do not want heat. … We spent $40,000 to $50,000 retrofitting something we already owned just because [Quest] made a better [dehumidification] product for our market. For our business, this is mission-critical stuff.
Neiden: How does environmental control reflect consumers’ satisfaction with the product?
Standridge: For us, we’re cultivating farm-to-table. If we make a mistake [or] if we catch mold, we either can’t sell it or it sells way, way slower. So being on the dispensary side, the benefit it gives us is that instant reaction, if that makes sense. Imagine being a cocktail maker, and you’re making these drinks you want to sell in a major store nationwide; it’d be a lot more helpful if you were at a bar serving drinks and found out what the majority of people liked on a daily basis.
[For us], that comes back to environmental controls. We spend so much time on it, because … we have a finicky consumer, and we’re in the largest cannabis market in the world [in California], [and we’re seeing that] environmental controls are the only way [to improve your cannabis product]. …
Everything else from pest to bugs, those are things that can be dealt with IPM (integrated pest management) strategies. But really, [it's important to ask], 'Can you alter the environment?' Because, for example, if you have a bug that doesn’t like cold, you can drop the rooms to a temperature in which the bugs don’t do well at night. There are all types of things you can do that do not require chemicals. That’s where we’re going [as an industry], because who knows what kind of chemical they’re going to tell us we can or can’t use in the next three to five years? … But when you’re growing these plants, and they start testing them on that level, the ppb [parts per billion], which is now the standard in California, putting anything into them other than exactly what they need to perform is just a really big risk. In our model out here, our entire crop is going to be held if something is wrong with it. … And that is where environmental control saves us.
Neiden: After you brought in this new dehumidifier/cooler and you retrofitted, what were some immediate results you saw?
Standridge: We started to see, overall, colder temperatures in rooms. Previously, it was like a [having a] localized heater. [If] you put a heater in the corner of a room, it’s not going to heat that whole room up—it heats that corner up, and … you’re not going to have an even crop if you have a heater in a corner. So we immediately saw an evenness, we immediately saw a load off of the air conditioners, and in real time, we were able to see the environment change based on our actual sensors. … When you go up in temperature, you tend to go up in humidity. So the lower you can keep the temperature, the easier it is to control the water in the air. But definitely, the [reduction of] heat overall is what we saw, and heat with cannabis plants causes stretch, and stretch causes bud that the consumer does not like.
Neiden: What does your IPM program look like now?
Standridge: We needed less [since] our environment got more in line. We had a regimen before, and when the environment wasn’t right, we would see signs of things we didn’t like. So maybe we wouldn’t get a fungus or a disease, but we would see the start of it [then decide] we’d get everything out, bleach it again.
We still keep [the regimen] in rotation, but I think we lean on it less. … With the environment [controlled], we’re not seeing the signs that we saw before … all the way through all stages: from our propagation stages, through our veg stages to our flower rooms, [our environmental control products are] even in our curing and drying rooms. … To put that in reference, I would say 99.999 percent of people stick a $250 machine in there when they’re curing cannabis, and we opted to [put] the $3,000 machine in there because it works so well. [We use the products] all the way through the growing [cycle, and when] it goes to this last process of drying and curing, we’re not going with something cheap that doesn’t work.
Manny Seferdjian: We have a process to introduce new genetics into our grow rooms. We keep plants [quarantined] for weeks to make sure they don’t catch anything. It’s what you have to do to maintain your clean environment.
Standridge: That’s probably the No. 1 way we keep pests out, is not having random genetics entering the facilities.
Neiden: What do you think sets you apart from the pack as cultivators?
Standridge: … Time and cleanliness. … It might sound funny, but whether it’s sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, cleaning, all of the stuff that doesn’t sound high tech … picking up dead leaves, it’s literally like you walk into somebody’s garden, it either looks meticulous, or it looks like there’s some work to be done. … For us, … trash sitting around, someone not … mopping or bleaching things …, those things in a large facility have cumulative effects … and you get bacteria … at a level that no one should have to get to.
Neiden: Let’s shift gears to marketing. Green Dragon does have a website, and a Weedmaps rating, but there’s not a huge online presence. Why not?
Seferdjian: We have been marketing, just kind of quietly, … because everything was so chaotic for so long—and it’s still kind of chaotic, but it’s settling down now.
Standridge: Advertising was pretty much frowned upon by the authorities. … [Years ago], we would grow a lot of things, and we were winning competitions, but we didn’t want to take credit just because we didn’t want the actual mention. We were already a successful dispensary and had large numbers of people coming every day. There was a point where we were going to reach maximum [capacity] anyways, and we didn’t want to—for a lack of a better [phrase]—put ourselves on the map if we didn’t have to.
… [When] people come to Green Dragon, they’re aware of things that Green Dragon cultivates, and ... we know, because we don’t market, [that] our marketing is literally word of mouth.
There’s a disconnect we’re seeing in our industry where people are cultivating on a mass scale, but they’re cultivating for what they think demand is going to be—not what people actually like or want. So that’s something where [consumer-facing strategies like] farm-to-table and vertical integration really give you the ability to … win the battle there.
Neiden: Speaking of consumer preferences, in your opinion, what makes a really good strain?
Standridge: If you were talking from the growing point of view, I could go on for an hour. But unfortunately, … one of the things we have to say, above all, that is that people like it. Because I would like to say, ‘A heavy-branching plant that clones easily and grows fast; but the reality is that plants that people want grow slow, clone hard and need a whole bunch more attention than a regular plant. That comes back to grower IQ. If your cultivator IQ is high enough, you can make a plant that’s not really designed to kick out large numbers and put it on a production schedule. … But in our experience, it ultimately [is a reality that] people will end up liking the one that doesn’t grow right, that catches all the damn diseases, and that’s the one we have to grow. As weird as it is, that’s what it comes down to.
I’ll give you an example. Gorilla Glue is a famous strain that’s out. It is a really easy cultivator. If you cultivate it, … you fall in love with it. It does everything we talked about: It grows, it branches, it yields, it looks crystally, it resists pests—I mean, everything. But people don’t want it!
I’m waiting for that one that grows really good that does all those things. [laughs]
Neiden: What do you believe is the best decision you’ve made as a business?
Standridge: We invested in our own greens over and over again. ... We don’t have a big corporate structure or a bunch of investors because we figured out how to pretty much do it on our own. Instead of driving around Ferraris, we’re buying new grow rooms, and trying to put in new technology and rebuilding the places that we have [already rebuilt] three times over. If you truly love something and you put back into it, the best decision is to continue chugging. It’s crazy, but people now say, ‘Oh, the price of marijuana is going down.’ I got in in 1996, and the prices kept going down! If you got better, and you figured out what to grow, then it worked. … Now we’re nimble, and we’re in places where we feel that if the market expands, and prices contract, we’re still going to be in a really good situation.
Neiden: How do think the cultivation market in California will evolve in the coming years now that adult-use has been legalized?
Seferdjian: I think there’s going to be a lot of money, a lot of failures. … We’re seeing it now, people coming in, and they’re building things with other people’s money. … [There’s] no limits, and at the end, they’ll have no regrets as well, because it’s not their money.
Like any market that is new, people are going to think about getting in. In a year or so, it’ll stabilize. … I don’t know how it’s going to play out, how many growers [there will be], but not as many as everybody thinks.
Standridge: [Cultivators are coming from] Washington state or Colorado into our market, even though they’re already successful [in their own] businesses. The model [here in California] is going to change on them so much.
I don’t know where that’s going to [take] us. We feel confident because we’re on home turf.