Mr. Sherbinski Goes to Beverly Hills
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There may be no surer sign of how far cannabis has come than the fact that, very soon, you’ll be able to buy luxury marijuana accessories at the Barneys New York store in Beverly Hills. And while we take a moment to enjoy that, we thought we’d check in with Mario Guzman, founder of the cannabis-and-lifestyle brand Sherbinskis, which is helping to launch this store-within-a-store, known as the High End. Guzman also has plans to open his own dispensary in the mega-hip Fairfax district of LA in the coming months.
This is a far cry from the days when Guzman had to assume the name "Mr. Sherbinski" to protect his identity and family. Back then, cannabis was less accepted -- despite the passage of Prop 215, which legalized medical use and sale in California. But Guzman's influence in the Bay Area was still enormous. His potent strains Gelato and Sunset Sherbert caused a cult-like, word-of-mouth following among hip hop artists and entertainers.
Now Guzman's out in the open, running his thriving business, Sherbinskis, out of San Francisco, where hippie values meet hip-hop culture, and he still embodies the “love your brother” benevolence of the former while curating the fashion-forward branding of the latter. Mario may come from the world of hip hop, but when it comes to cannabis he preaches the gospel.
You created a brand that resonated quickly with the hip hop world and with the entertainment community overall. How did that come about?
I happened to be in San Francisco fifteen years ago, and the best weed in the world was from California, Humboldt County. And so I had access to these awesome genetics, and I had a good work ethic, so I was able to grow good weed. The Bay Area is a pretty small community, especially the music industry, and so B-Legit and these people, we’d go to their studios, give them a little bit, enough for them to create and to tap into where their spirit comes out. When they’re feeling themselves, it comes out in their recordings, and so it created this bond between us. And it’s not like we were paying them [artists] to say it, but they were excited to have that experience and to speak about it. People would go, “Have you heard the new Calvin Harris song?” And it was (from "Slide"), “She swallowed the bottle while I sit back and smoke Gelato.” Calvin Harris is global, and I’d be driving around and hear it, and realize the whole thing had gotten way bigger than me.
All these years later the market is legal, at least in California. How does that impact what Sherbinskis is doing?
It’s changing in a positive way for me. There aren’t a lot of people who’ve been in the business as long as I have, and I see the challenges ahead, but I also see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we’ll be able to run our business the way it should be run. Our local government bodies are figuring out solutions to legal questions, to banking, to all kinds of regulatory concerns. We know they don’t have it all figured out, but we do wanna say, “Hey, we’re here and we want to help.”
Speaking of legalization, do you have a particular leaning toward recreational or medicinal use?
It’s all about helping people, man. You can’t trivialize that. The cancer patient needs to have access, and so does the 21-year old who wants to have fun with his friends. We have receptors in our brains that are specifically, genetically designed to connect with this plant. I’m not the most sophisticated person, but no one can question my passion; when you sit with a roomful of strangers and smoke a joint, suddenly you’re connected in a way you weren’t before. And that can be spiritual, it can be an evolution of consciousness, musicians tapping into an energy….In hip hop, cannabis is the missing element, it’s the elephant in the room, and I want to talk about it. We hosted a Grammy afterparty with about 200 people, and we had tins of pre-rolls next to the bar, and there was a vibe; everyone was having a good time, and we were able to develop relationships with these people. Quincy Jones pulled out a vape — it was my strain, Sunset Sherbert — and I’m a fan, and he was a great guy, and my head exploded a little.
When you look at your success, how much of it has to do with the plants, the people, the packaging?
The proof’s in the pudding. You can fool a stoner once into buying your product, but you can’t fool him twice. Just keep putting out a good product and stand behind it. We gave money-back guarantees, and I actually met a couple of people I’m still friends with by going and making things right with people, making them happy. I still don’t want one single person to be unhappy, I want to make things right even if I have to go take care of it in person.
Inevitably, we’ll see large corporations get into the business. Does that bother you, the gentrification of cannabis?
About four years ago, when I decided I wanted to bring investors in and support legalization, I knew that in any business, other more structured companies are gonna come in. And rather than think of it as a bad thing, I just figured if they didn’t have the proper experience to grow, it gave us an advantage. Because with us, it’s our culture.
Did you ever envision your products finding their way into Barneys in Beverly Hills?
Yeah, for sure. When I started hanging around with people in the hip hop community, I was just a farmer in jeans, but I would notice that these artists and athletes were wearing expensive shoes, it was their business suit, and I understood that I had to present myself a certain way in that world. You could be cut from different cloths, but the clothing you wear connects you. With Barneys, it’s about perception, it’s about branding, and so if I want to be a forward thinker in this industry, if I want to go from a cannabis brand to a lifestyle brand, how can I do that, too? Tiffany’s has its blue. With (Sherbinskis) orange, it’s the most powerful spiritual color in India, it’s the most prominent color at temples, and it ended up playing more of a branding role than we thought. When you can say to someone, “We’re in Barneys,” it means something. Now , when people think of cannabis, they don’t associate it with crime. No one got the term “designer cannabis,” but they’re getting it now.
What would you tell other cannabis entrepreneurs looking to make that leap toward becoming a lifestyle brand?
If you keep things true and real and honest, you never have to recreate your brand. You never have to find “what’s next.” Being authentic attracts people to you and to what you’re doing. Tell your story: You care about the planet, or the science, or people, or whatever your connection is to the industry. Follow that passion and that drive, and when someone tells you that can’t do something, you know you’re probably on the right track.