In 2016, we began the long road of creating a fully licensed cannabis manufacturing company. As a startup without access to traditional capital, we needed to get creative. With a wait ahead of us after submitting our original license application, we sought a way to put our time to good use. 2017 saw the creation of Token Bitters, our sister brand.
Token Bitters was started as a way to earn revenue and gain experience with extracts, flavours and supply chain logistics. At the time, Albertans were enjoying a number of locally produced spirits and we saw a unique opportunity to marry them with locally made bitters. Originally a side project, Token Bitters is now its own legal entity and has brought in revenue that we’ve been able to redirect to the build of Token Naturals. The products are sold and served in stores, bars and restaurants across Canada and exported overseas to Japan. Throughout that journey, we enjoyed some wins and learned some valuable lessons that we’ll take with us as we navigate the cannabis product space.
Experience with Extracts
Bitters are made using an ethanol extraction mechanism, pulling specific materials from plants into an ethanol carrier. This is a much-simplified version of the ethanol-based extraction systems that many cannabis manufacturers use to extract cannabinoids. While Token’s cannabis extraction system is much more complex and multifaceted than our bitters protocols, experimenting with the materials and isolating elements of taste and smell gave us a starting point as we waited for our cannabis licensing.
At the very beginning, we were experimenting with flavours and extraction in our CEO Keenan’s garage. Our Food Scientist, Mario Castillo, came on board to refine our extraction process and take it into a more appropriate manufacturing space. Mario’s knowledge of herbs and complex flavour profiles helped us to develop a line of products that were ready for market.
That small scale experimentation gave us experience in creating products that taste good, which is one of the most important factors that customers are considering when purchasing cannabis products. We could assume that our future target market in cannabis would be the kind of people that also drink cocktails, and so we’ve been able to test out new tastes and apply feedback from our customers.
Developing a compliant product that tastes good was only the first step in launching a successful bitters product into the Canadian market. Our founders had a number of connections in the local bar and restaurant scene, so we started with a small retail network and customer base, but without formal sales channels. Building piece by piece, we established sales strategies for the retail liquor industry, including the provincial distribution boards that manage alcohol and cannabis. We then set up several e-commerce channels, including our online store that enabled our customers to buy from us direct. We built our retail network through relationship building, consistent delivery and open communication – these same principles apply as we build our cannabis retail network.
Three years later, our bitters are sold in over 85 retail locations across Canada and are exported to Japan. We’ve previously shared our export journey with the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), which, in addition to the Government of Alberta and Government of Canada, assisted in our international expansion. Exporting our bitters products gave us insight into the protocols and processes of cross-border sales. Most importantly, this has allowed us to build international networking connections to tap into once we are able to export cannabis legally.
Our biggest takeaway from Token Bitters was the importance of community building, which continues to be a core value of ours today. Thanks to the support of the local community, Token quickly became a well-recognized and trustworthy brand.
We’ve made a concerted effort throughout the years to host and attend events to build brand awareness and make connections. By participating in local farmers markets, wine and spirit showcases, and tasting events, we built a following of loyal customers who know us by name. We give back to the community by participating in local charity initiatives and collaborating with local brands.
The entire Token team values relationship building. Our partnerships go beyond transactional. One example of this is in the ongoing partnership with our Japanese importer. After product delivery, we work with them in the market to host events and sales initiatives that support their specific needs. We provide value and support to our partners wherever we can so that everybody wins.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that working collaboratively and going the extra mile to support our partners drive success. As we complete construction on our Edmonton cannabis manufacturing facility, we are looking forward to growing everything we’ve learned in tandem with our partners to come.