Union Square Travel Agency: A Cannabis Store opened New York’s third Manhattan-based adult-use dispensary Feb. 13, armed with an easily accessible location and a professional, knowledgeable staff to set it apart from not only the other state-licensed cannabis retailers, but also the still-thriving illicit shops in the state.
The store is a block from Union Square Park and next to the Union Square subway station, which Union Square Travel Agency CEO Paul Yau estimates more than 30 million passengers pass through each year.
“From a location perspective, that’s great, but then when you couple the proximity with the professionalism and knowledge of our staff, we’re set up to educate, but we’re also set up to get a large mass of people through,” Yau says. “Between pre-orders, in-store shopping, and we’re soon to launch delivery, … we can turn people around in a matter of minutes. There are no long lines. People can come in, they can get educated, and they can get out. So, that combination together with what we believe is the largest product portfolio in the state is just an amazing combination.”
Yau and Arana Hankin-Biggers, Union Square Travel Agency’s president, connected a few years ago through Hankin-Biggers’ former colleague in the real estate industry. The group wanted to partner with a nonprofit organization that serves those most negatively impacted by the war on drugs to apply for a Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) license in New York.
Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled the state’s Seeding Opportunity Initiative last year to prioritize those most impacted by cannabis prohibition in the adult-use licensing process. Part of that plan included issuing the first CAURD licenses to those with past cannabis-related convictions.
New York’s Cannabis Control Board (CCB) awarded the first 36 CAURD licenses in November to 28 qualifying individuals and eight nonprofit organizations. Regulators then issued an additional 30 CAURD licenses in late January to 28 more qualifying individuals and two nonprofit organizations, bringing the total number of CAURD licensees to 66.
The CCB ultimately plans to issue up to 175 total CAURD licenses to as many as 150 individuals and 25 nonprofits.
There are currently four operational adult-use dispensaries in New York; Housing Works Cannabis Co. opened the first cannabis retail outlet in December, Smacked LLC began serving consumers in late January and Just Breathe opened for business in upstate New York in mid-February, just days before Union Square Travel Agency opened in New York City.
Union Square Travel Agency’s CAURD license is held by The Doe Store, a subsidiary of The Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides paid work, housing and other support services to homeless and formerly incarcerated men in New York City. While The Doe Store holds the license and owns 51% of the operation, Harbour Community owns 49% and manages the day-to-day operation of the dispensary.
“We interviewed a lot of not-for-profits across the state over a long period of time,” Hankin-Biggers says of Harbour Community’s journey to partnering with The Doe Fund. “We finally connected with The Doe Fund at the end of this journey. We had a really great connection with them, and we loved the work they’d been doing. They’d made the greatest impact, we thought, in New York State with regards to supporting formerly incarcerated Black and Latino men.”
The majority of all profits from the dispensary go toward The Doe Fund and its initiatives.
“We all felt strongly that The Doe Fund should focus on what they’re good at: providing supportive services, additional housing and paid employment to formerly incarcerated and formerly homeless Black and Latino men in New York and beyond,” Hankin-Biggers says. “And our team is comprised of incredibly seasoned, experienced folks from the cannabis space who can focus on maximizing revenues in this location to ensure that we have significant funding to redirect to The Doe Fund.”
Ensuring Long-Term Growth
Union Square Travel Agency is taking several steps to differentiate the store and set the company up for long-term success in New York’s constantly expanding adult-use cannabis market.
The team is currently working with Leong Leong, a New York-city based architecture firm that has designed contemporary art museums, housing projects and more, to build out its permanent storefront, which is expected to open this summer.
“Their whole approach is designing spaces that help to bring communities together,” Hankin-Biggers says. “The idea is to create a space that allows for consumers to learn about the various different New York State brands, to learn about cannabis, to learn about the various properties of cannabis [and] cannabinoids, and to have more of an intense, … experiential retail experience. … We’re working with this really cutting-edge designer to create that fun, immersive space that allows consumers to feel as though they’re transported when they enter the store, and also to elevate the shopping experience.”
The Union Square Travel Agency team is working to distinguish the store from the illicit smoke shops that still exist in New York.
“If the illicit market wasn’t there, the growth would be much more aggressive because the illicit market is able to do a lot of marketing [that regulated shops can’t],” Yau says. “They don’t pay tax and they don’t have the pricing that we have to abide by. … We’re on this ramp up on the legal side, where we’re slowly activating other consumers, as well. I actually do think that more legal stores that get open will be great for the overall industry in New York.”
Union Square Travel Agency currently carries more than a dozen brands and nearly 200 SKUs, with new brands coming in each week.
Flower, prerolls and edibles comprise most of the dispensary’s sales, Yau says.
Growing the business is one of the company’s main goals, Hankin-Biggers says, but the team is also focused on consumer education, supporting local brands and, ultimately, diminishing the illicit market.
“The industry is in its infancy and it’s very collegiate amongst the legal side,” Yau says. “There are not many retail dispensaries. We feel like we know the majority of the growers. … We’re all trying to help each other out and grow as an industry. New York is a cannabis city. Everyone uses cannabis, but people aren’t necessarily as informed about cannabis, so we’re excited about … the opportunity to educate the market. We’ve been very vocal about the benefits of the plant, to help them understand at a more nuanced level.”
The budtenders on staff at Union Square Travel Agency are “the most informed in the legal market,” Hankin-Biggers says. They attend week-long training as part of their onboarding process, and the program has been created by the company’s head of retail, who has experience with nearly a dozen other dispensary launches.
“[The budtenders] are incredibly excited, enthusiastic and really quite knowledgeable about every single product that we have in our dispensary and how to direct the consumer to make sure that they are purchasing the products to meet their needs and they don’t have bad experiences,” Hankin-Biggers says.
The team plans to continue outreach efforts to New York’s cannabis cultivators and brands as more operators come online, carefully curating the dispensary’s products as the market continues to grow.
“Then, it’s just getting the word out and marketing to the consumers in New York City and trying to help to educate folks and be very clear that we are a licensed, safe option and trying to distinguish ourselves from the illicit smoke shops,” Hankin-Biggers says.