Anthony Lotti, chief executive officer (CEO) and co-founder of Earth & Ivy, located on George Street in Downtown New Brunswick, said he and his co-owners initially came up with the idea for the company through their mutual interest in cannabis and shared experiences as NCAA Division I athletes at the University of Pennsylvania.
As student-athletes, they observed that injuries were often treated with potent pharmaceutical medicines while cannabis use was stigmatized in society, especially within the athletic community, Lotti said.
"We wanted to build a brand around this and make cannabis use normalized and introduce it to a new demographic that might not have been introduced to the cannabis space before," he said. "Our goal was to bridge the gap between professionalism and cannabis culture."
Lotti said that they chose to start their company in New Brunswick due to the city's warm reception toward the legal cannabis industry. In contrast, more than half of New Jersey municipalities voted against cannabis dispensaries opening in their towns.
He said Earth & Ivy offers various types of recreational cannabis products and that the brand is particularly excited that the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) has recently proposed the sale of cannabis-infused baked goods, drinks and other edible foods.
Regarding regulations unique to the cannabis industry, Lotti said that the company approached rules from the CRC and other compliance areas with full transparency.
He said that differences between state and federal cannabis legislation posed challenges with banking and financing unique to cannabis-related businesses.
Lotti said that while Earth & Ivy acknowledges Rutgers students aged 21 and older as a customer base, it also recognizes the cannabis ban on Rutgers property and does not intend to push boundaries established by the University.
He said that he advises Rutgers students of legal age to be cautious of purchasing unregulated cannabis products and instead choose legal dispensaries that carry safe, tested products.
"The branding of our store and the branding of our company (is) being able to blend the two worlds together, stoner culture and professionalism — bridging those two things together is something very unique that you're not going to really see anywhere else," he said.
Puffin, also located on George Street in Downtown New Brunswick, opened in early September after its conception in January 2021.
Nathan Yanovitch, Puffin's co-founder and CEO, said he and his team designed a more playful store environment and hired staff to assist customers regardless of their cannabis knowledge and experience.
"We wanted to make Puffin a little bit different from many of the other dispensaries that we visited that felt a little cold, a little intimidating when you walked in," Yanovitch said.
Within the store, he said it was important for Puffin's staff, whom they call "budtenders," to be well-informed about the types and effects of marijuana to guide customers, given that a notable portion of the store's customers are first-time cannabis buyers.
Puffin also provides promotions and discounts on goods to generate visibility within the surrounding community and lower psychological barriers around entering a dispensary, Yanovitch said.
A sign outside the store advertises a discount for first-time customers and members of the University community. Deals of this nature are a difficult business practice given the high expenses involved in entering the cannabis industry, Yanovitch said.
Alejandro Benjamin, Puffin's director of operations and co-founder, said the store currently offers several mainstream forms of recreational cannabis, and New Jersey as a whole is striving to expand its edible production with evolving regulations.
Similar to Earth & Ivy, Puffin also acknowledges of-age members of the University community as customers while also welcoming consumers from places like Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Johnson and Johnson and local young professionals, Benjamin said.
Yanovitch added that neighboring towns like North Brunswick and East Brunswick are also sources of potential business.
"We always inform our customers to stay off federal property, no schools, beaches, parks or jails," Benjamin said. "That's part of just being a good 'budtender.' I think it's part of knowing your regulations, knowing what you're supposed to say, and informing the consumer."
Yanovitch said that setting lower, more attainable objectives when entering the cannabis industry is helpful due to the market's gradual development.
He said his team is currently seeking their next two locations with the plan to have stores in North, South and Central Jersey in accordance with state regulations that allow all cannabis dispensaries to open up to three stores in the state.
Puffin also has a goal of becoming a grower and manufacturer with a recognizable brand logo, Yanovitch said.
"We really want to be the best at what we do. We love cannabis. We love the industry. We love our state," he said. "We love New Brunswick, and we're going to work as hard as we can for people to walk out and give us amazing reviews. That's the only way it's going to grow."