Tracing Cookies’ evolution from The Bay to the Big Apple
I first heard about Cookies when I was a high school student in San Francisco. Now, I’m an NYC transplant in awe of the brand’s global takeover.
When I was a teenager in San Francisco, and just a hit or two would send me to space, I heard a rumor about a new strain of weed. It was a local variety, supposedly dense, dank, and delicious. The new strain was called Girl Scout Cookies, bred and distributed by the Cookies family, a local collective of growers and sellers led by local rapper Berner.
As the strain grew in popularity, so did Berner’s profile—along with his business ventures. A few years later, in 2015, Berner launched his first clothing store in the Haight district. The shop sold hoodies and t-shirts marked with the Cookies trademark blue. Much like Tiffany’s jewelry, Berner and co. created an exclusive hue to differentiate the brand’s elite offerings.
When I started working in the cannabis industry in 2015, I’d see people come into the dispensary exclusively to ask about his products—they simply wouldn’t smoke anything else. Over a decade later, both Berner and I are in New York City on Sunday morning for the opening of the five-story Cookies SF retail store in Herald Square.
And that infamous shade of blue and “C” logo are now splashed up and down an entire building that sits across from the world’s largest Macy’s. The building grabs any eye that scans downtown’s drab industrial pallet. The branding is so distinct, some have complained it breaks New York’s law against billboards that advertise cannabis.
As I was interviewing people out front, a curious couple from Toronto approached me. They wanted to know: “What makes Cookies so special?” With Times Square just a 15-minute walk away from the new shop, they won’t be the last tourists to ask that question in passing.
What makes Cookies so special?
For the time being, Cookies SF is the best example of what organic cannabis culture and community looks like on a massive scale. The brand was born in San Francisco and Oakland, where people have an innate nose for authenticity. Much like The Big Apple, if you can make a good impression in The Bay, you can make one anywhere.
The proof is in the products. If Cookies weed wasn’t good, no one would smoke it; If the clothes weren’t hot, no one would wear them; And if Cookies didn’t truly carry the culture, they wouldn’t have made it all the way to the heart of New York City with a line around the block for a store that doesn’t even sell their main product: Cannabis.
There’s simply nothing like it
Any doubts I had about the East Coast embracing Cookies SF were dashed as soon as I rolled up on Sunday. The line was 100-strong, and every pedestrian seemed to pause, as if to wonder, “Am I missing out on something?” I overheard an older woman exclaim that she’d never seen a line like it as she passed by.
Ksea (pronounced Casey, seriously) and Jacob Swift, a couple from Massachusetts, had camped out since Saturday to guarantee their place at the front of the line. “Back home, stuff like this doesn’t happen all the time,” Jacob told me once they’d loaded up on gear, with Ksea adding that “we’ve been following Cookies for a while; we really enjoy the vibes it brings, and the culture.” It was worth the chilly Saturday night they spent outside.
There was a crowd congesting the whole corner, where a giant Madison Square GUMBO bus parked to roll up and light up. Backwood guts littered the block, and frozen chains danced in midday light. Steph V, the CEO of local legacy brand Certz, was posted up with his crew selling weed to all the store patrons who came out the side door.
“I’m from New York,” Steph told me in his unmistakable NYC accent, “And I’m here supporting something New York needs—what the whole East Coast needs. To show that anyone can do it.”
A northern star for East Coast cannabis
For current and aspiring cannabis operators, Cookies is blazing the trail to an organic legal industry. When Cookies entered Florida this August, locals raved that they would finally have access to premium Zaza. California brands like Khalifa Kush and Jungle Boys are right behind Cookies in those emerging markets, among others, bringing an elevated experience that goes beyond the plant itself. Millican told me a London store is in the works to bring the clothing brand to Europe.
The new Cookies NY store is a “Northern Star” for the multifaceted brand, according to Crystal Millican, Cookies’ head of retail, four years in the making. “The clothing side of the business, the music side of the business, and the cannabis side of the business, where we are in terms of the cannabis industry in general, this is a very pioneering opportunity for this brand.”
“It’s not every day you see people tattooing a brand on their bodies for life.”Crystal Millican, head of Cookies retail
Chris Grunge, Cookies SF’s lead designer, felt uncharacteristically nervous on the big day. He told me at a press event at the store on Friday that he, Berner, and a third friend created the Cookies SF brand to serve San Francisco’s eclectic streetwear tastes.
While cannabis collaborations with streetwear and fashion feel fairly commonplace now (Snipes had a pro skate ramp at Rolling Loud, and HUF has recently collaborated with Kiva Confections), they weren’t a decade ago. And to bring a Cali conglomerate to New York City requires high levels of respect.
“Our goals would be to make sure we work with the locals here. Team up with other brands and make sure we’re still relevant and we stick with the culture—what we’ve been trying to do for years now. Just create our own trends. Keep doing that. I think we’ll be okay.”Chris Grunge, Cookies SF designer
Touring Cookies SF’s new five-story NYC store
On the first floor is the retail store, packed with t-shirts, smoking accessories, jackets, pants, and hats. In the center is the proprietary Cookies x Gotti collection, a wearable homage to John Gotti’s legacy that features velour tracksuits, varsity jackets, and faux leather joggers (Last year, Berner released an album titled Gotti with the blessing of the famed mobster’s family).
Berner’s on Haight dispensary has Bay Area locals staffing it, and so does the new Cookies location in Florida. For the New York store, all of the employees I spoke to were native New Yorkers. And all of them were stoked for the opportunity to further their cannabis careers with that blue C on their resume.
Elliot from the Bronx, who now lives in Staten Island, told me he’s followed Berner for a while. He even moved out to the Bay Area for a while to learn more about cannabis and how to bring that prowess back home. When he saw the social media post asking for applicants, he threw his hat in. “In Staten Island, we don’t have anything like this. I already knew the company was good, and everyone here is knowledgeable,” Elliot told me.
Katherine, from Harlem, says her brothers grow weed and got her interested in it, though fashion was her first love. “The two things I really love are fashion and growing weed. As women, a lot of us don’t have a say in apparel,” but Katherine says so far, she has “not felt left out of anything.”
Above the store are two floors of lounges that Millican says will host educational events and perhaps private gatherings for cannabis insiders. They are decked out with plush blue couches and littered with loose leaf from Berner’s rolling paper company, Vibes. Millican told me that they also want these spaces to serve local entrepreneurs who lack the resources to navigate New York’s licensing process.
“Education is a big important thing for us whether or not we have a Cookies store or a dispensary in New York. We feel there’s a lot we can do in terms of supporting social equity and license winners and preparing to own and operate their own dispensary. We’re dedicating some of these floors to the education process and providing business tools from our own experience to anyone else who needs it in New York to get up and running in the cannabis business.”Crystal Millican, head of Cookies retail
After the Cookies U space, floors four and five offer work spaces. But the crown jewel is the rooftop: Which gives visitors the freedom to smoke a jay while admiring Gotham’s bustling cityscape.
Even as a Cali transplant, it’s truly surreal to light a blunt above thousands of tourists and locals running around Midtown knowing that the law is on your side. There were also free mushroom chocolate bars and gummies for VIPs, courtesy of Oakland-based Polkadot. I’ll have to tell you all about those later.
How Cookies can expand its reach even further
Not everyone was starry-eyed about the grand opening, and understandably so. Grizzly Bocourt, a native New Yorker and founder of Cannaware educational platform, has been working with cannabis since he was 14. He told me that while he’s excited for Cookies, he has some mixed feelings because “New York is one of the most progressive states,” but “the legacy market is not included in these laws. What I hope is that [their] names get a chance.”
According to the new laws New York regulators just approved, Bocourt doesn’t have to worry about Cookies taking space from local operators. New York cannabis regulations strictly limit owners who already have cannabis businesses in other states. Instead, the city will prioritize businesses owned by New Yorkers with cannabis convictions, who are scheduled to get the state’s first licenses later this year.
Berner has a solid track record of practicing social equity without being forced by local laws. So partners like Branson, Luka “Mr. Gumbo” Brazi,” and Steph V of Certz will likely be his true entry points into the legal market.
If there was anything I felt was missing, it was women. I saw a few ladies in line, a couple smoking out front, and some huffing up and down the stairs while running the operation behind the scenes. But the ratio was maybe 15:1 compared to men. So although the clothes inside Cookies are unisex, I saw far more fellas sporting the goods than ladies. Cannabis often feels like a men’s game, and I definitely look forward to that changing as the industry evolves.
At one point, Berner hopped outside to walk down the line of fans. I was interviewing someone, and his security kindly asked me to make way. The mythos of Berner casts a long shadow, but up close, he is a human being just like any of us. If he can do it, those of us with a dream can too. The table stakes he’s helped set for the industry are simple: Remain true to yourself and keep your terpenes talking loud.
As Pablo, one of Steph’s Certz associates so aptly put it, “this is real New York-California shit right here! All that fake shit, get the fuck off the corner!” As a Bay-to-Big Apple relocator myself, I know the Cookies wave will keep coming.