Cookies cuts ties with its lone San Francisco marijuana store

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Image of Berner's appearance at MJBizCon

Cookies CEO and co-founder Berner makes a Main Stage appearance at MJBizCon 2022. (Photo by Ben Zimmerman, Las Vegas Event Photography)

Cookies, the most recognizable brand in cannabis, traces its origins to San Francisco and the pre-legalization marijuana underground in the city that’s considered by many to be the birthplace of the legal industry in America.

But as of earlier this year, there is no longer a Cookies-branded marijuana store in San Francisco.

The brand terminated the licensing agreement it had with Berner’s on Haight, an adult-use store that’s borne the name of the Cookies co-founder since 2020, company President Parker Berling told MJBizDaily.

Exactly what happened is still a mystery, as the involved parties are not discussing details publicly.

However, both the store and the iconic brand are currently battling unrelated lawsuits, including a wrongful termination complaint filed by a former employee at Berner’s on Haight.

Cookies ‘not fundamental’ to sales

Like other Cookies-branded cannabis stores across the United States, the company did not directly own or operate Berner’s on Haight, named after the brand’s co-founder and public face, San Francisco native Berner, whose legal name is Gilbert Milam Jr.

Located in San Francisco’s legendary Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Berner’s on Haight was also the first social equity dispensary to open for business in the city.

The store’s ownership team includes people with close relationships to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, which critics claimed played a role in its first-mover status.

On Jan. 24, the store’s owners informed city marijuana regulators that it was “ending its branding partnership with Cookies cannabis,” according to an email obtained by MJBizDaily via a public-records request.

“This means we will be removing any elements of Cookies’ IP and changing the store’s name, as that is a reference to Cookies’ CEO,” wrote Conor Johnston, whom public records identify as one of the members of Cole Ashbury Group, the entity that holds the store license.

The use of one of marijuana’s most recognizable names – and its unparalleled branding power – “was always complementary to our business, not fundamental,” Johnston’s email continued.

Johnston served as Breed’s chief of staff when she was on the city’s Board of Supervisors.

Neither Johnston nor Shawn Richard, a longtime violence-prevention advocate in the city who is the store’s qualified social equity applicant, responded to MJBizDaily requests for comment.

Cookie products still on menu

Berner’s on Haight is now Blaze on Haight.

The store’s Weedmaps menu still lists Cookies-branded cannabis for sale, including a strain named after R&B singer Erykah Badu.

Berling, who is understood to handle most of Cookies’ business dealings while Milam focuses on branding and the company’s immense social-media presence, told MJBizDaily via email that the brand made the decision to cut ties with the store.

“Cookies elected to terminate the relationship but cannot make further comment at this time,” Berling wrote.

Meanwhile, a Cookies clothing store still operates two blocks from Blaze on Haight.

Legal troubles abound

Berling, Milam and their company are facing multiple lawsuits from investors as well as their retail partners.

One lawsuit – filed by Southern California-based Cookies Retail LLC, the brand’s partner in 33 stores operating across the country – claims $100 million in damages.

Another suit, filed by investors last summer, claimed Milam and Berling used investor cash as a slush fund that also diverted money to separate companies they owned, resulting in a missed $275 million valuation.

Berner’s on Haight seemed at one time to enjoy a closer relationship to the Cookies mothership.

In a 2019 San Francisco Chronicle story published before the store opened, Richard described Milam as an investor and management partner.

“Equity partners have to have some type of big funding,” Richard told the newspaper, which noted that the store was under Milam’s “direction.”

“Cookies has the funding to help us open up this store, and they understand the equity plan,” Richard added.

Richard is handling his own legal headache.

A former employee filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Cole Ashbury Group last May.

In a complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court, Mia Robinson claimed Richard “regularly made unwelcome sexual advances” after her October 2020 hiring.

Robinson claims she rejected Richard’s advances but was removed from the work schedule and not paid back wages as retaliation, according to her complaint.

Micah Thompson, Robinson’s Vallejo, California-based attorney, did not return an MJBizDaily request for comment.

In a January 2024 filing, attorneys for Cookies denied Robinson’s allegations.

The case is scheduled to go to trial, according to court records.

Asked directly if Richard’s suit weighed on Cookies’ decision to cut ties, Berling declined to comment.

There are currently 20 Cookies-branded dispensaries in California, according to state and business records, including Bay Area locations in Hayward and Oakland.

Another five stores operate under the affiliated Lemonnade brand.

Chris Roberts can be reached at chris.roberts@mjbizdaily.com.