Against the odds: Haitian emigrant taps his Boston neighborhood for cannabis success

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Image of Jeffrey Similien standing in front of his LowKey Dispensary

Jeff Similien opened the LowKey Dispensary in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston in October 2023. (Photo by Omar Sacirbey, MJBizDaily/Emerald)

Jeff Similien anticipated opening his Boston cannabis store, LowKey Dispensary, in 2021.

But a deceitful business partner, city government bureaucracy and the COVID-19 pandemic all conspired to delay the christening by about two years, until October 2023.

Many aspiring small cannabis business entrepreneurs might have given up earlier, burned through capital sooner or struck a deal with a multistate operator and relinquished control of a coveted retail license such as the one Similien possessed.

But Similien didn’t buckle.

Instead, he brought a mix of business acumen acquired through study and experience, perseverance born out of struggle and a desire to create generational wealth for his family and change for his community – all of which helped him get his store over the finish line.

Similien, 38, emigrated to the United States from a poor town in Haiti when he was 11, growing up mostly in Boston’s hardscrabble Codman Square community in the Dorchester neighborhood.

He graduated from nearby Curry College with a business degree and worked a few different jobs before launching a commercial real estate business in Boston.

Cannabis real estate savvy

In late 2015 and early 2016, Similien fielded phone calls from entrepreneurs in Massachusetts and other states, such as Colorado, who were seeking property for cannabis cultivation sites and retail.

The calls tipped Similien to Massachusetts’ nascent marijuana market, and soon after, a real estate client introduced him to another Haitian emigrant, Laury Lucien, an attorney specializing in cannabis.

Lucien, who was appointed to the Massachusetts Cannabis Advisory Board in 2021 and is the owner/operator of Cami Flower, a marijuana product and retail brand, helped Similien prepare and submit applications as a social equity and economic empowerment applicant for cultivation and retail business licenses.

It was the start of a long process that included obtaining real estate, zoning and building permits and more.

“You need to secure real estate for the entire process,” Lucien said. “He knows where the properties are.

“That process is extensive and costs a lot of money.”

Meanwhile, Similien used the time waiting for approvals to visit the mature marijuana markets in California, Colorado and Washington and to speak with and learn from operators in those states about running a cannabis business.

One of the things Similien learned is that a cannabis retail store doesn’t have to be 3,000-4,000 square feet to be successful; it merely needs to be in a good location and look beautiful.

He reasoned that the bigger a store is, the more overhead costs there will be.

So, when Dunkin’ rejected a 1,700-square-foot storefront that Similien had been representing, he figured the spot would be a good fit for the vision he had for his future marijuana store.

He bought the property in June 2021 for $925,000, about twice its value, he said.

“You’re better off wih ownership of the building, rather than just paying rent to somebody else,” Similien said.

“Especially when you don’t know when you’re going to open your doors.”

Surviving a bad partnership, potential investors

Similien expected his business partner, a contractor, to renovate the space into a marijuana store.

But while the partner used his access to LowKey’s bank accounts to pay himself and finance the different renovation projects, according to Similien, he didn’t get any work done and always had reasons why:

  • Tools needed to do the work were forgotten at other work sites.
  • Equipment wasn’t working.
  • It was too cold to work, and no one thought to buy space heaters.

After about six months, Similien figured out what was happening and ended the partnership.

He then called a marijuana store owner he knew seeking the name of the contractor who renovated his space.

Similien had looked at other stores that contractor had renovated and, desperate to complete LowKey’s renovation, hired him without even negotiating prices.

The renovation was completed in June 2023 at a cost of more than $1 million.

Similien received his final license on Sept.14, 2023, and opened a few weeks later, on Oct. 8.

Another challenge Similien faced was resisting offers from multistate operators and investors who wanted his license – or at least part of it.

“The moment I received my social equity license, I had investors calling me,” he said.

For example, a group of investors in Atlanta flew Similien there for a partnership presentation in which they would take 51% of LowKey and he’d keep 49%.

The group would run the store, and Similien would have little to no involvement, merely collecting what he called “mailbox money.”

Another group of investors offered to pay for renovating LowKey if they could take over a second store Similien was licensed to open.

Similien ultimately resisted both offers, explaining that after spending years learning the industry, acquiring new skills and saving capital, he didn’t want to sit on the sidelines and get less than what he envisioned when started in the cannabis space.

“When I made the decision to enter the cannabis industry, it was (because) this is going to give me the opportunity to change my life, it’s going to create the type of wealth, the lifestyle that I want to build for myself and my family,” Similien said.

Knowing the value of his store and the hard work he’s invested also helped Similien resist the MSO offers, Lucien said.

“Jeff understands value. He knows the value that his business has and the type of revenue he has to generate to create that value,” she said.

“And he knows how hard he has to work to generate that value. Someone who’s not as savvy as Jeff and who doesn’t work as hard as Jeff might’ve taken the deal.”

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Celebrity versus community

Among the lessons Similien gleaned from his visits to the mature but saturated cannabis markets is that a marijuana store must be “a destination” to succeed.

He also saw that many cannabis consumers gravitated to products consumed by or associated with their favorite musicians, movie stars and other celebrities.

“Snoop (Dogg), Method Man, Nipsey Hussle. How far would you drive for these guys? Music goes hand in hand with cannabis,” Similien said.

“So I would go to stores that had these brands, and those stores became a destination because they had those brands.

“That’s what I wanted to do with my store, which is offer brands that make the store a destination.”

But instead of celebrities, Similien sought to make his store a destination by creating a community vibe.

Inside the entry and retail areas of the store, there are large portraits by Boston artists of Kobe Bryant, Nipsey Hussle and other figures.

And LowKey sells strains named after Boston neighborhoods and bundled in colorful packaging designed by a local artist known as D Loops.

“It’s about who you are, what resonates with you, what emotion is attached. It’s become about the brand,” Similien said.

“Boston has a lot of neighborhoods, and people are very prideful about their neighborhoods.”

The result are strains named Dorchester Diesel, Blue Hill Dreams, Roxbury Runtz and Hyde Park Haze.

“The idea was to create brands that capture the grittiness and the toughness of Boston neighborhoods,” Similien said.

Similien said he’s proud to open a store in the Dorchester neighborhood where he grew up and employ staffers who live nearby and, thus, can walk to work.

It also makes him proud he can be a role model to other Haitian immigrants, especially at a time when that country is beset with troubles.

His work led to an Entrepreneur of the Year nomination in 2023 by the Boston chapter of the U.S. Haitian Chamber of Commerce.

“America is still the land of opportunity,” Similien said.

“You have to hustle. There’s a lot of challenges. But it’s doable.”

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at omar.sacirbey@mjbizdaily.com.