The launch of New York’s first adult-use marijuana store: Q&A with Housing Works’ Sasha Nutgent

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Image from the opening day of adult-use marijuana sales at Housing Works Cannabis Co.

A DJ entertains customers awaiting their turn to make a purchase at Housing Works Cannabis Co. on the first day of adult-use sales in New York state. (Photo by Gary Gershoff, Wire Image)

Image of Sasha Nutgent
Sasha Nutgent (Courtesy photo)

(This story appears in the October issue of MJBizMagazine.)

Sasha Nutgent had just one month between being hired as retail manager for Housing Works Cannabis Co. and opening the doors to the first regulated, adult-use marijuana store in New York City.

During that month, Nutgent and the team behind Housing Works, a nonprofit group working to end AIDS and homelessness, would need to hire staff and find a place to operate – a herculean effort even if there was a road map, which there wasn’t.

Housing Works had a known asset in Nutgent, who joined the nonprofit in 2015 and oversaw retail at several thrift shops owned by the group before it was awarded one of New York’s first Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) licenses.

When Housing Works Cannabis Co. opened to the public on Dec. 29 in Greenwich Village, a line stretched around the block.

“We made about $43,000 in three hours,” Nutgent said. “A lot of people were not able to come in because it was just insane – the lines continued for weeks.”

In the months since, Nutgent has grown the product offerings from seven to 400 and launched a delivery service, all while other New York marijuana business applicants struggle to open.

“I think that there would be more opportunities for us to learn from one another if there were more stores open. That’s what I’m really looking forward to,” Nutgent said of the market rollout plagued by delays.

“I wish that New York state would figure it out. A lot of people have their license, but they’re still unable to open, and that’s really unfortunate.”

MJBizMagazine spoke with Nutgent about her experience managing the first regulated adult-use store in New York City, the thriving illicit market and her hopes for the company.

How has business been since you opened in late 2022?

We see upward of 1,000 people each day over the weekend, and on average we see about 600-800 folks each weekday. We don’t have the issue with the crowds as much as before; we do have the lunch and after-work rush, when the lines are out the door still.

But for the most part, things have kind of calmed down because of pickup and delivery.

We launched delivery March 17, and it was kind of slow to start.

I think that New Yorkers have their “bud man” already; they already have the weed guy. And I think it’s about gaining the customer’s trust, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do for the past couple of months.

Right now, delivery is about 9%-10% of our business. So, it grew over the past couple of months, and it’s continuing to grow. We currently serve Long Island City, parts of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Pickup (or online orders) is about 20% of our business.

What are people buying, and how do you choose what products to carry in the store?

Flower is No. 1, followed by vapes and then edibles. The majority of our customers are coming in for flower, and they’re coming in for sativa, specifically.

We rely on our budtenders’ feedback. So, if the brand provides us samples, we distribute them to our budtenders.

We have a sheet that they fill out to explain their experience with it, its taste, whether it’s a heavy indica or a sativa.

And we take all that into consideration when we bring brands into the store. We want to create a curated experience for our customers.

Retaining retail employees is notoriously difficult. What has been your experience?

People are really excited about being in the industry. When we initially posted our jobs, there were over 600 applicants for budtenders within two days.

We haven’t had much turnaround here at all. We’ve had the same staff for the most part since the beginning. So that’s been really cool.

As you know, retail is sort of a revolving door. And I’m not experiencing that here, so I’m really grateful for that.

New York’s illicit market is as large as ever. How is that affecting your business?

We’re successful and hitting our marks as far as sales goals and quotas. We probably would be exceeding them even more if there weren’t an illicit market.

It is kind of frustrating when you see a bodega (selling marijuana) a couple of blocks over from us, and they get shut down and then they’re open again the next day. So that is a frustration of ours.

But I think that the more people who are educated on the legal market, the more business we’ll get. And that’s happening right now. Our budtenders are educating our customers, and they’re coming back and probably telling their friends. We’re continuing to grow our community.

What challenges and successes have you faced since you opened last December?

Initially, it was supply and demand. We no longer have that issue. We have over 100 brands and 400 products.

I really want to pick up our delivery business. And so, the challenge has been trying to find unique and creative ways to get the (delivery) business above the 9%-10% that we see.

I think we have to market a little bit more and let people know that it’s fully legal and you’ll get your stuff in an hour. We’re accurate, we’re friendly. And, again, finding that trust from the customers.

As you know, the proceeds that we make here go directly into the Housing Works organization, and we help people living with and affected by HIV (and/or) AIDS and homelessness by providing them with job training, health care and things like that.

For me, that’s what makes us so successful: We’re a for-profit that’s feeding into our nonprofit. That’s what separates us from everybody.

And that’s why I’m so proud of working here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.