The Journey of DANK

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by Victoria Ritter

This July marks the one-year anniversary of Western New York’s first legal recreational dispensary: Dank. Founder and Manager Aaron Van Camp looks back on his journey, how Dank has made its mark on the cannabis community, his network of supporters and what’s in store – both literally and metaphorically.

 

A budding ambition

After serving nearly seven years in prison for illegally selling marijuana, Van Camp started a can and bottle return business. Eventually, a new avenue into the cannabis industry became available.

Soon after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that the state had legalized marijuana in March 2021, Van Camp got to work, staying up to date on the licensing process and news highlights. When the state introduced the Conditional Adult-Use Retail cannabis program, Van Camp saw himself as a candidate.

“Before, I didn’t believe things like this would happen – it’s reserved for someone else,” he recalled. “We filled in the papers and I did fit in. It’s huge. It was a good opportunity. They [the state] are trying to provide an opportunity for people like me who had been in trouble to get a little get back. For me, it has made it right.”

With the help of his girlfriend, Van Camp filled out the paperwork and submitted his application in Fall 2022. The name of the company is Dank716, LLC while the dispensary is just Dank.

The Office of Cannabis Management awarded Van Camp his license during the control board’s meeting on April 3, 2023. Van Camp likens the experience to winning the lottery. “By the middle of the meeting, my phone was ringing from the news,” he recalled. “By 1 o’clock, we were on every news station.” Receiving the license turned out to be a double win for Van Camp, as an injunction had just begun.

Van Camp is thankful for the warm community response since Dank’s opening last July. “They’ve been really welcoming of us because we’ve been supportive of people who are in the old, unregulated market still,” he stated. “It’s helped us a bunch.”

 

A look inside

Dank offers 300 SKUs, available online and displayed along one wall in the store. All of the products – from flower, gummies and vapes to tinctures and rosin – are from New York State. Well-known brands including Banana Coast can be found alongside regional brands such as Greenside Cannabis, Real Life Botanics, Pura and Farmer Jim.

When considering a product or brand to stock, Van Camp balances the drive to support local businesses and offering the best quality. “We’re still trying to produce a certain amount of quality and provide the best possible thing for our customers,” Van Camp said. He went on to explain that in the grey market, people tended to focus on the smell, taste and look of cannabis; now, the percentage of THC tends to take precedence among customers.

While gummies are trending as sleep aids, flower is the most popular segment, constituting half of Dank’s sales. The most popular brands are Real Life Botanicals – which offers more economic choices – and the high-end Platinum Reserve.

“People are looking to buy in bigger quantities,” Van Camp stated. “Initially, we only had eighths, but a lot more people are offering an ounce and half ounce, and that’s been going much better. We have Tarot Tokes half ounce and it flies off the shelves. It’s a really good value as it gives you a lot of smoke for a decent price.”

The dispensary provides a boutique atmosphere to customers, with hardwood floors and a polished granite-top counter. Colorful artwork such as Grateful Dead posters, street art and Ricky Powell pictures decorate the walls. “We wanted to connect with social equity, women’s rights and liberal themes because we know that was the intention of the state’s cannabis program,” Van Camp said. “We included counter culture like the Grateful Dead because we feel like marijuana has roots in hippie culture.”

 

Small, but efficient

Dank has a very small footprint, with just 1,000 square feet – 600 square feet dedicated to the sales floor and 400 square feet in the back for storage and office areas. Van Camp, who has been to dozens of dispensaries across New York, believes his is one of the smallest in the state.

For Van Camp, having a small storefront makes the most sense. The dispensary catered to crowds during its early days and this year’s 4/20, but otherwise it doesn’t see long lines of customers. Van Camp credits Dank’s efficiency to the availability of online ordering and the Dutchie point-of-sale system. Also, the staff of 13 employees are dedicated to being helpful and attentive to customers’ needs.

“We have really good educators,” Van Camp said. “They get customers sold on different products and they understand the CBN, CBG, the different attributes of products.”

Dank’s customer base mainly consists of people in the 35- to 45-year-old age bracket, leans heavily towards women and attracts upscale clientele. “It’s not a cheap hobby to smoke marijuana,” Van Camp observed.

Van Camp went on to explain that the experience is tailored to patrons’ varying experience levels with cannabis. He wants newcomers to feel comfortable talking with the budtenders and get educated while offering an expedited service for regulars.

“We want to have the option available for customers to be in and out, not hanging around,” Van Camp said. “People have taken advantage of that and like it. They were down for the experience at first. They came in, they checked out all of the products, they’ve seen the website, they’ve gone through the menu 500 times in their head. Now they just want to come in, buy products and go.”

 

Business is blooming

The past year has been a “totally wild learning experience,” for Van Camp. Business started off strong as Dank was the only dispensary open in Western New York before the injunction. Dank also hosted three locations during the state’s Cannabis Growers Showcase program.

Dank’s customer volume has dropped since its early days (at one point, it welcomed about 500 customers during the weekends). Pricing has gone down on products, which has made the price points more comfortable for customers. Also, basket size is a bit lower than anticipated. Nevertheless, the dispensary continues to exceed Van Camp’s expectations.

“The big question we have been getting recently is how we’re doing now that there are 13 stores open out there,” Van Camp said. “We’re doing fine – we’re making double of what we were projected to make.”

Van Camp continues to build on Dank’s success with events and partnerships. The dispensary partnered with nearby bars for a block party and offered sales for 4/20. Van Camp hopes to host Dankfest the week of the Buffalo Bills’ opening day; the plan is to feature a big-name performer, collaborate with local businesses and turn it into an annual affair. “It’s a big travel week, as people are coming into the city,” Van Camp added. “It’s always a high-energy weekend.”

In the meantime, Van Camp will continue to expand product offerings. He wants to support those interested in micro-licensing and is open to partnering with people who are already licensed.

“A lot of micro-licensees are under-funded,” Van Camp observed. “They could use a little boost from retail to help get their grow going.”

Van Camp sees Dank and other independent, legal dispensaries such as Upstate Canna (which was the first dispensary in the Capital Region) as trailblazers and models for upcoming dispensaries to follow.

“Maybe people in the future will look at stores like this and Upstate Canna and say, ‘Hey, we don’t have to follow the national game plan. We can do it like these guys, turn a profit and have a successful small business.’”

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