DISRUPTORS: Helene Vassos
Helene Vassos is the owner of CANVAS Cannabis, with retail locations in the Danforth and Mount Dennis areas of Toronto. After a rewarding 30-year career in the non-profit healthcare sector, Vassos is on a mission to help shape Ontario’s corporate-dominated cannabis industry as the first independent retail cannabis store with a solo female owner.
What inspired you to enter this industry?
I was considering retirement when the idea to enter the lottery for an opportunity to open a retail cannabis store sprouted. I had gone into cannabis stores in the past, and felt that they weren’t warm or inviting, and I thought that as a woman, I could capture a casual elegance that other stores lacked. There was this amazing new industry unfolding in front of me, and I very much wanted to be part of it and help lead the way as both a woman and business owner.
What sets your stores apart from others?
The goal has always been to set CANVAS apart by building a brand that offers a warm, sophisticated and fresh outlook on the boutique cannabis experience. Each of our locations is located in an urban setting, with customer engagement and service our primary focus. We design our stores to facilitate both one-on-one customer experiences and servicing seasoned connoisseurs who prefer an express shopping experience.
We’ve incorporated a high level of efficiency within our design, and can complete a transaction in under a minute. Regardless of our customers’ needs, when you come into our store, you know you’ve arrived at a place where you can relax, take your time and acquaint yourself with our products and service.
Why did you choose the Danforth area for your first store, in Dec?
I grew up in the Danforth, so I have a deep connection to the neighborhood. I took great care to build a store that fits with the existing culture. Our Danforth locale is a cozy urban neighborhood shop that is calm, sophisticated and relatable. In a lot of ways, the store is a love letter to the neighborhood that I called home for decades. Our new location at CANVAS Mount Dennis is cut from the same cloth. It has been built in the center of a beautiful, bourgeoning neighborhood with a growing community and strong cultural heritage that we’re proud to plant our roots in.
What’s it like being the first female independent owner in an industry dominated by large corporations?
I feel privileged to help lead the way in this ever-evolving industry, as both a woman and small-business owner. Women bring a different perspective and creativity into their work – and this has been reflected in the look and feel of our stores. But I think it’s the perspective that I offer as a small business owner that’s most important to the success of CANVAS, as there’s a prevailing concern that cannabis store ownership in Ontario is being overtaken by a few big corporate players whose focus is the bottom line.
At CANVAS, I have my boots on the ground, and the decisions are made by me at the store level, without having to go to a board of directors to get approval. This allows me to bring fresh ideas and a new image to the retail cannabis world, grounded in a spirit of inclusivity and collaboration, and where the only bottom line that matters is the responsibility owed to staff, customers and neighbors.
Tell me about the company culture, what it is like to work with your team and the kind of team you have corralled?
We cater to a varied clientele, so it was important to us that the demographics of our team follow suit. We have about 30 employees positioned across our two locations, varying in age from the early 20s to late 50s. It amazes me how quickly we shifted from a “company” to a family. We have staff members who are siblings, cousins and long-time friends. On any given day, you might find my husband in the front of the store, chatting with neighbors.
With most of our staff falling between ages 22 and 30, in many ways, I have taken on the role of a mentor. It’s important to me that we create an environment where our young employees feel their voice matters. So often, young people go unheard or underappreciated, but the truth is that this industry is being built for them. The cannabis retail market is still in its infancy. One day, it will be inherited by my young employees, so it’s important to me that I give them the tools they need to be industry leaders.
How would you define success, in terms of what you are doing with your two stores?
For me, success will have meant that we are fully embraced by our neighbors as members of these communities, that we have been able to live up to our mandate of providing unparalleled customer care and service, high-quality cannabis products at an affordable price, and that we have done what we can to pave the way for the continued growth of Canada’s legal cannabis industry.
What has it been like to open a new store during COVID?
No one could have predicted that a global pandemic would become a part of CANVAS’ growth plan. We’re taking every precaution that we can to keep customers safe, offering online sales and curbside pick-up for those who don’t want to enter the store. We also installed a protective Plexiglas shield in-store to create a barrier between customers and staff, are stocked with hand sanitizer for customers, and ensure social distancing through visible markers and signage. Operational hours have been shortened, and staff are equipped with masks and gloves.
I’ve been told that I’m the first individual licensee to open a second location. Admittedly, that is a lofty burden to carry, but I’m not doing it alone. My team and I have already worked to establish new standards and procedures for the Ontario cannabis market through ongoing collaborations with government agencies, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, and colleagues in the retail industry. We also worked with several vendors on behalf of the industry to facilitate the rapid development of a platform to securely accept online payment for curbside pick-up during the pandemic, and continue to work towards ensuring Ontario’s retail cannabis market can operate safely, effectively and efficiently until Ontarians are safe once more.