Chamber of Commerce Award: Innovation Enterprise of the Year, Empire Hemp
Sinus steamers, muscle mousse and scrubby bars may not seem to be your typical hemp and cannabis company products, but they’re exactly a reason why Empire Hemp Co. has become so popular in its field.
“We create a lot of unique products you wouldn’t find in other stores,” Chief Operating Officer Shelly Wolanske said. “In order to keep current, we’re constantly coming up with new ideas for products.”
The company, based on the first floor of 34 Swan St. and expanding into 23,000 square feet that includes the second floor for production and storage, with a retail store at 204 East Main St. in downtown Batavia, has been selected for the Chamber of Commerce Innovative Enterprise of the Year Award. While Chief Executive Officer Chris Van Dusen and Wolanske were surprised, they agree the type of business is all about being innovative.
“We’re the first cannabis business in Genesee County,” he said. “As far as what we’ve come from and where we’ve gone to, we ordered a lot of equipment and brought on a lot of investors to fund that expansion. We are so we have our whole line of adult-use cannabis products or THC products, and those include pre-rolled ‘cones,’ gummies and vape cartridges and flour. We needed the new equipment to do those products and locked down the gummy recipe. We just took our first orders for gummies to dispensaries in New York.
“As we’ve grown the business, we’ve had to learn each aspect of the business, start off with CBD, and we have to learn not only the regulations and the state compliances, but we also have to learn how does the machinery work? What's the most efficient way for them to work, train employees, and, there's all these different nuances around it, that's part of growing a business,” Van Dusen said.
There has been no blueprint to follow, Shelly added, no trailblazer ahead of them to follow. They’ve been the trailblazers, forging their way through the state regulations, certifications, inspections and protocols to ensure they’re doing things the right way.
“It’s been trial and error; we’ve figured this out; regulations and testing’s been a challenge,” Van Dusen said.
They’ve had to find out through trial and error how to do things as efficiently as possible, when it was time to recruit and hire more staff, and what products were hot or not. Making gummies, for example, might seem like an easy task, and yet it took one and a half years to perfect the recipe, Wolanske said. They worked with different preservatives and flavorings, and it came out either too mushy or too stiff and took a lot of adjustments to get it to the chewy, gummy consistency they wanted.
There have been other challenges, including a lawsuit right now in New York State that’s holding up deliveries from dispensaries.
“That’s a whole other challenge we’re working on,” Van Dusen said. “We’re constantly solving problems. It’s exciting but challenging at the same time.”
They raised “a substantial” amount of money to buy equipment for their production needs and hired five people in the last three months to work at the store. One goal is to educate people about their products while the field has dwindled in certain arenas, Wolanske said.
“It takes a certain attitude. There’s an ebb and flow,” she said. “There’s very few of us left from the CBD days.”
Despite all of the hurdles, Van Dusen sees that “the opportunity in front of us is really incredible.”
“We’re really excited about where we are going with the expansion. We're quadrupling our footprint. That's our next phase of focus, how we're going to build that out. And then we have to get it okayed by the state, and then we have to get it Good Manufacturing Practices certified before we can start production out there,” Van Dusen said. “So we have to clean it, we have to paint it. And we have to then have a consultant come in and make sure we have everything ready for our audits for both the state and from the third party auditor to make sure that we're in compliance.”
The plan is to fill up that upstairs space with an indoor growth facility and keep rolling together as a cohesive group.
“Any little step is a huge step for us,” Wolanske said. “Everybody we’ve hired so far is part of the team. They’re in.”
And so, too — obviously — have Van Dusen and Wolanske been in since the beginning, which began long before they founded Empire Hemp and planted their first site on Swan Street in 2019 and then opened the store in April 2020 downtown.
Their award nominations included articles about the early days of Wolanske, whose path to the hemp industry brought her by way of being a policy-maker in the alcohol and substance abuse and prevention field, and Van Dusen as an entrepreneur, furniture maker, contractor, bicycle mechanic, tour guide, and father of three, whose history with cannabis dated back to the nineties during his battle with cancer. It was the intense effects of chemotherapy, in particular, that pushed him to explore alternative methods of recovery from the side effects of Hodgkin's Lymphoma treatment.
"During that time, California had just legalized medical marijuana for cancer and AIDS patients, and I was having a tough time with chemotherapy," he said. "It relieved nausea and the terrible feeling I had from the chemicals being pushed through my veins and allowed me to have a level of normalcy in my life. It was like night and day, and I could go back to work. I knew at that point there was something about this plant that had some serious healing. It was life-changing."
Fast forward to 2020, when COVID hit, and the couple learned another form of survival during pandemic shutdowns. Nomination forms included yet other articles about the tenacity of Van Dusen and Wolanske to operate a walk-up window, followed by the opening of their store, which was a success. While some places have merely posted a sign, it’s not as easy — or legal — as that, Van Dusen has said, wanting to clarify and educate the truth for consumers to know in further articles, all used as part of the nomination process.
Top Photo: Chris Van Dusen, founder and Co-founder Shelly Wolanske at their Empire Hemp shop on East Main Street, Batavia, and several of their self-created products. Photos by Howard Owens.