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Elba farmer makes Batavia's first legal weed purchase at Empire Hemp

By Howard B. Owens
empire hemp first legal weed purchase
Historic moment: Matthew Starowitz, an Elba farmer, makes the first legal marijuana purchase in Batavia at a new dispensary inside Empire Hemp.
Photo by Howard Owens.

Matthew Starowitz arrived at Empire Hemp early this afternoon, well before the 1 p.m. opening time for legal cannabis sales, with the goal of being the first customer to make a legal weed purchase in Batavia.

Goal accomplished.

"That's the way I was raised," Starowitz said. "You support local people, and so you're there; you're the first one."

It's been a struggle to bring legal cannabis sales to Batavia as state regulators figure out the ins and outs of licensing and legal distribution. Empire Hemp has had products ready to sell for some time.  With the "pop-up" store, called the Cannabis Growers Showcase, opening on Tuesday, they've been allowed to open to cannabis buyers on a limited basis.

The adult-use dispensary for licensed cultivators of high-quality cannabis products will run from 1 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday through Dec. 30. 

It provides local shoppers with the opportunity to purchase certified cannabis products, but the showcase opens the door for Empire Hemp to sell its THC products as well. Typically, the state doesn’t allow one company to be a grower, a processor and a retailer, VanDusen said, and this will allow his company to sell Empire Hemp products through Dank as the retailer set up within Empire Hemp shop. 

Starowitz said he was happy the long process of marijuana legalization has gotten to the point that there is now a locally owned and operated retail location in Batavia.

"I've smoked it since I was like 12 years old," Starowitz said. "I'm 35 years old now. I have always loved it. It's just always been that way. So now that it's legal 100 percent, I'm going to support it locally."

He purchased several different products as a kind of sampler.

"I feel like I just want to sample everything that they have here, at least as far as sativa and sativa hybrids, because then I'll figure out what I like, you know," Starowitz said. "I think that this is better than the stuff I'll ever get from the Res because a lot of their stuff is unregulated. It's not lab-tested. At least this here is legit and lab-tested."

Why sativa?
"Because with indica, I feel like I get too lazy, and I really don't want to do too much," Starowitz said. "Whereas with sativa, I'm always active and going around and doing things. "I'm a vegetable farmer, so sativa is for me as the way to go. This way, I don't get lazy."

Previously: Making history: first-time legal cannabis sales begin Tuesday at Empire Hemp in Batavia

empire hemp first legal weed purchase
Empire Hemp's Chris VanDusen opens the door to his shop at 1 p.m. for the first time with a legal pot dispensary.
Photo by Howard Owens.
empire hemp first legal weed purchase
The first potential customers for the new legal marijuana dispensary in Batavia enter the store."
Photo by Howard Owens.
empire hemp first legal weed purchase
Photo by Howard Owens.
empire hemp first legal weed purchase
Photo by Howard Owens.

Limited dispensaries, a stalled farmers market add hurdles to cannabis market

By Joanne Beck
Shelly Wolanske and Chris Van Duden with book of regulations
File photo of Empire Hemp co-founders Shelly Wolanske and Chris Van Dusen showing the book of state regulations they must abide by when doing business in the cannabis industry, 
Photo by Joanne Beck.

City officials turned their thoughts to cannabis for a few moments this week as City Manager Rachael Tabelski described the plight of legal cultivators, locally Empire Hemp, which had originally been scheduled on City Council’s meeting agenda.

Company co-founders Chris Van Dusen and Shelly Wolanske were going to talk about an initiative to sell cannabis products at farmers markets, a concept being drafted in the Empire State for the summer season. However, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently squashed that move, which added yet another hindrance to a market that’s already suffered a slow roll-out of avenues to distribute and sell their products.

“(They) have been producing products in the legal market. Prior to cannabis being authorized by New York State was one that was authorized, they shifted to that market for cultivation. And they ramped up, and right now, they're sitting on over $300,000 worth of product and had to lay off four staff members because the Office of Cannabis Management cannot get retail licenses out quick enough. So there's over, I think it was 80, brands of cannabis that are certified by New York State, all sitting in warehouses full of cannabis, but only 10 legal retail outlets right now,” Tabelski said during this week’s council meeting. “And to get your product into the legal retail outlets, the majority being in New York City, you almost have to live in New York City or have a salesperson present down there. So anyone in the sales market knows you have to apply to those retail outlets to move your product. 

“So I want you to be aware of the emerging market. This is a business that has typically enjoyed the support of the city. They've stayed in the city, and they've purchased or leased more space to produce their products. And right now, they're very much hamstrung. So I just wanted to bring that to everyone's attention.”

Council President Eugene Jankowski Jr. said that he’s heard about the illegal retail sites “that keep popping up in the city, and people think they have a license” when they actually do not. 

Chris Van Duden with package of illegal cannabis
File photo of Chris Van Dusen showing an example of a cannabis product that was sold by an unlicensed retail store in Batavia.
Photo by Joanne Beck.

“So you’re telling me no one in Genesee County, no one in this area, has a legal distribution license itself?” he said. 

That’s right, Tabelski said, “except if you’re on sovereign land.”

She’s referring to Tonawanda Indian Reservation, which does not have to abide by the same state regulations as other dispensaries. Van Dusen checked that site to see about the possibility of selling some product, but shop owners on tribal land wouldn’t pay what Empire Hemp, which deals with state taxes, charges, Van Dusen said.

He and Wolanske said they are disappointed with how things have happened with licensing — they were led to believe that some 30 dispensaries were to open in March — and with the prospective farmers market, however, they’re confidently looking forward. 

"Mainly down in New York City, there are only 10 dispensaries. And there's 80 brands that are trying to get on the shelves in these 10 dispensaries. So it's very challenging to maintain, and we're currently in half of those dispensaries. But there needs to be more to make this a successful program, especially in our area," Van Dusen said. "And we were held up with that court-ordered injunction with a lawsuit that just finally opened up, you know, in the Finger Lakes region in Western New York a little while ago. So now we're about six months behind New York City, and getting dispensaries opened up here. So the first one to open next week in Buffalo. And we will be in that one. We're really excited about that. Dang 716."

Another one, MJ Dispensary, is to open in Henrietta in about a month, with a few more following in the Buffalo area. It takes time to open a site and includes a final walk-through by the Office of Cannabis Management, “so once they get their license, you're looking at a good three to five months,” Wolanske said.”

One element of the industry affects another — it’s a trickle-down effect, she said — from the grower to processors and end product. Empire Hemp still has goods from 2022 “because there’s no outlets for these grow cultivators to sell at, there’s not enough dispensaries,” he said. “So the cultivators are really hurting because it’s harder for them to get it to go to the dispensaries and get on the shelves because it’s so competitive to get on the shelf space.”

“So if they had 50 dispensaries open, well then, it would change, the demand would be in our favor, we wouldn’t be selling out of everything, it wouldn’t even be a question,” he said. 

Tabelski ventured to guess what part of the problem is.

“I dare say that they're in over their head with the Office of Cannabis Management and the rollout of this program,” she said. Jankowski agreed, adding that, for what he understands the board makes — “in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries” — they’re not doing their jobs. 

The City of Batavia is far from alone in its assessment of the state agency’s efficiency. Rev. Kirsten John Foy, a spokesman for the Coalition for Access to Regulated & Safe Cannabis, called the OCM “ineffective at every turn.”

“Growers, CAURD (conditional adult-use retail dispensaries) licensees, disabled veterans, workers, consumers, medical cannabis patients and individuals harmed by cannabis prohibition are paying the price for its ineptitude — all while the illicit market booms,” Foy said in a New York Post article. 

Similarly to what Jankowski and Van Dusen have noted locally, albeit on a lower scale, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been tallying the number of illegal pot shops sprouting up in the absence of licensed dispensaries and manpower to close them down. In NYC, Adams’ count is 1,500, while Hochul’s office puts that number at 2,500, and law enforcement doubles that to 5,000 and estimates that illegal smoke shops are making $2,000 to $3,000 profits a day. While sites in smaller cities such as Batavia aren’t likely to claim such boons, is it a wonder why they’re popping up?

Empire Hemp will continue to operate by the book, as it has since the beginning, Van Dusen and Wolanske said. Their downtown retail store, which sells hemp products, is doing well and is self-sustaining, Wolanske said. In fact, “we’re doing better than last year,” she said. “We have a lot of faithful followers.”

And they look forward to finally seeing those promised 30 dispensaries, now to arrive in October, as they ride out a bumpy state cannabis program.

“So when that happens in this area, we will be set. So all that inventory is still good. It's not gone bad. So we could still sell that. And it's just a matter of getting these locations open,” Van Dusen said. “We’ve always done everything by the book, so we feel that it’ll be good that we did that. That will benefit us in the long run, because there will be less competition. Right now, we’re dealing with the illicit market. It’s really hard, especially when people are used to going into these smoke shops and paying a certain price.” 

Chamber of Commerce Award: Innovation Enterprise of the Year, Empire Hemp

By Joanne Beck


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.

Empire Hemp hosts Cannabis Association tour

By Press Release


Press release:

This week, the Cannabis Association of New York (CANY) attended a special, behind-the-scenes tour of Empire Hemp Co.’s manufacturing facility with Chris Vandusen, CEO, and Shelly Wolanske, COO. 

CANY is the largest cannabis association in NY – with hundreds of members stretched across the supply chain from seed-to-sale and in every region of the state. They work to engage with the various communities of interest within the NY cannabis economy. Since their founding in 2019, they’ve helped draft multiple laws and countless regulations to build a cannabis industry that benefits small and midscale NYS businesses first.

As one of the first licensed cultivators and processors in the state, the team at Empire was thrilled to showcase their Adult-use THC line and all that goes into manufacturing and packaging these products with a strong focus on safety, compliance, and sustainability. One member noted, “The facility held much-advanced equipment, and we were very impressed with the cleanliness and documentation taken.”

Empire Hemp Co., located in Batavia been the go-to source for hemp-derived products for several years. With a strong devotion to all New York State-grown, pesticide-free hemp, their retail location on Main Street in Batavia quickly became the trusted source for Cannabidiol (CBD) tinctures, gummies, and their best-seller, “The Balm.” Luxury lotions and bath products - all infused with the therapeutic plant - line the walls of the boutique shop. 

Branching out into the THC world was a natural move for the company. Countless hours of research, paperwork, and manpower have gone into ensuring the entire process is handled in a legal and ethical manner. Flowers, pre-rolls, vape carts, and edibles will all be available to customers through legal, licensed dispensaries as they begin to open throughout the state. 

To learn more about Empire Hemp Co., visit or stop into their retail location at 204 East Main St. in Batavia.



Video: Empire Hemp's grand opening and ribbon cutting

By Howard B. Owens
Video Sponsor
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Empire Hemp, which has operated a CDB processing facility in Batavia off of Swan Street for two years, held a grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday at its new retail store at 204 E. Main St., Batavia.

The store sells a variety of products containing CDB extracted from locally grown cannabis.  

Owners Chris VanDusen and Shelly Wolanske said they don't know yet whether they will get into the business of processing and/or selling recreational marijuana, now that it's legal in New York. They're waiting to see what requirements and guidelines are issued by the state before deciding.

The video also includes a tour of their production facility.

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