Legalization’s promise to change Canada’s cannabis landscape is coming true in many ways. This week an unexpected change stunned Toronto’s cannabis community and the wider Canadian cannabis sector. Toronto businessperson, activist, and cannabis advocate Abi Roach, founder of beloved Kensington Market vapour lounge the HotBox Lounge & Shop, announced she was stepping down from her position after twenty years in business.
The Friendly Stranger, a longstanding Toronto smoke shop that recently received $5-million in investments to help with expansion, will take over ownership and operation of HotBox.
“This was the perfect match, and I think it was a great choice,” Roach tells Leafly. “I love it. I’ve known [Friendly Stranger owner] Robin [Ellins] since I was a teenager: I started out as a teenager selling jewelry on the street. He got me into hemp jewelry. If it wasn’t for Robin, I probably wouldn’t have gone this path. He taught me so much.”
Roach will move on to a position where she hopes her experience can serve the whole province; she will be a senior category manager for the Ontario Cannabis Store.
“My job is essentially to make Ontarians’ retail experience better. To bring better products and provide a better user experience to Ontarians. I’m not opening another retail store—but I will be serving every retail store that opens in Ontario. I’m happy that I get to use my entire skill set. There’s my political skill set that I’ve honed over the last decade working with politics and organizations. I get to bring my customer service experience to the table, my merchandising experience, my branding experience. The whole gamut of experience.”
Roach announced the news on Twitter on Tuesday. “It wasn’t that hard to decide,” she says. “After a while, you just get tired. The last couple of years were exhausting for me. I was doing it alone, I didn’t have a team. I was also doing all the other work that comes with it as well—the political work, and volunteer work.”
At the same time, she says 20 years of experience in an industry she was partly responsible for shaping through both business and advocacy has left her feeling she’s outgrown managing a café in Kensington Market.
“I understand the inner workings of the industry—and it doesn’t scare me,” she explains. “Some people who come into the industry find it overwhelming. For me, I wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night—and this is what I do. In terms of what I can offer—it’s so different from what anybody else can offer. My next move is exactly where I want to go, and I think I’m going to be doing more for Ontarians and Canadians generally than I would ever have been able to do working at the HotBox.”
HotBox has been linked to the Kensington Market neighbourhood since its opening in June of 2000. Back then it was known as Roach-a-Rama, a name it traded for HotBox in 2003.
“We started out on Nassau Street, around the corner,” she remembers. We had a mouldy 300 square-foot store! Then we moved over to Baldwin Street, a block south, and then we moved to the location we’re at now. We’ve been on the same block for 20 years.”
In seeking to sell HotBox, Roach wanted to find a buyer who understood the lounge’s history and style and wouldn’t alienate its well-established community of customers by dramatically changing it. That goal helped her choose Friendly Stranger’s offer, one of three she received.
“There’s personal history there,” she says. “Just on a community level—that history means the two companies have worked together side by side for twenty years each. And they’re set up to take it to the next step: they have the team in place, they have the financial means.”
The Friendly Stranger spent the first 24 years of its life as a Queen Street West head-shop, until September 2018, when Green Acre Capital (supported in part by investments by Aphria) invested in the company’s plan for retail expansion, creating Friendly Stranger Holdings Corporation. Last July, that company received $5-million in investments from Green Acre Capital as well as licensed producers 48North and VIVO Cannabis. Since then, Friendly Stranger Holdings has announced deals with winners of Ontario’s retail-lottery to open six Friendly Stranger–branded cannabis stores across southern Ontario.
Even as Roach is convinced the Friendly Stranger will run HotBox the way customers will like it, her absence will be a significant change. She tells regulars not to worry.
“I live in Kensington Market—I won’t be far away! It’s not far, you can find me sitting in a coffee shop most days. I’m not moving anywhere. My physical being is not moving, only my job. And I’ll serve Ontarians just as well where I’m going to be as where I was.”