For Ata Gonzalez,
timing is everything.
He got out of the
Miami real estate market right before the 2008 crash and made a bundle. Then he
lost his bundle when he tried to start a music festival there. And when he
found himself in California in 2009, when cannabis was just coming out of the
shadows of prohibition in the form of medical cannabis dispensaries, Gonzalez
knew the next big thing when he saw it.
Once again, his
timing was impeccable, and six years later, he runs one of the largest and most
successful cannabis companies on the West Coast, G FarmaLabs, whose trademark
edibles and oils available in all medical and recreational states. To succeed
in business you need both foresight and luck, and Gonzalez, a 38-year-old
Cuban-American, has had plenty of both on his climb to the top of California’s cannabis
cannabis were already old friends before he left Miami in 2009, but he rarely
gave much thought to the work behind the buds he enjoyed.
He found out just
how much work it took after arriving in California, on the advice of a friend
who said he should get into medical cannabis. He travelled the state and
followed the hemp highway to Humboldt County, where he remembers being amazed
when growers could identify a strain just by smelling it.
Here was a level of
agricultural sophistication that rivalled that of cigar tobacco growers in
Cuba, where both he and his wife trace their roots, and Gonzalez realized he
had a lot to learn.
So he took a
training course in cannabis cultivation, and he borrowed $10,000 to start his
own farm later that year. There was no magic to it after all, he discovered, as
his 99 plants, grown outdoors in the mild northern California climate, made for
a bountiful harvest.
collectives to . . . something else
was booming in California during these years, but the industry existed in legal
purgatory, still banned by federal law. Raids and threatening letters from U.S.
attorneys were becoming common.
It was against this
backdrop that Gonzalez opened his first collective in Los Angeles in 2012. He
owned several farms, but he figured it was time to get on the retail side. “It
was a bad scene, like, ‘Damn, I am building something I can’t really build.’ It
kind of deflated me,” he said. At the
time, he was selling nearly all his product as cannabis flower. But he began to
think about brands. Johnnie Walker had survived alcohol prohibition. Why not
focus on a brand that the feds couldn’t take away?
Thus, G FarmaLabs
budding industry without the buds
After a year in the
planning, Gonzalez, having divested himself of his collective, unveiled his
product line at a cannabis trade show in Seattle.
Timing, again, was
fortuitous. The Obama Administration had recently published a memo that
officials would not intervene to keep cannabis illegal in Colorado and
Washington, where voters had approved legal recreational cannabis.
“It was the first
time ever that a regular market investment pool came out to really look at
this,” said Gonzalez. “For the first time ever, they came out to see where they
could invest some money. We launched a product there, a brand that was not
really seen in cannabis.”
Most edibles at the
time resembled something you might buy in the parking lot of a Phish concert,
wrapped in cellophane and amateurish labels. But here he was with a chocolate
bar with sophisticated packaging and uniform quality, a brand. The chocolate
bar went on to win the Cannabis Cup for best edible in 2014.
Gonzalez has also
become known throughout California for Liquid Gold, his brand of THC
the days of the collective as we know it, with rows of jars filled with buds, is
“In the future, in
my vision, a dispensary maybe fast-forwarded 20 years from now will look like a
liquor store,” he said. “I think flower is becoming less and less relevant. You
will see a convenience store or liquor store type of environment.”
Such is his faith
in this future that his company has embarked on a public stock offering. He
hopes to raise $5 million for expansion, including a 250,000-square-foot
growing and production facility in an undisclosed California production. That
would expand his capacity roughly six-fold.
“We’re tired of
these little places . . . We want to have the consistency, the quality. We want
to have the Coca-Cola type building our clients can walk into.”
Gonzalez and his
wife Nicole, whose family is embedded in the Cuban cigar industry, applies that
heritage to cannabis as head of operations. G FarmaLabs has used some 350
blends of cannabis strains to create desired effects and consistencies.
believes in treating his 40-some employees as family, with profit-sharing and
It’s all borne out
of a love of the plant, even as he projects sales that could top $20 million in
the next few years.
“I love the plant.
I love the way it grows. I really believe in the medicinal effects of it. I
have seen it change peoples’ lives that were addicted to opiates,” he said. “I
love everything about the cannabis world and I love the fact I was at the right
place at the right time to do some sort of business with cannabis.”