In less than a decade, Gilbert “Berner” Milam Jr., has turned his COOKIES brand into a half-a-billion dollar a year enterprise.
He isn’t a tech mogul turned cannabis enthusiast.
He doesn’t come from a long history of money or connections.
Berner is a hard-working rapper and former budtender who loves weed.
Berner started his cannabis career working in dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area and quickly became the go-to connection for rappers seeking luxury buds.
Berner once hand-delivered a five-foot-tall plant to Wiz Khalifa during a live set.
The stunt made an impression.
It wasn’t long after that Khalifa signed Berner to his record label, Taylor Gang Records, in 2012.
A year later, he trademarked “COOKIES SF” as a manufacturer of t-shirts and sweatshirts, which allowed him to hang a trademarked sign outside his dispensaries.
Since cannabis is federally illegal, and you can’t process a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a federally illegal substance, this was the only way to prevent others from using the name and profiting off his work.
This clever maneuver was a pivotal step in Berner’s success.
His dominion over one of America’s favorite strains allowed the brand to gain global prestige.
It’s available in eight medical and adult-use markets nationwide and began operating internationally last year.
Forbes reported his Los Angeles dispensary on Melrose can earn upward of $450,000 in a single day.
Berner participated in a fireside chat during the Clio Cannabis Awards ceremony held at the Winter Emerge Virtual Cannabis Conference & Expo, detailing his climb to prominence alongside friends and fellow musicians Run The Jewels.
To discover what combination of drive, innovation, and ingenuity is required for such a meteoric rise, we spoke with Berner from his San Francisco recording studio.
Cannabis & Tech Today: You started in cannabis as a budtender. Did you realize early on there was an opportunity in the market for cultivators to start branding their products?
Berner: In the process of falling in love with the bud, I realized a lack of actual branded products.
I knew that from the impact I seen firsthand, this shit was going to be around forever, and I wanted to be a part of it.
And so I decided to create a brand around it.
C&T Today: Fast forward to when you met, Jigga, your cultivator. How did that relationship start and what led to the partnership?
Berner: Bud’s a very big part of the world we’re in out here in the Bay Area, and I was just buying herb from him and enjoyed what he was growing.
I was a huge fan, and I wanted to just let him know I wanted it all the time, and went above and beyond to show him how excited I was about it.
I even made t-shirts before COOKIES, with the first strain he brought me — Cherry Kush.
I made t-shirts and put it in my first music video, and showed him like, “Yo, I want to get this shit out to the world. People deserve to taste the shit you’re creating,” and so we just started building from the Cherry Kush to the Cherry Pie to the Cookies.
C&T Today: When you approached Jigga about making a brand out of the strain, did he understand that vision? It was kind of a novel concept, as you said, at the time.
Berner: To be completely honest, not at first. I think he embraced it. I think when I told him about it, and when he saw it, it was two different things.
Again, I used the music career to help boost it.
When I did a video with Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa, and Big K.R.I.T., it was all over BET and the radio.
It was on MTV, the internet, very viral. I decided to wear that “Cookies” sweater.
I knew that video was going to get millions of views and I knew it was going to be on TV.
I said to myself, “Well, if I really want to launch COOKIES, this is the best way to do it.”
When [Jigga] saw it on TV and the internet, he was like, “Okay, I totally get where you’re going with this.”
C&T Today: What goes into the selection process for choosing new strains for your retail operations?
Berner: Two things. I mean, if it’s something that we’re going to cultivate and produce, it goes off my palate, which I feel like has been pretty on point.
I’ll just smoke through [phenotypes. If we do a pheno hunt, if we do a breeding project, and let’s say we have 20 different varieties of the same strain, which means we have the same parents, I’ll pick the most flavorful, best-looking, best-tasting, best high in that variety and select it.
It’s a fun process, and a lot of good energy goes behind the selection of the strains that we have, the naming, and the packaging. It’s a full process to me.
C&T Today: How do you select specific strains to complement your creativity, like when you’re recording in the studio?
Berner: Sometimes when I do my music, I knock out an album in a week, and you have to have different styles of bud to keep that creativity rolling.
You can’t just smoke one weed.
You’ll smoke something that gets you up and anxious, and then you’ll smoke something that relaxes you because it’s a mellow vibe.
Sounds kind of fake, and people that don’t really burn all day wouldn’t understand, but if you burn all day, you understand different herb gives you different feelings.
It’s a big part of my creative process from music to design to just all around vibe. It’s pretty important to have a variety on deck.
C&T Today: Something you’ve spoken about before is your interest in bringing long-time growers from the illicit market into the legal space. How are you working toward that?
Berner: Legalization is going to happen everywhere.
Just like I’d rather have that grandma — that old-school recipe — than someone doing it fresh off the cookbook… I just feel like if someone’s been doing something for a long time… if it’s not broke, why fix it, right?
If someone’s been growing in the black market, they have experience with the plant… I mean it’s not an easy thing to grow good bud.
It’s very difficult, and things change all the time, and you have to be very attentive.
It’s not something that you can write a SOP to.
You can’t just give someone a book and say, “Here you go.”
I’d rather have someone that knows what they’re doing in position to represent our brand.
C&T Today: Are there challenges to bringing those OG growers into the space?
Berner: Absolutely. I mean, it’s a different game. The way we make money is a lot different. It’s a long-term play.
There’s taxes. I think the biggest problem is how long it takes for the bud to get to the shelf.
It discourages the growers.
I mean the lead time from someone harvesting and putting it in the consumers’ hands is so much different than the market they’re used to, but I think that once they jump in with us, they understand what we’re really doing on a global level, and they’re fired up to be a part of it.
Anyone I can bring into the game from the game is a blessing to me because I want to keep this shit as pure as it can be.
A lot of opportunists, a lot of money-grubbers are jumping in the business, and they weren’t here risking their freedom.
They weren’t getting their bank accounts frozen. They weren’t getting pulled off the planes by the DEA.
They weren’t out there on the field, and so I like to see more people from the game in the game.
C&T Today: You’ve had a hand in creating and marketing some super innovative products, from the COOKIES X G Pen Connect Vaporizer to all of your different genetics, and now CAPS. What was the inspiration behind the CAPS product line?
Berner: Alternative plant medicine. It’s super important that we understand how much cannabis has done for people and how much plants, in general, have done for people.
I just reversed my diabetes by drinking green juice as a supplemental meal, and just incorporating more veggies, and understanding that plants are here to help, right?
Mushrooms, we all enjoy taking them recreationally, but I started learning later on in life that there were so many medical benefits — like every other plant we enjoy, right?
I just think no one focused on combining mushrooms with CBD, CBG, CBN, and even THC, and what that would look like. When we started trying and playing with it, we were pretty impressed.
It took some R&D.
Wasn’t the easiest thing to formulate.
Shout out to our partner, Tony, at Blue River. He did an incredible job.
When we started actually enjoying the finished product, it’s a game-changer for my body, and I love to see young people, especially Black and brown people, on the internet talking about how it’s helping them as well because health products aren’t cool to a lot of people.
It’s like, “Let’s just get high.”
CBD, CBG, and CBN in general are supposed to be helping certain things, so it feels good to put a wellness product in people’s hands that, one, actually works.
Two, is innovative, that no one else has done.
And three, it’s cool as fuck to them, right?
You never see people bragging about a wellness product, and so when I see cats that are trying it and actually really working for them in their lives, it’s incredible.
I just think that the thought behind CAPS was really, really innovative, and I got to give my whole team props for that, for sure.
C&T Today: What does the future look like for the COOKIES empire?
Berner: Man, we just want to keep this shit pure and fun. As long as I’m alive, I want to put my energy into it.
No matter how recreational cannabis becomes, I always recognize it’s a medicine. It’s something that unifies people, and so all we’re going to do is keep quality product on the market, and keep expanding in markets that we’re not, and keep our intentions pure.
I want to unite people all around the world.
I want to make sure when my time comes, that there’s quality herb on the market.
I don’t want a bunch of investment bankers or real estate tycoons, no disrespect, to be controlling the experience of cannabis.
People from the business that understand the plant, that understand why we’re doing this should be the ones controlling the experience.
That’s all I want to do is help implement my vision all around the world, and hopefully, that shit outlives me.
C&T Today: Does COOKIES have any new projects on the horizon?
Berner: There’s something we’re working on right now for minorities that’s going to be next level.
A lot of people are preaching an equity program, which we have done as much as we can with the program put in front of us, and we’re really proud to open up the first Black-owned store in San Francisco.
We’re proud to empower multiple equity brands under the umbrella, multiple minority-based brands, but what we’re working on is a university in one of our locations where it’s everything from A to Z, from breeding to cultivation to packaging, manufacturing, storefront, lounge, you name it.
Everything from the business, A to Z, is in one building.
We want to offer minorities a chance to come and learn the business from us, whether they end up working for us with that knowledge or they end up going off to start their own business.
That’s something I’m very passionate about that we have in the works.
So just giving the “teaching a man to fish” concept.
It’s one thing to help someone with their equity license, but it’s another thing to teach them the whole game, and we want to teach all minorities the game, whether it be Asian, Native American, Mexican, Black, it doesn’t matter.
We want to teach minorities the business and keep them in.
I’m pretty excited about the COOKIES University.
Images courtesy of COOKIES