Niagara’s first cannabis shop opens its doors

The Niagara Herbalist co-owner Jessica Bonilla was riding a high as she watched her first customers walk through the doors.

“It feels absolutely unbelievably amazing,” she said, shortly after opening Niagara’s first retail cannabis shop Monday with her husband Kevin Trethowan and brother Max Bonilla.

“I’m so thrilled. We put so much work into this and we’re very proud, I think. Very tired, but very proud.”

Customers began arriving at the plaza at 33 Lakeshore Rd. shortly after 8 a.m., and a lineup began to form soon afterwards, as people from throughout Niagara hoped to be among the first customers in the region to purchase cannabis from the St. Catharines store.

The lineup grew to roughly 100 people by the time the store opened at 9 a.m., and customers continued to line up throughout the day ó with another evening rush of customers expected before the shop was scheduled to close at 9 p.m.

Bonilla said the shop’s “great staff” kept customers flowing.

“I’ve looked at some of the feedback on Facebook, and they said we have informative friendly and fast staff,” she said. “I was really happy about that.”

Although store security and Niagara Regional Police were present in the morning to ensure everything ran smoothly, the lineup was not as excessive as some customers thought it would be.

St. Catharines resident Richard Pickering said he expected to spend the next few hours waiting in line when he arrived at the business at about 7 a.m., but no one was there that early. He said a few people showed up at about 8:30 a.m., “and once I saw the line forming I though we’d better get out there.”

“I’m excited to see how it is,” he said while waiting to enter the business. “If it’s good stuff. Hopefully, there will be more stores opening.”

A single store “is not nearly enough” for Niagara, he added.

There is a second cannabis store planned for Niagara Falls called Choom Cannabis. Although an Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario public consultation period for that location has concluded, it has yet to receive its operator’s licence allowing it to open.

Niagara Falls resident Peter Dolgos said he’s eager to see Choom Cannabis open, too, but said visiting The Niagara Herbalist was worth the trip to St. Catharines.

“It was an awesome experience,” he said as he left the shop carrying a bag of cannabis products he uses to help with his multiple sclerosis.

Considering the medicinal benefits the once maligned drug offers, Dolgos said the day when people could purchase cannabis as easily as a bottle of wine had to come.

“It’s worked, very much,” he said ó adding he prefers to use cannabis compared to the opioids he’s been prescribed in the past.

After advocating for retail cannabis stores, Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Mishka Balsom said she visited the store to congratulate the owners.

“It’s a tremendous investment for a retail store to open up Ö This is Niagara’s first and it’s great.”

Comparing it to the end of alcohol prohibition, Mayor Sendzik said the store opening is “one of those moments that we’re going to talk about 50 or 60 years, when we finally had a store that sells cannabis in our community.”

“Look at the enthusiasm that we have here,” he said as the crowd cheered. “This is amazing.”

“When the federal government legalized cannabis Ö they underestimated how much interest there would be in a store like this.”

Meanwhile, curiosity brought other patrons to the line ó hoping to see what a cannabis store looks like.

The shop features tables set up with sealed clear plastic containers of various strains of cannabis within them, giving customers an opportunity to see and smell the product before buying. A customer service counter is set up on the left side of the store, with a large screen mounted on the wall behind it displaying products and prices, updated continually as products are sold.

By about 3:30 p.m., Bonilla said the shop had yet to run out of any of the products it had in stock, despite having served hundreds of customers.
The Niagara Herbalist owners weren’t the only ones with sales on their minds, as the line of patrons grew.

Katie Storm, a leader from First North Pelham Sparks used it as an opportunity to sell girl guide cookies. She said she got the idea after hearing news reports about a girl guide who sold out in about 45 minutes outside a cannabis store in Edmonton.

“People are laughing about it, and saying good idea ó that sort of stuff,” Storm said.

The St. Catharines cannabis business was one of 10 shops across the province to open doors on schedule Monday ó joining retailers in Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, Burlington, London and Brampton.