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The CULTA Blog

Interview with Rusty Wilenkin, CEO and Co-Founder of Old Pal

In August 2022, CULTA announced a partnership with Old Pal, a cannabis lifestyle brand headquartered in Venice, California. Founded in 2018, Old Pal is dedicated to producing cannabis that’s affordable, accessible, and abundant. Our Marketing Director Renier Fee spoke with Old Pal CEO and Co-Founder Rusty Wilenkin to introduce the brand to our readership. Read on to learn more about Old Pal and what this partnership means for CULTA patients.

 

Hey Rusty. It's a pleasure to meet you. Where are you calling in from today?

Los Angeles!

Let's kick off the interview. Early in your career you worked in various finance lending capacities but then your jobs were strictly focused on cannabis. Was that an accidental shift or were you intentional about making the jump into cannabis?

I would definitely say it was intentional. During my college years at Northeastern, I became very familiar and passionate about the cannabis industry. When I moved to California in 2013 the goal was always to transition from finance back to cannabis as soon as I was able to. 

Quickly after joining the cannabis industry, you founded your first business, a cannabis farm called Prism Farms. Why did you decide to start your own venture?

I've always been entrepreneurial, and when one of my good friends had the idea for Prism I was excited to help her bring the vision to life. At the time CBD was really new to the market, and having the chance to bring smokable CBD blends to the California consumer in the early days was a very special experience.

That experience as a first-time business owner must have been influential to your leadership style today. What did you learn?

I learned that ego has no place in business, and that being authentic is more important than anything both internally and externally. Always listen to the people in your organization, especially those on the ground everyday – they have a unique (and incredibly important) front row seats to how the brand is being experienced out in the world.

Later you and Jason Osni, Old Pal co-founder and president, had a similar vision to make an accessible and affordable cannabis brand. Why did you think that white space was a need you could fulfill with Old Pal?

I was working as a sales rep in the cannabis industry, and by 2018 cannabis became cost-prohibitive for me. It was disappointing to feel pushed out of a market that I’d worked to create for so long. We wanted to change the market, all while creating a product that offered the consumer value, quality, accessibility and still looked beautiful.

Were there challenges in getting investors and local state cultivators to see the value in a brand like Old Pal?

In the early days we had to do a lot of convincing, farmers trusted us but didn't necessarily understand the importance of branding their product(s). 

The trust we had already established with them, more than anything,  made it possible to create the supply chain to power the brand early on. On the investor side, we were lucky to have a supportive group of early investors, and while it isn't easy to find them, our investors have supported us and helped us along the journey.

How did the brand name Old Pal come about?

Jason, along with our agency and partner in the business, LAND, worked together on the name and branding. When I heard it for the first time I was sold, it just feels so timeless and familiar.

I'm a fan of Old Pal's aesthetic. Where did the brand's creative direction come from?

LAND handled most of the early direction and initial brand identity, they took a lot of inspiration from early Americana.

I really dig it. Were Zig Zag rolling papers a conscious design reference?

Not specifically, but I have always been a huge fan of the brand!

Old Pal started in California in 2018 and is now currently available in Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Congrats on the speed of growth! How do you choose your partners in each state?

Almost 100% of how we choose who we work with comes down to the quality of the people. Obviously you need to be able to produce our products, but more importantly how do we align with our partners, do they believe what we believe, and do they also want to see Old Pal grow into the timeless national brand that we do.

CULTA and Old Pal have partnered to produce and distribute your products in Maryland. Had you heard about CULTA prior to the partnership? What's our reputation on the West Coast? I'm asking for a friend of mine who works in marketing, ha!

Prior to looking into the Maryland market I had only heard of CULTA from our mutual friends in Ohio, but as soon as we started looking at the market, it became clear the group was well-respected and growing an incredible product. When I came for my tour I loved meeting the team, seeing the brands in person, and seeing the overall vibe of the company. Happy people working for a partner inspired the confidence that we're working with good folks!

The first Old Pal product CULTA will distribute is your classic 14 grams of pre-ground cannabis in a resealable pouch. Can you tell our Maryland medical patients about why you zeroed in on this as your marquee product?

Well, this is my favorite product we make. It is the first product we'd launch in a market as important to us as Maryland. The pre-ground flower we produce is great for so many use cases. It's designed for the busy medical patient. The flower is coarsely ground for a perfect smoke or vape, and for patients with arthritis there is no need to use a grinder, simply scoop some ready to use flower into a pipe, vape, or other preferred consumption method and get rolling.

The "Old Pal" name suggests a reliable old friend. Similarly, there has to be a level of trust between your brand and the grower in each state that you are distributed. How do you QC the product in your pouch to provide a consistent brand experience to the medical patient? 

We handle QC and consistency in our markets in a few different ways.

The first piece is that I personally go and walk all of our partners' cultivation facilities before we ever sign a deal. I want to see that the flower is up to our standards, that our partner's facility is clean, and that the folks working in the cultivation are happy and motivated. Assuming we check all of those boxes, we come out for a training session with partners before they ever produce a batch, and are on site to supervise the initial production. Once we feel that our partners understand what it is we expect, and our various product standards, we move to a 10 point QC scoring system for every batch that goes into the market. We take QC extremely seriously. 

In terms of consistency, we achieve that through the use of high quality, consistent input material, as well as a standardized grinding process for every market. From the size of the screens to the time in the machine, we have the optimal grind down to a science.

What other products are on the horizon for Old Pal?

We have quite a bit on the docket for this year, obviously we can’t wait to bring our pre-rolls and infused blunts to the Maryland market, and we have a few edible SKUs launching in various markets in Q4.

I appreciate that Old Pal isn't afraid to get political. Your Legalize Humanity program donates proceeds to National Expungement Week, RAICES, and others. You've even gone on the record to provide assistance to Old Pal employees in states with restricted abortion access. How does that activism tie in with your brand and company culture?

From day one Jason and I recognized that the war on drugs has preyed upon folks that largely didn't look like us. Through that lens it was incredibly important to launch Legalize Humanity as a way to support marginalized communities, and to give back where we can. It is often a bit intimidating to get political as a company, but my partner and I are both huge fans of Ben and Jerry's culture and believe the authenticity of doing what we think is right will offset anyone we alienate along the way.

Sustainability is also important to your brand. I read somewhere that you want to eventually have completely recyclable packaging. How is that coming along?

That is a goal of our brand, and believe me when I say I wish it were easier. Our newest pre-roll products (14PK in CA, and Palitos in MA) all come in 100% plant based packaging. As we design new SKUs, sustainability is front of mind, and my hope is we can migrate our full product line in the future.

Good stuff. It was great speaking with you Rusty. I'm looking forward to working with your team!