Industrial kitchens inspire awe. I visited the Heinz factory in Pittsburgh on a sixth-grade field trip, and the memory of swimming-pool-sized vats of mustard and ketchup bottles on an interminable assembly line remains with me still. Whether it’s a foundry, factory, brewery or bakery, serving a huge customer base requires sophisticated automation.
The cannabis industry has reached the point where it, too, has embraced the technology of mass production—and while it’s not on the scale of Heinz (yet), the new era of machinery designed to help legal cannabusinesses thrive is definitely here.
I’m standing in the industrial kitchen of Cheeba Chews in Denver. It’s nothing like a conglomerate’s food-processing plant—perhaps a mere 25 by 25 feet, with a couple of small offices situated adjacent to the action.
But you should never judge a kitchen by its size. Cheeba Chews is America’s—if not the world’s—leading brand of cannabis-infused candies, available in medical dispensaries in California and Colorado, as well as in the latter state’s 300-plus recreational cannabis shops. These days, across its licensed entities, more than 50,000 Cheeba Chews candies are produced every week.
Food-grade thermoform trays are sealed and cut into multi-dose recreational 8-packs of Cheeba Chews.
The brand got started in the personal kitchen of CEO James Howler in 2009. As Colorado’s cannabis industry was taking root, Howler noticed serious flaws in the production of edibles: There was no consistency in dosages, which meant that consumer trust was shaky. A licensed medical grower, Howler had access to plenty of trim, which he’d been selling to dispensaries. But the void in the area of cannabis edibles pushed him into the kitchen instead.
Medical marijuana patients are thankful for these discreet, professionally packaged candies (nothing about a Cheeba Chew screams out “Pot!”), which are made with a blend of either indica- or sativa-dominant strains. The premium cannabis oil used in the company’s recipes is tested at three different stages—the harvested flower, the oil and the edible itself—to ensure a consistent experience for every Cheeba chewer.
Howler cites the company’s core values: “We make sure we provide a consistent edible that consumers and budtenders can rely on. Plus we go the extra mile in testing and preparation to ensure that Cheeba Chews maintain a high level of potency. People know they’re getting an edible product that will provide relief anytime, anywhere necessary.” Cheeba Chews come in a variety of flavors and doses, with the dosage listed prominently on each Chew. (A non-psychoactive Pure CBD Cheeba Chew is also available.)
Looking at the company’s success, it’s a bit surprising to hear that Colorado’s transition from a medical to a recreational-use state caused Cheeba Chews a moment of pause. “Our initial decision was to hold off before jumping into the recreational market,” Howler says. “It allowed us to take a look at how the industry was going to be impacted. We’ve seen it take on a major transformation: Not only do recreational products now need to be secured in child-resistant packaging, they also must be provided in 10 mg, single-dose increments. Soon, manufacturers will be required to mark products for identification beyond packaging.”
Those safeguards reflect the concerns over edibles on the recreational market—specifically, the possibility of accidental ingestion or overconsumption. “We wanted to make sure Cheeba Chews not only addressed those concerns,” Howler explains, “but showed that our industry can solve these issues without additional regulations.”
To do so, the company hired an engineering firm to help build a customized “depositing” machine—one that could handle the viscosity of Cheeba Chew’s taffy while still measuring out and inserting the correct dose. “Once we fine-tuned the depositing process, we had to reinvent our packaging,” Howler continues. “So we designed a multi-dose package that allows the depositing machine to pour infused taffy chews into single 10 mg dose cavities, which are then securely sealed for freshness. This packaging helps a consumer quickly find their optimal dosing level by ingesting one 10 mg Chew at a time.”
According to requirements, each cavity is also marked with a “10 mg THC” imprint. So when a Cheeba Chew is popped out of its package, a very clear stamp remains to remind consumers of the contents.
Bins of 80 mg THC multi-dose recreational boxes are organized by batch number.
“This was a large overhaul for our brand on the recreational side,” Howler admits. “But we’ve made sure to keep our successful medical products intact, in the same way they’ve always been provided.”
Cheeba Chews’ success has enabled the company to expand, including a new line of caramels, the mixed-fruit Green Hornet gummy and the Dabba mint chocolate. But even with its meteoric growth, as well as the ever-increasing interest that the cannabis industry has been receiving in general, Cheeba Chews remains privately owned and 100 percent self-funded.
“We haven’t taken a dime of credit or investment,” Howler says proudly. “The company has grown organically. Entering the recreational market in Colorado has brought growth and structure to our business. We now have a small executive team and, including our licensed partners, over 30 employees. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover—manufacturing, packaging, quality assurance, sanitation, customer service, HR, marketing, sales. But our success is a testament to hard work, accountability and a dedication to detail.”
Looking for the key to getting ahead in the brave new world of legal cannabis? Chew on that!
The packaging process begins when taffy is poured into the hopper.