Brand Spotlight: The Bulldog

The Bulldog, the Dutch cannabis company that defined the Amsterdam coffeeshop tradition continues reinventing itself in its 50s.
Brand Spotlight: The Bulldog
Courtesy of The Bulldog

Those who have ventured to Amsterdam’s cannabis scene at any point in the last half century have probably encountered one of the most emblematic companies in the 50-year-old, strange, half-legal industry in Holland that is now on its way to revolutionizing the entire conversation, globally. 

Namely, The Bulldog “coffeeshop.”

The Bulldog has almost certainly been a stop on that tour for many of those visitors. The world’s first cannabis coffeeshop, and one of the few that remains with its original owners, is an institution. Named after the founder’s beloved four-legged friend Joris, the dogged determination to not only survive, but thrive in a world that is still being defined and regulated is also part of the brand, if not the concept beyond it.

Being able to consume cannabis publicly, with a group of other aficionados, has subsequently become part of the anthem of reform for the legalizing industry. Indeed, this one aspect of the “culture” outside of Holland has almost become a rallying cry in places where cannabis is becoming more legal.

That said, it wasn’t until very recently that it has even been possible to consider opening such an establishment outside of this low-lying country made famous (in part) by tulips, creative financial wizardry such as agricultural commodities exchanges, and a certain piratical entrepreneurialism—all of which have created many strange stories if not historical twists and turns with global implications.

Cannabis of course, is just one more of them. As is the idea of the cannabis cafe.

The reason, despite the idea’s popularity? Such establishments still fly in the face of regulatory muster just about everywhere. However, with the hopeful receding of COVID this year, it is very likely that the idea encapsulated by The Bulldog will spread rapidly—and of course not just in North America, although the first American cannabis cafe opened in late 2019, in West Hollywood. Thai entrepreneurs have already been experimenting with the idea. 

It is also likely to catch on in places like Germany, whenever reform is actually implemented, even though recent comments from the new coalition government are claiming that COVID, not cannabis reform, is their priority, and that pharmacies rather than coffeeshops will probably be the first point of sale (like Switzerland).

That said, even the Swiss are considering either a club or coffeeshop model as well, and it is unlikely that the German government can stem a tide that has been unstoppable everywhere else. Starting of course, with right across two bordering countries.

The Bulldog
Courtesy of The Bulldog

The Bulldog and Coffeeshop Culture

While Mellow Yellow takes the credit for being the first cannabis “tea house” in 1972, it was not until 1975 and the founding of The Bulldog that the modern idea of a “coffeeshop” was born.

Henk de Vries, the founder, got his start in the industry in 1970, the year after the Dutch government began to differentiate between cannabis and harder illicit drugs, like heroin. Henk began giving cannabis away until someone tried to sell him his own weed. Realizing that he was subsidizing sales for other people, Henk believed he could do better. He packed his stock in matchboxes and attended the Kralingen Music Festival, where he sold it. In fact, it sold so well, he had to return home several times to get more. 

In 1975, his business was going so strongly that Henk converted his father’s sex shop in the middle of Amsterdam’s red-light district to the first Bulldog coffeeshop. His motivation was to create a “living room for the neighbourhood.” 

He asked an expat Australian artist to paint the store’s signage. Instead, Harold Thornton created a mural that decorated the entire store front. In turn the mural helped create a landmark, if not magnet, for particularly foreign tourists and backpackers. 

The reputation of the establishment continued to grow—internationally.

Today, The Bulldog chain owns and operates multiple coffeeshops in Holland along with two brand stores, plus three bars and restaurants. The company also operates cannabis clubs in Barcelona and Ibiza, bars in Rome and Aruba, a hotel, and even a ski resort in Canada. Merchandise is not limited to cannabis strains—the company also has a full line of cannabis products, branded clothing, and other souvenirs.

If one were to characterize the business today, it would not be inaccurate to call The Bulldog an international hospitality enterprise that has its roots in cannabis. “That describes us well,” Chantal de Vries, Henk’s daughter, told High Times

The company that literally created the concept of the coffeeshop is still going strong—with even more plans to expand as the entire cannabis conversation finally begins to bloom in Europe as well as globally.

From Chantal’s perspective, the future is bright. “We believe that all sorts of possibilities are on the horizon thanks to the legalizing trend in Europe,” she said. “We have evolved with the industry and are looking forward to bright days ahead.”

She is also excited about the prospect of Swiss and German recreational reform right across the border. “We have always gotten a lot of European visitors, especially from Germany, Italy, and France. I hope the entire conversation changes the status of cannabis, finally, because it will create new opportunities for all of us.”

She believes that with legalization, cannabis cafe culture will now spread. “The experience is what it’s all about,” she said. “The Bulldog was founded out of love, and that is a feeling that still permeates everything we do.”

The Bulldog
Courtesy of The Bulldog

Moving Into the Future

The Bulldog has been on the front edge of most of the cannabis reform that has happened in Holland since the early 1970s. It was not until the early 1990s that the Dutch government began to establish guidelines for the coffeeshops that followed The Bulldog into the cannabis industry. It was not until 2020, that the Dutch government finally moved forward on establishing the outlines of the first regulated cannabis cultivation in the country (and this three years after the German medical cannabis cultivation bid).

In the meantime, The Bulldog, just like other coffeeshops that followed, has had to surf the waves of reform that have come incrementally over three generations, along with all the challenges that have come with that. However, in Holland, the first country in the world to allow a cannabis trade, albeit one that still lives in the gray areas of the law, such progress has also been marked with setbacks too. 

Post 2014, the Dutch government has also launched several ill-fated attempts to shut the coffeeshops down completely. Many of them, indeed, have closed. However, The Bulldog is determined to evolve and survive as real and final cannabis reform enters the room, both in Europe and of course far beyond.

Things look very promising indeed.

The Bulldog
Courtesy of The Bulldog

A More Formalized Industry

de Vries is excited about what lies ahead for the entire industry, not just Holland, in the new year. However, things are definitely moving in the right direction for the Dutch too. Last year, a national cultivation bid created ten cultivating firms who in turn will finally begin to address one of the bigger sore points in the industry. Namely, that even established businesses like The Bulldog still must rely on a cultivation system, which is not yet up to national standards.

Beyond this, a cannabis trade across borders, particularly as more countries in Europe adopt recreational reform is not out of the cards. Certainly, with a presence in both Spain and Holland now, it is not inconceivable to believe that a Bulldog coffeeshop might open in Berlin.

It is certainly a fitting legacy that is well deserved for a company which has braved the odds and is thriving.

“We have overcome a lot of things,” said de Vries. “We survived the police raids of the 70s and 80s. We evolved. We grew. My dad, Henk, always says the company is still a puppy and will grow much bigger.”

Of course, over the last two years, there have been even more threats, not just from authorities but also from COVID. Even in the face of a global pandemic, however, the company has overcome the challenges so far.

“We are standing tall,” said de Vries. “We established a reputation and brand that is global at this point. We have helped define a new industry that we will be a part of for a long time to come.”

Read this story originally published in High Times March 2022 Issue in our archive.

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