An interview with Leah D'Ambrosio, COO, of Baked Smart LLC
Before we begin, we understand that you are recently recovering from COVID. Is there anything about that experience you’d like to share with the Who’s Who in Cannabis network?
It was probably one of the worst illnesses I’ve ever been through. I was bedridden with excruciating body pain for two weeks and the worst part was I couldn’t sleep, read, watch TV or even listen to a podcast. After that I had zero energy for three months. The fatigue was so extreme I could only work an hour or two a day, if that. Thankfully at the beginning of February, I finally started to feel better. Two interesting things happened during COVID with cannabis. During the first two weeks I couldn’t ingest or smoke cannabis because when I closed my eyes, I would feel like I was falling off of a cliff and it was really scary and unsettling. But once the two weeks of pain stopped, I was able to eat my 1:1 edibles and found they helped me sleep and alleviated the panic I was having about not healing faster. I truly believe the reason I didn’t get depressed and feel hopeless during this intense period of recovery was because of cannabis.
That sounds like it was awful. So glad to hear that you're feeling much better now. Can you tell us about the origins of Baked Smart and your vision for the company?
In early 2015, my partner and I were starting our edibles company, Sconed, and we wanted to find a way to mark our products so consumers would know our products were infused. At that time no one was marking their edibles – which I honestly had a hard time with. I am the type of person to eat first and ask questions later, and it seemed so dangerous not to know if a brownie, or obviously any edible, was infused or not. I know this is very risky for children, but even for adults there is huge risk in unknowingly eating an infused product. People have lost their jobs from accidentally eating an edible and testing positive. We partnered with one of the world’s largest bakery decoration suppliers and started marking our signature toffee with green crosses. It was a big hit. People knew intuitively there was cannabis in the candy or at the very least would immediately stop and say, is there medicine in this? It was a great way for consumers to easily identify our toffee as infused. Since 2016 we have been providing ways for edible companies across the U.S. to mark their edibles. Marking edibles is simple, affordable and an important step to take to protect the public from accidental consumption. With federal legalization looming ahead of us, we feel this may be something that all edibles companies will be doing in the near future.
How is Baked Smart progressing? Do you think Coronavirus is having an impact on your corner of the industry?
Only in the positive. When the shutdowns first started, there was some panic as to whether or not cannabis would be considered essential and, even more importantly, if our manufacturer’s services would be considered essential. Thankfully our manufacturer supplies products to the military so we didn’t have any disruption in our production or shipping capabilities, and for many states we were operating in, cannabis was considered essential. We actually achieved a 30% increase in sales from 2019- 2020, and we hope to repeat that level of success this year.
What is the Green Cross initiative?
The Initiative is more about the sharing of information. We wanted to share our thoughts about marking edibles with a truly universal symbol. When we first marked our toffee, long before any state required it, marking it with the green cross seemed like the obvious choice. The Green Cross is undeniably a universal symbol. People around the globe know it means medicine. When we went to market with our toffee, we had a really wonderful reception to the green crosses. People appreciated seeing a marking they clearly understood. When Colorado unveiled its symbol - the diamond with THC! - there were a lot of people who did not know THC meant cannabis. On a chocolate bar, it can look like the name of the company. The green cross is something everyone can easily identify as medicine - even kids as young as 2. So why not use it as our universal symbol for edibles? We hope people reading about the initiative will agree and push for this symbol to be used on all edibles.
What are the main challenges in labeling THC on edibles?
It can sometimes be labor intensive as a few of the products need to be placed individually on cookie sheets but we also have products that eliminate that step. Baked goods are incredibly easy as you bake the edible paper directly onto the baked good and it is not coming off. Chocolate is the same. Chocolatiers have been using transfer sheets to decorate chocolates for years and our manufacturer is the world’s biggest supplier of chocolate transfer sheets. Some edible companies are using cocoa butter transfer sheets (which is common in the bakery industry) to mark their products and unfortunately cocoa butter isn’t shelf stable. Our transfer sheets cost a little more but have a five year shelf-life. And there are a lot of edibles you can’t mark - popcorn, granola, peanut butter, ice cream, sauces, beverages, etc. Which brings me back to the green cross. If all packaging were required to have a big green cross, then we could have a universal symbol that everyone understood on the packaging and hopefully prevent accidental consumption.
Are certain types of products more difficult to affix THC labels?
The one type of food that has proved challenging is gummies. We use the same concept for gummies as chocolate, but we use Baked Smart’s exclusive “high heat” transfer sheets for gummies. Traditionally transfer sheets for chocolate can only withstand heat up to 150°. Our sheets can with stand heat up to 400°. The issue we have with gummies, is that they occasionally have a hard time releasing from the transfer sheet - which can be due to the recipe for the gummy. It is frustrating and time intensive to try and pick the gummies off the transfer sheets. We are working on solving this issue this year and hope to have better alternatives for our clients in the near future. Traditionally no one has ever marked gummies in this way so it’s definitely challenging!
Since each state has a unique program for marijuana legalization, how is that impacting any standards for product labeling?
It makes it confusing not only for edible companies but also for consumers. If you’re in Colorado, your edibles have the diamond with THC!, if you’re in Nevada, it’s a triangle with THC! and Massachusetts symbol is, IMHO, a mess. If you are a company in Colorado who is expanding to Nevada, you have to buy different products for each state which adds unnecessary costs. It was nice when Ohio decided to use Colorado’s symbol and I really hope more states adopt that rule instead of trying to create their own.
Do you have any advice for a start-up that may be thinking about starting an edibles company in the cannabis space?
Create a unique edible and do your due diligence. Find out what people are making in your area. If there are 20 companies making chocolate bars, you want to stand out and do something different. When I started out, my company was called Sconed because I was going to make infused scones – which is my specialty! But sadly, at that time, baked goods were not selling well here in Oregon. So I pivoted and instead sold my signature toffee and it was a big hit! No one was making toffee at that time and we weren’t a gummy or a chocolate bar so we stood out. I encourage other edible companies to do the same. Do some market research in your area as every area is different. MIssissippi just went legal and I can’t wait to see if anyone makes infused pralines! Nom nom nom! Consider healthy choices as well like vegan, gluten free and savory edibles. But always go with what you know! It will be much easier to scale up if you are making products you know inside and out. And please consider marking your edibles even if you’re in a state that doesn’t require it. Taking the initiative to protect the public costs very little but the impact is huge. You will definitely stand out as a leader if you incorporate measures that proactively protect the public.
Is there one thing that could happen that would dramatically advance your business?
I started Baked Smart because I thought our mission was absolutely essential to this evolving industry. It would be wonderful if every legal state would mandate all edibles be marked. I believe that when the federal government does decide to step in, they will want edibles to be marked which would obviously be huge for us. There is a small fear I have for our industry that if cannabis is legalized nationally, the feds may decide edibles and drinks aren’t necessary and we can ingest cannabis through a pill. It’s another reason why we encourage all edible makers to start marking their edibles now whether it be with our products or molds or however else other companies are marking them. As an industry, we need to show there is a way to safely have cannabis in food and protect the public.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our network?
Last October, Baked Smart, hosted the industry’s first ever conference dedicated to edibles – www.everythingediblesevent.com. We had 40 speakers – including some of the industry’s top leaders like Nancy Whiteman, Jeff the 420 Chef, Ricardo Baca, The Doctors Knox and many others. It was an amazing conference that was well attended and had incredible attendee interaction. Attendees have said they are using everything they learned at the conference to start their business. For the next few months, we are selling access to this past event for $39. This includes access to all the recordings, the presentation materials and to our community forum. If you are interested in entering the legal cannabis industry as an edible company, I believe this conference is a great primer. Lots of really wonderful actionable information is included.
We are now ramping up for our next online conference that will happen this fall and are anticipating it to be another amazing event. If anyone in your network is an expert (in fields such as accounting, investing, edibles, branding/marketing), and would like to apply to speak, we’d love to hear from them! They can reach us via the website.
Leah D'Ambrosio, COO of Baked Smart
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