Photo of Hawaii Mike taken by Nashish Scott (@Nash1sh).
'Chef for Higher' Founder Hawaii Mike Talks Bud Brand Building + Cannabis Culture's Evolution [Interview]
Photo of Hawaii Mike taken by Nashish Scott (@Nash1sh).Brand building and curating editorial is not for the faint of heart, especially on 4/20, but Hawaii Mike knows his stuff.
This New York City-based entrepreneur is the co-founder, alongside his wife Stephanie, of Chef for Higher, which hosts meticulously curated cannabis-infused dinners for enthusiasts and their curious friends. But before leaping into the industry, Mike was a music industry fixture with humble beginnings. Whether he was sneaking into a music convention, The Gavin, where he intended to sell weed or working as a road manager for Mobb Deep — Hawaii Mike was always meant for life in the fast lane. He would go on to have stints at The Source and later to become the founding editor-in-chief of Inked Magazine before taking his talents to cannabis.
Mike has cultivated his talents to become a marketing wizard, shaping the culture we know-and-love, and during that rise, he saw a need to fill a sector within the booming cannabis industry.
We got Hawaii Mike to sit down with us to talk about brand building, marketing for marijuana amongst aged stigma, and how cannabis can be easily integrated into one's lifestyle for a multitude of uses.
Okayplayer: You went from being a tour manager to working at The Source. What was the transition like?
Hawaii Mike: Yes, going from promotions to editorial changed a lot for me. I am looking at the culture now from a consumer-engagement standpoint. We were influencers before online and social media. We worked in print. I was there from 1999-2002, right before the online publications like Hypebeast started popping up. You saw things in The Source or VIBE first! I went from engaging through music to engaging through products. In fact, myself and DJ Clark Kent had a management group. Together, we managed pro-BMX athlete Nigel Sylvester and photographer Jonathan Mannion. I co-managed Clark as well. I also managed Mr. Flawless and producers Sean C & LV. All of those things: events, tour productions and more allowed me to be well-rounded.
OKP: With everyone celebrating 4/20, can you tell those who might not be familiar about "Chef For Higher"?
HM: Our idea was born from looking at the landscape in cannabis. The companies that were popping up — they were going to be tough to compete with. So, I started researching history and how cannabis has really participated in the culture. It was always around. It was never a problem for my house. My friends came to my house to smoke. I've never looked at it as anything but normal. We want to show people how you can use this, how you can put it into your life and we use food to show that.
We wanted to build a brand. At the end of prohibition in New York, there were over 200 speakeasy spots. We said, 'Let's take this risk,' and take it to another level. We weren't doing anything crazy, we were doing dinner parties. At the same time, how do we develop this into a movement? We hit up our network that spans the gamut — fashion, music and media — and leveraged our relationships to fuel this "something different."
With our blinders on, we created a vibe that we could recreate in California, anywhere.
OKP: Weed and hip-hop go together like a warm summer breeze and a beach. Where does the rap industry fit into the evolving cannabis industry?
Photo of 'Chef for Higher' taken by Nashish Scott (@Nash1sh).HW: The tipping point of hip-hop was at a similar point that cannabis is now. It is a counterculture, illegal industry that is making millions and millions of dollars. Why aren't more hip-hop artists [in Congress] lobbying? My guess is there's no monetary benefit for them, plus, we don't have examples of marijuana being ushered in a positive way. Our celebrity influencers just think it is cool to smoke on stage.
They [the rappers] need to step back and say look at all of the things that are happening. Is the arrest rate by accident? Or by design? I don't know, but it makes you think. All of this info is in [the Ava DuVernay documentary], 13th. Why aren't we all watching that and talking about it more? Look at gentrification. I live in Clinton Hill, and I watched that shit get taken.
We never utilize our voice. Going back to slavery, we weren't allowed to. There were repercussions for standing up for one's self. However, in hip-hop, we've managed to keep creative control. Our voices are strong and dominating the airwaves. As we continue to become more powerful and our voices resonate in cities, states and globally, we can eventually tip the scales fully and help our brothers and sisters get from under another oppressive system.
OKP: With that in mind, how can cannabis and food help shift the tipping point?
HW: Food, music and cannabis — all these things bring people together. We use food because it is communal and steeped in celebration. There is nothing more communal than cannabis. No greater equalizer. Come to one of our dinners and I'm gonna give you a brief education. There was a time you could get a prescription at your local pharmacy for cannabis. This was a legitimate medicine. Another thing we teach is that we don't use the "m" word.
It came from propaganda—of course, people will say we own it—but it is still not a scientific term. If you want people to believe in your word and take you seriously then use the terminology that represents it correctly in that world.
OKP: In time you have been working on "Chef for Higher," can you speak to its evolution?
HW: Since we've been doing this, I have found that our dinners are our focus groups. I let the community tell us where to go. It is how we came up with the first products we're putting to market. It's how we changed and adapted our events. I want to be able to educate, but I'm not a teacher. We educate enough to motivate you to learn more. I want to make sure that people aren't complacent, and realize this is something we should have a right to choose.
[Cannabis] is a plant with so many uses, including industrial, so there is no reason why it should be illegal. When you know that that the United States has a patent [on marijuana] then why is it illegal becomes the obvious question? I would love to see all of the ways that cannabis use is used for oppression washed away.
OKP: What have been some of the most memorable dinners?
HW: We did one recently with a supplement company and it was kinda interesting. It was our first paleo dinner with some interesting people, but we've had UFC fighters, well-known podcasters and the likes in the past. We just love being able to educate people at least on consumption and how to use it in their everyday lives. Let them know cannabis helps with all kinds of things like inflammation. People need to know that they can utilize not just the THC, but also CBD (non-psychoactive) for other symptoms they may have.
Photo of 'Dinner is Dope' taken by Nashish Scott (@Nash1sh).OKP: Do you have any advice for the newbies looking to enter into the cannabis industry?
HW: Don't launch a cannabis brand! Launch a lifestyle brand. This is a lifestyle that crosses and permeates every aspect of culture. Every kind of travel, every kind of music genre. You're not "doing" a cannabis business, even if it may represent cannabis, you're enriching one's life. We limit who we can reach if we put that lens on. I was the founding editor-in-chief of Inked Magazine and we were asked to create a high-end tattoo publication. We ended up just creating a lifestyle publication that focused on music, culture and just so happened to feature people with tattoos.
I mean "cannabis packaging" isn't new. All of this shit has been out there before. What are you making that specifically marks it as cannabis? I challenge people all the time. Normalize the use of cannabis as an everyday essential, which is our mission, and help parents to use cannabis for more patience, or terminally ill people to use as medicine. I use it for cooking. It can mean something different for everyone, but I want people to open their eyes and see that there is a way. Plus, you don't have to prove demand, but you have to convince them that you have a community.
Engage them and make them feel like they are a part of something. Find your target audience, who you relate to the most. Those people who you organically connect to. If they feel it, then they will tell their friends. Consumer marketing is the best because they're doing the marketing for you. Remember how you buy, why you purchase something—that new soda, those new sneakers—and think why it made you buy it? Is it the fact that you wanted to try it, if so, then what would make you buy it again and again?
OKP: To end on a productive note, I want to know from you what brand(s) get it right?
HW: My favorite case study is Supreme. The past five to six years, they've exploded. 16 years ago, if you didn't know someone in the store, they might not let you in. Everyone knows the top brands—Supreme has become that—through skateboard culture, the internet, social media. Supreme and BAPE came out of that.
They sample pieces of American culture. They do the North Face collaboration, the NYC x MTA joint effort and just push the spectrum. They assume the next step they think you're going to take and they got to that point because their community is so strong, you can sell them anything. With hip-hop, we've booked the spectrum because of our aspirational purchasing power. We've been fly since blaxploitation. From heritage to luxury to everyday blue collar Supreme NYT metro cards, we are always engaged with the true essence of the people.
Sirita Wright is a Cannabis Evangelist, CMO and co-founder of @EstroHaze, a multi-media startup connecting multicultural women to the business and lifestyle opportunities in the cannabis industry. Follow the latest + greatest from her @SavageGazelle.