Donnelly Group to launch nine-store Hobo cannabis retail chain

Longtime pub operator plans Vancouver stores on Main Street, Granville Street and Commercial Drive

Jeff Donnelly has 26 businesses that are either pubs, cocktail lounges, barbershops or eateries in addition to his planned nine cannabis stores | Dominic Schaefer/BIV files

Longtime pub operator Jeff Donnelly plans to launch a chain of nine cannabis stores branded Hobo Recreational Cannabis, which he expects to open in quick succession starting in April, he confirmed March 11.

In B.C., Donnelly expects to have eight stores, which is the provincial limit. He also plans on having one store in Ottawa.

Vancouver locations are set to be at:

•Robson Street, between Thurlow and Bute streets;

•Granville Street in the Marpole neighbourhood;

•Nelson Street near Granville Street;

•Main Street near East 26th Avenue; and

•Commercial Drive near East 10th Avenue.

One B.C. location is set for Kelowna while two other stores would be in Metro Vancouver suburbs.

The stores would operate under his Donnelly Group, which in Vancouver also operates 10 pubs, two cocktail lounges, five barbershops, a restaurant and the brewery Bomber Brewing. His Vancouver-based venture also operates in Toronto: four pubs, a cocktail club, two barbershops and a café.

It has been rumoured for months that Donnelly would enter the cannabis retail sector and Donnelly has attended cannabis-related events hosted by Business in Vancouver.

He told BIV in a March 11 interview that he his aim is to have a nationwide cannabis business, although it is tough at the moment to open stores in many provinces.

Donnelly had 23 leases signed in Ontario, he said, and then Premier Doug Ford suddenly restricted the number of licences that would be granted and implemented a lottery system to determine who would get the province's 25 licences – five licences available in each of five Ontario regions.

"When they decided to do that, it flipped the whole industry on its head," Donnelly said.

"We all had to scramble to either get out of leases, or keep our good leases. Our holding costs are going through the roof but our goal was to partner with someone who won one of those licences who maybe didn't have the experience in operating, so we did."

Donnelly's partner in Ontario is Karan Someshwar, who last month posted an application on the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario website for a store on Bank Street in Ottawa's Centretown neighbourhood. The public has until March 12 to oppose the application.

"It's his business and we have an operating agreement to run the store for him," Donnelly said.

A similar situation played out in Alberta, where Donnelly had lease agreements and development permits before the government in November stopped issuing licences. A recent Alberta government move to issue 10 more licences is a mere trickle as there are many applicants already in the queue.

"We can't get into Manitoba now, or Saskatchewan, or Nova Scotia," he said. "Quebec is completely shut off as it is all public. Everywhere we can go we’ve got our fingers in."

Saskatchewan held a lottery to determine which entrepreneurs would be allowed to open cannabis stores. Donnelly said that one option for him would be to buy a licence from one of the winning applicants.

"The other thing, frankly, is we're not trying to grow at a huge pace," he said. "We’re going to probably open – when we have the opportunity – quite a few shops in Alberta. We’re only able to open eight stores in B.C. or we’d do more here."

Why the name Hobo?

The name Hobo caused a buzz among some Twitter users who view the word as offensive, and that caught Donnelly off guard because he does not see the term that way.

C. Davis, for example, wrote on her @SeaDavis7 account "cool that we are no longer even trying to pretend the cannabis industry isn't hugely gentrified. WTF kind of stupid, bullshit, stigma-perpetuating name is Hobo?!"

Globe and Mail reporter Jameson Berkow tweeted to question to his followers to see if anyone was offended by the choice of the name, and he received a slew of responses.

Others sounded OK with the name.

“Some people got quite creative naming the first round of retail cannabis stores in Ontario. The Hunny Pot, Ganjika House, Smok and Choom are all pretty sweet, but Hobo Recreational Cannabis Store?? Can't beat it,” wrote Saira Peesker on her @Peesker account.

Donnelly Group vice-president of brand and culture Harrison Stoker sent a statement to BIV that read, "The term 'hobo' dates back to the 1920s, and describes a travelling worker. The word evokes a sense of wanderlust, and implies a passion for the journey over the actual, final destination. The team behind Hobo Recreational Cannabis Store fell in love with the idea of a journey, in the context of cannabis, having both literal and figurative meaning, ie: the journey one might embark on in their own mind while imbibing. 

"The Hobo logo is iconography based on the ‘Hobo Code,’ a communication system that was used by these travellers and symbolizes a 'good road to follow.' We hope that this conveys the inclusive message that all are welcome to come in and join us, and supports Hobo’s 'Not All Who Wander Are Lost' tagline."

Donnelly echoed that sentiment in the interview. 

"It has a bit of wanderlust to it," he said. "Some of my favourite hotels and magazines over the past years have had hobo in their name, or in relation to it. It’s a travelling worker. It's not the negative connotation that some people have. I’ve never seen it as a negative thing. Some people have said to me that there’s a negative connotation to it but we agree to disagree."