By Alex Cordero
Longtime San Gabriel Valley residents Tony Fong and Leonard Wang recently made local business history by opening Varda, the first licensed and only locally-owned cannabis dispensary in Pasadena.
Wang and Fong are the founders of this 3,000-square-foot store designed to give a multigenerational line of customers an amiable experience when shopping for cannabis.
“We want our customers to feel safe when they visit us and we also want our local community to know we are selling all of our products responsibly.” Fong said, as he and Wang gave me a tour of the store and introduced me to the ample selection of cannabis products placed inside glass displays throughout the store.
The displays are labeled with different categories to inform customers about the product before they make a purchase. Varda is also designed so that first-time customers and those unfamiliar with the different products, their uses, and potency can easily navigate through the selection of products without feeling overwhelmed.
Although Fong and Wang are still ensuring their daily operations run smoothly by working closely with Caroline Cardenas, Varda’s general manager, Fong shared that he is currently working on enhancing the customer experience by hiring more cannabis connoisseurs to be readily available to guide shoppers as soon as they enter the store.
As the cannabis industry continues to go mainstream, more states are rapidly approving ballot measures legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use.
As of December 2020, a total of 15 states have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational adult use; 36 states have legalized it for medical use. According to an article by CNN published this past summer, experts speculate more states will soon follow suit in 2021.
Despite the growing number of states legalizing cannabis, it remains categorized as a Schedule I drug — among those with the highest (no pun intended) potential for abuse, according to federal law.
Earlier this month, the House of Representatives also made history by passing the More Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) — the first bill proposing the decriminalization of marijuana at the federal level.
If the MORE Act passes it would be a big step toward legitimizing the cannabis industry both at state and federal level and may also impact the way entrepreneurs, like Wang and Fong, give back to their communities.
In the past, Wang and Fong have attempted to give back to their local community by making monetary contributions to local nonprofit organizations throughout the San Gabriel Valley on behalf of Varda. But because marijuana is still considered illegal under federal law, their proposed contributions have been turned away because they are considered criminalized funds as far as the federal law is concerned.
“Our money has been turned away so many times because it is considered criminal funds by many local organizations, it ultimately led us to the idea to create our very own charitable foundation,” explained Fong.
New Discovery Foundation (NDF) was established and is fully funded by Fong and Wang. It is a tax-exempt nonprofit private foundation legally registered with the California Registry of Charitable Trusts.
NDF has already been able to contribute more than $10,000 to more than 20 local nonprofit organizations, including several in Pasadena and many other organizations in cities across the San Gabriel Valley.
Although giving back to the community is also considered good for business, creating and administering a nonprofit is easier said than done but Wang and Fong wanted to show their commitment to reinvesting in their community.
“It is easier for anyone to give to an organization of their choice by just writing a check but for us it was not that easy,” related Fong. “We are committed to this community and so we were determined to give back and that is the main reason behind New Discovery Foundation.”
Out of hundreds of applications submitted to the City of Pasadena to open a legal dispensary, the only six applications were approved due to strict location requirements, among other rigorous and complicated requisitions.
The founders of Varda understand the responsibility of being the first to open a legitimate cannabis retail store in the City of Roses. They also acknowledge that they want Varda to be the cannabis retail store to beat when it comes to running a committed, safe and responsible cannabis place of business.
“We want to be the prime example for running a premium cannabis dispensary. We are setting the bar high with Varda for all other dispensaries on their way to also be open for business here in Pasadena and want to let the community know our doors are open for adults 21 and over only” enthused Fong.