Old Pal’s CEO Rusty Wilenkin Talks Nationwide Expansion

The shareable, everyman’s weed brand Old Pal is asset-light— meaning it isn’t paying for the hefty regulatory costs as cultivation and distribution license holders do. Its elevated brand storytelling and expansion has been a case study in multi-state cannabis growth. The brand will be on shelves in 15 U.S. markets by 2024.

Founded in 2018 by Rusty Wilenkin and Jason Osni in Venice Beach, California, Old Pal offers weed smokers a refreshing take on something familiar. Its bags of pre-ground, “ready-to-roll” cannabis are reminiscent of the big bags of tobacco that spliff smokers may have used back in the day. It’s a welcomed sight for those young demographic consumers who are now twisting up weed in lieu of cigarettes. Cozy and profoundly comforting is the vibe (and the high).

Old Pal has been uniquely well-branded right out the gate thanks to its partnership with Land, a chic and effortless design agency behind national brands like Mountain Valley Water, Stumptown Coffee, Madre Mezcal, and more. Thanks to Land, Old Pal is quickly becoming a national name— even landing a collab with Igloo Coolers earlier this year. The only other brands they partnered with for this campaign were Patagonia and REI.

Its CEO and co-founder Wilenkin used his industry savvy to craft a brand that was more accessible than what he’d seen on the shelves. He’d been in the industry beginning in California’s early days of medical legalization in 2013, a self-proclaimed “weed guy” with a business background. In the retail world, Wilenkin saw the top-shelf brands receive much of the spotlight while the accessible brands were not given the shine they deserved. Yet the demand for accessible and affordable cannabis remains high.

“We weren’t chasing a quick buck with Old Pal,” says Wilenkin. “We want to be in this for the long run. The country’s weed infrastructure and what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense is going to change. Technology is changing. We will have interstate commerce one day.”

MORE FROM FORBESThis $25 Weed Brownie Mix From Old Pal Is Nostalgia In A Box

Across the country, Wilenkin wants Old Pal on the pulse of consumer demand. Old Pal is currently on shelves in California, Nevada, Michigan, Arizona, Massachusetts, and most recently, New York and New Mexico.

“To make a massive infrastructure bet today and risk the brand has always scared me,” says Wilenkin. “I’d much rather make the brand as tight as it can be so it can be here forever. Who knows what the future looks like, what the right infrastructure to have is, and who the right partners are? You have to just wait and watch it play out. And today we’re fortunate. We have amazing partners across the country.”

2023 was a watershed moment for the CEO, as Old Pal entered the adult-use market in his home state of New York. “It’s so cool for me. Selfishly, New York was a home run of an experience. I’ve sold weed most of my adult life some of my childhood life It’s been a long time coming, and to go full circle was rad,” says Wilenkin.

The CEO’s family wasn’t traditionally accepting of cannabis. But as his business has come to life, his parents have become supportive. “My mom went with me to buy the first bag of Old Pal sold in New York,” he says. “She’d never been to a dispensary before that, it was such a cool experience. We were getting on the train to go into the city and my mom said, ‘I’m not gonna get arrested for having the stuff, right?’”

Wilenkin took his mother to the dispensary Union Square Travel Agency where Old Pal now sits on coveted shelf space. “I got into cannabis because I thought the War on Drugs was complete bullshit,” says Wilenkin. “I thought black and brown people were disproportionately locked up and had generations of lives destroyed and so I always wanted normalization. When you walk around New York right now, you can go into a bodega and get a bacon, egg, and cheese, a Bud Light, and a pack of joints. To me, in a weird way, that is normalization.”

Old Pal is devoted to its partnerships, amassing an impressive roster of growers in each state to represent the brand and cultivate its cannabis. On Old Pal’s New York partners: “They’re amazing,” says Wilenkin. “We’re working with this group Hepworth Pura. And it was founded by these two sisters. They’re just badass women, one of the sisters has been working in regenerative agriculture forever. She single-handedly rehabilitated the Hudson Valley in New York of all the toxic soil from the old farming processes.”

The Hepworth Pura grow is based in Milton, New York. They also grow produce for Whole Foods on the same land where they grow weed. The New York market can expect an Old Pal infused blunt on the market soon. “I’m excited for the blunt because I grew up smoking them in New York,” he says. “It’s an accessible entry point, but it’s also a celebratory product.”

On founding Old Pal: “I’m a stoner who used to buy American Spirits I just love that feeling of the older rolling bags. When we started the company, I smoked a ton of spliffs with my wife. I put the tobacco down over time, but when I met my wife, I was always rolling around with a Ziploc bag of ground-up weed and tobacco Just so when we were starting Old Pal, she was like, ‘You need to make a weed pouch.’ So that was how it came to be.”

New York isn’t the only new marketplace for the brand. Old Pal just made its foray into New Mexico. The market, Wilenkin says, is aligned with Old Pal’s style and ethos. “I love New Mexico the state it’s an awesome place,” says Wilenkin. “Our partners are in Santa Fe proper so it’s cool when we get to see them. And blunts are launching in Boston in a couple of weeks.”

While Wilenkin is a connoisseur himself, he finds connoisseur brands may be out-of-reach to the daily consumer who seeks an effective and accessible high. “As much as we like to produce amazing products, we like to produce amazing products that are accessible and right now they’re still pretty well-priced across the country. I look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘If I worked in a normal job and some other walk of life, is this the product I would spend my $80 on?’”

The infused blunts are one of these accessible options, offering a connoisseur experience for an accessible price point. Reaching consistency is also key for Old Pal. “They’re within five bucks of $20 retail in every market,” says the CEO. “We’re constantly iterating our processes of how we make everything has sort of changed and changed and changed to get better and better, to reach a more consistent place.”

Old Pal has long dominated on social media, reaching viral heights on TikTok and Instagram before most brands. “It’s honestly my biggest fear that I’ve sort of accepted will happen at some point,” says Wilenkin. “In my head, I know there will be a day I wake up and our Instagram is just gone. And it’s the reality.”

The brand is committed to dispelling myths around its product, offering campaigns for consumers that it’s more than just shake. “We started at Old Pal because we wanted to make something accessible, but we also wanted it to be beautiful and make the consumer feel cared about and special because, at the time, anyone else selling anything affordable, it was ‘bad batches’ of weed. The word shake has negative connotations. I worked in the industry and the shake was often ‘what’s leftover.’ It’s not though. It doesn’t have to be. It’s what we roll with. It’s what we need. It’s got all the keif in it. It doesn’t have to be low quality.”

In the case of Old Pal, it’s not shake but actually ground nugs. “We call it the ‘shake the shake’ myth. We have a whole zine about it. It’s all about this idea of, oftentimes people see this and they think, ‘it’s shake.’ No, this is a really high-quality product that we care about.”

The brand’s put a lot of effort into figuring out the perfect grind so that smokers could put it in a blunt, you could put it in a joint, you could put it in a pipe, and it’s ready to go and it’s super smokable.” The CEO says breaking down the negative connotations around ground weed was part of his mission. “When we started the brand, we would say ‘It’s just weed, y ‘all.’”

On cost: “When we were starting Old Pal and we started talking to investors, a lot of the investors said, ‘Why does the consumer want a more affordable product?’ Because they were rich dudes and they’re used to buying the most expensive thing on the shelf and couldn’t really understand it. But when you break it down for people, someone who consumes a lot of cannabis might buy two eighths, three eighths a week. If you run the numbers, it’s thousands a year. For a lot of American families, that’s the vacation they don’t take, the health insurance they don’t have, or the car payment that’s stressing them out,” says Wilenkin. “That’s a lot of money when you think about average income in the country and general demographics.”

He hopes to see a landscape where cannabis is as ubiquitous as alcohol in the U.S., offering consumers every option on the scale. “Cannabis is similar. You might have a high-end jar that you keep in your drawer and you break out and you take bong hits and whatever. But then you also might have a ready-to-roll pouch that when you’re smoking with friends, you’re going out and about, you throw it in your bag. It’s for the community. That’s where we always wanted to be. It’s that idea of friends coming together.”

“We’re really fortunate. They were way out of our league, for lack of a better way to put it,” jokes Wilenkin. “We were an idea and at the time, they were doing all these national brands. Jason, my partner, was friends with them and convinced them to become our business partners. When we started the brand, the bones that we got to start with relative to what we had accomplished were just so massive.”

Land’s Ryan came up with the name Old Pal. According to legend, he made a campfire out in the woods and he was out there with his dogs and the name just hit him— Old Pal. The shareable concept, of friends sitting around a campfire smoking weed, is still reflected in the brand’s artwork today. “It’s perfect,” says Wilenkin. “They were true artists and for me, I’m a weed guy. I’ve always worked with growers worked with brands distributors trying to bring cannabis to a more legitimate place.”

“They’ve been amazing to have along the way because they’ve been around a lot of brands that have gone through that life cycle and learned how to grow up and continue to innovate and do bigger things and find fun partnerships and brand moments. That was all the connectivity of Land helping us become a part of the larger ecosystem,” says Wilenkin.

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