The trajectory for most Alaskan cannabis stores was more or less the same. Since legalization in 2014, entrepreneurs have opened new branches and built their businesses from the ground up.
For Fairbanks businessman Richard Barnes, however, the path was different. In 2012 he opened his first accessories shop, Smokin’ Deals. From there he expanded into CDB products and then opened the CBD SuperStore a few doors down from Smokin’ Deals. This in turn became the location of Airport Way Best Bud, which offers a range of cannabis products while also maintaining a large stock of CBD products.
“I was proud to be able to honestly say that I have the largest selection of CBD in the state of Alaska,” Barnes said. “And that was before the marijuana store opened.”
Airport Way Best Bud opened in July 2020 and is the culmination of eight years of solid business growth. Barnes said as soon as legalization was complete in Alaska, he began moving towards a cannabis business. So it was not a radical departure from his previous efforts, but a natural development,
Barnes came to Alaska in 1988 after serving in the Marine Corps. After living in the bush for a few years, he married and moved to Fairbanks when his wife became pregnant. He took a job managing a smoke shop and learned the ropes before starting his own business.
From the beginning, Smokin’ Deals was built on a growth model. Barnes’ second store, Smokin’ Deals Too, opened shortly after the Fairbanks store opened in Wasilla, and until 2015 he also operated Smokin’ Deals 3X in Kenai and Smokin’ Deals Quatro in Soldotna.
In 2016, the flagship store moved to its current location on the busy corner of Airport Way and University Ave. in Fairbanks. “This was the crown jewel of the smokin’ deal stores.” Barnes said, adding that he’s not exactly sure why, although he suspects the prime location was a factor. “This store was incredibly successful.”
Barnes said the switch to CBD was customer-centric. He had read about the benefits of CBD, and then customers at his smoke shop began telling him about their experiences. “We’ve spoken to customers who have come here and swore by it, and shared their personal experiences of how it’s improved their lives.”
He decided to stock a few products and they flew off the shelves. Despite being expensive and not covered by insurance plans, “people kept coming back to buy more. And swear by it. And when I saw that, I realized there’s something good here.”
As CBD sales at Smokin’ Deals increased, Barnes prepared to open a Marijuana Retail Store (MRS) in an open space at the opposite end of the small mall where Smokin’ Deals is located. As he jumped through the many hurdles involved in opening this store, he realized he could immediately start selling CBD products from the space and thereby generate income from a property he was already paying rent for, while waiting for his marijuana retail license (he has since purchasing the building). “I saw the market and the demand and that there really weren’t any CBD stores here in 2016. So I built the CBD SuperStore. And that’s where the marijuana retail store is now.”
The CBD SuperStore opened in 2018, and the final step came in mid-July 2020 when it received its marijuana retail license. “And that was how Airport Way Best Bud was born,” Barnes said.
2020 was not the best time to open its doors. The Covid-19 pandemic hit small businesses hard. As if that wasn’t enough, the closure of University Ave. additionally challenged when the State Department of Transportation replaced an aging bridge over the Chena River. This blocked the nearest entrance to both the cannabis and smoking shops, forcing customers to take a detour to reach the shops.
On the plus side, Barnes never had to close his stores during the state’s brief shutdown. “Fortunately, the government considers smoke shops and marijuana stores essential,” he noted, adding, “Covid wasn’t a big deal. We got through our first year in the marijuana store and the CBD SuperStore is still around.”
The steady flow of traffic into both his smoke shop and cannabis/CBD branch on the day of the interview indicates that customers have no trouble finding their way inside and with the recent reopening of University Ave. this has become much easier.
Upon entering Airport Way Best Bud, customers will immediately notice that an entire wall and a display case next to it are dedicated to CBD products. It’s an uncommon sight in cannabis stores. Barnes said that early on, when stores in the state grew rapidly, he assumed they would offer a wide range of CBD goods and compete with him, but so far most seem to only carry a handful of items. For other deals, he said, “I think CBD is an afterthought.”
He added that he has similar concerns that cannabis stores selling glass, pipes, and other accessories could also hurt sales at Smokin’ Deals, but like CBD, most only carry a handful of products while he offers an enormous selection . He was pleasantly surprised to see that these two companies have not only remained strong, but experienced continued growth.
For Airport Way Best Bud and the CBD SuperStore, now operating under one roof, CBD is something the employees believe in. “In many cases, collaborators that I have have empirical experience of how CBD has improved their lives,” Barnes said. “There’s nothing like a real testimonial to sell a product.”
He mentioned an employee with physical ailments that he had treated with drugs that had unpleasant side effects. After switching to CBD, the person was able to stop taking prescription drugs altogether. He described the person as “the biggest seller for CBD.” That personal knowledge and experience, he said, is hard to match.
While Barnes has seen growth across all of his businesses, he’s not ready to stop expanding just yet. “The experts,” he said, “the people who’ve done this really well in Colorado, the people who really understand the marijuana industry, say there’s a way to really make it work, and this is it a model that is seed-storing.”
By this he means the sale of products that he grows. With this in mind, he has created a partnership at a cultivation facility at the nearby North Pole. Currently only the foundation has been poured, but this spring the construction project will be in full swing, followed by the lengthy approval process. “It’s really hard to compete with MRBs that are associated with cultivation,” Barnes explained. “We will definitely produce our own products and sell them in our own shop.”
Barnes said it makes good business sense. He feels there is a glut of retail deals at the moment, and not all will make it over time, especially given the volatility in farmers’ wholesale prices. “I think the market, as markets do, will level things out. You can’t all survive. The guys who will survive are the guys who know how to run a business and who can get the product cheaper because they make it.”
Barnes’ staff at Airport Way Best Bud includes budtenders who have been with him since he only sold CBD and one who harks back to the days when he only had the smoke shops. He said that this long-term stability has been helpful since his budtenders need to be knowledgeable not only about cannabis but also about CBD.
“There’s a lot to learn and a lot to know,” he said. “And then in my business you have an extra learning curve because you have to learn about CBD. You can’t sell CBD effectively if you don’t understand how it works.”
Due to tax and regulatory laws that vary from one area of the industry to the next, Barnes said he has maintained each of his ventures — smoke shops, CBD, retail cannabis, and his forthcoming cultivation — as separate businesses. But they have a unified feel and he builds them all together. “I’m not just building businesses,” he concluded, “I’m building a brand.”