Q&A with Ellis Soodak of Verdi Cannabis, Chelsea’s Lone Legal Licensed Dispensary

Verdi Cannabis, like all NYS licensed dispensaries, must adhere to signage guidelines that prohibit the use of words like “pot” and “weed.” | Photo by Scott Stiffler

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Having softly opened for business 12 days into 2024—followed by a January 26 ribbon cutting befitting the Grand Opening of something truly unprecedented—Verdi Cannabis was the first (and remains the only) legal, licensed, adult use cannabis dispensary in Chelsea.

Located at 158 West 23rd Street (btw. 6th & 7th Aves.), it’s the latest brick and mortar project from a family who’ve owned NYC liquor stores for decades without amassing so much as a single violation—a distinction that earned them high praise from Manhattan Community Board 4 (CB4) during their applicant vetting process. Equally notable was the family narrative shared at an August 24, 2023 meeting of CB4’s Cannabis Task Force (known, at the time, as the Cannabis Working Group; click here to view the meeting). As told by Verdi license holder Ellis Soodak—a 25-year-old with an impressive grasp of NYC’s emerging cannabis industry—his 73-year-old father, Mitchell, was arrested for marijuana possession decades ago. The social stigma and likelihood of serious jailtime was so great back then, Mitchell’s arrest was documented as a, if not the, causal factor in his own father’s fatal heart attack. Thusly, the Soodak family’s “justice-related experience” allowed Ellis to be among the first-ever batch of applicants granted a license to legally sell cannabis in New York State (NYS).

“Legally” is the operative word here—although honestly, “cannabis” is the real headline-grabber, plucked from the sketchy world of clandestine dime bag purchases and made a respectable (and highly taxable) commodity on March 31, 2021. That’s when NYS legalized the recreational use of cannabis by adults, 21+. To implement the Marihuana Regulation & Taxation Act, a newly created Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) would spend the next 2+ years developing regulations and issuing licenses. (Click here to read our overview of the license application process.)

Photo of the Verdi Cannabis interior courtesy of Verdi Cannabis.

NYS’s first legal cannabis dispensary (NYC’s own Housing Works Cannabis Co.) opened on December 29, 2022. By then, rival sources of store-bought pot had cropped up in the form of illegal smoke shops. Unbeholden to the OCM’s strict rules governing everything from exterior signage to advertising to quality control, they offer product at prices far below their legit competition. And—despite some effective albeit uncoordinated enforcement efforts—smoke shops continue to proliferate (two of them can be found on the same block as Verdi Cannabis). What’s worse, while legal and procedural matters delayed the current rollout of state-sanctioned retailers, smoke shops gained a foothold that’s been unexpectedly eating into projected sales figures from Verdi Cannabis and other legal dispensaries throughout NYS.

But Verdi, like the Soodak clan, is committed to playing the long game—and intends to win.

One of two illegal smoke shops located on the same block as Verdi Cannabis. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

“Honestly, I think the best place to look, to see what it’s [the legal cannabis landscape] going to look like, is liquor stores,” Ellis told Chelsea Community News. “They’re also controlled in terms of how many you can have in an area, they carry a controlled substance, and they have to have a license. But you don’t really see unlicensed liquor stores. That’s not a thing. And you don’t see liquor stores bragging that they have a license. And that’s the direction I hope the cannabis industry goes. I think it’s really confusing for consumers, now that you have stores [smoke shops] in prime locations that have corner glass windows, bright [signage]. It’s craziness. To me, it’s gone too far.”

But how far will his own business—and the still-in-its-infancy state-regulated cannabis industry—go? We explored that forward-looking question toward the tail end of CCNews’ Q&A with Ellis Soodak, which you’ll find directly below.

Scott Stiffler, for Chelsea Community News (CCNews): Let’s start with some basics. Why choose Chelsea for your store’s location?

Ellis Soodak (Ellis): I’m a New Yorker. I was born and raised here, and I’ve always known Chelsea as one of the hip neighborhoods. It’s always been this elegant yet cool place. So it’s a huge honor to be in Chelsea… I wanna do my neighbors right, I wanna do my community right. I know that there’s over 100 unfunded projects that our local community board wants to fund and I’m hoping our tax revenue helps [with that].

CCNews: Do you plan to be on West 23rd Street for the long haul?

Ellis: We’re here for a long time. We have a 10-year lease with a five-year option. I know that my spot used to be home to restaurants that kind of struggled and so it’s my intention to see this community grow; to be part of that change. I live on West 27th Street and Sixth Ave. I walk to work every day and I see things that I can do, personally, to try to make the community a better place. I am starting to ruminate on the idea of maybe organizing a trash pickup, things like that, that can make the community better… I’m all ears. I don’t want to be a nuisance.

Well of course, they have merch: Ellis Soodak, hat on head and bag in background, at Verdi Cannabis’ 154 W. 23rd St. location. | Photo courtesy of Verdi Cannabis

CCNews: What do you say you to concerns from the community that customers will linger outside to enjoy their just-purchased product?

Ellis: Our staff has  experience in making sure that bottlenecks don’t form, that people aren’t loitering outside the store. But I have to say, it is a free country. Legally, we can’t force them not to [congregate]. It’s more like gently, “Hey, you know, this is also a residential area. So if you’re going to light up, you know, we just ask you to take it on the move.” … I think if you’re standing still smoking anything, whether it’s cigarettes or weed or whatever, you’re probably gonna bother someone.

CCNews: Talk about the quality, potency, origins of what you sell.

Ellis: Right now, there’s pretty much no indoor flower on the legal market, but that’s changing.

CCNews: What do you mean?

Ellis: So there are three types of flower, three classes: There’s outdoor-grown—sungrown, no artificial light, nothing like that. The next step up from outdoor-grown is greenhouse-grown, where you’re still using mostly the sun, but you’re protecting it from the elements a bit more; and then the cream of the crop, at least for potency, is that indoor-grown flower, where they [the licensed growers] can control all the input. There’s no wind. They can control how much sunlight, with these UV lights. So across the board, the quality is going to get better this year [as more indoor-grown flower becomes available].

Screenshot by CCNews, taken from the Verdi Cannabis website.

CCNews: Where does your product come from, and who are some of your sources or brands?

Ellis: Every dispensary is going to have slightly different offerings. All of our flower is from in-state—and we do have some [brands] that are exclusive to us, or we’re the first ones to carry them. We carry one called Jack Bear Farm. It’s a really cool brand. The guy has been growing cannabis on his own for over a decade. And his parents happened to retire, but instead of retiring to Florida, they bought a farm in Upstate New York. And this guy transitioned to turning it into a legal hemp farm and, eventually, a cannabis farm—and he grows some really, really, fantastic stuff.

Being in Chelsea this has historically been very [LGBTQ+-] inclusive, so we love working with brands that embody those values. One of our values is inclusivity, so I try to embody that in how I treat my staff and how we’ve chosen to do our hiring but also in terms of the brands we choose to carry. One example is FLAMER, a Brooklyn-founded brand, a queer-owned brand. They’re fantastic. You just look at their branding and how they do their marketing—and their weed smokes good, too. And another is Drew Martin, that’s another queer-owned brand. They do fantastic, botanically infused pre-rolls. Another one that aligns with our values is Soft Power Sweets. They’re a vegan chocolatier, [owned by] a wife and husband that work together. She runs a chocolate shop on the Lower East Side called Confectionary!, that has some of the top restaurants in the world as their clients—totally vegan chocolatier, one of the oldest in the world. Their edibles are delicious. And there’s so many more brands that align with our values. We try to be conscientious about who we choose to put on our shelves.

CCNews: Are there any sort of customers you’re actively trying to appeal to?

Verdi Cannabis is bolstering brands applicable to Women’s History Month. | Screenshot by CCNews, taken from the Verdi Cannabis website.

Ellis: I truly want be a store for everyone. Having more options brings more people to the fold. It doesn’t hurt to have more choices but it’s also important that we have the right type of choices. Something I’m doing right now on the back end, is push some brands to have Braille on their boxes, because we have a big blind community here in Chelsea, specifically on 23rd Street [Selis Manor; 135 W. 23rd St. btw. 6th & 7th Aves.]. I see these folks walking by every day and I want to be able to sell to them too. I want to be able to let them know we exist that we’re licensed and that we have tested products. Some of them have underlying health issues, so they want tested products. I think it would be really cool if we had Braille on our products and on our displays. We didn’t have the bandwidth to get that for the opening, but it’s something to keep your eye out for in the next few months. [Update: A March 13, 2024 email from Ellis noted, “Still working on getting a Braille partner, but we have some regulars who are fully blind.”]

CCNews: How large is the Verdi space and how is it divided, in terms of use?

Ellis: Our square footage is 1,800 feet on the first floor with about 1,300 square feet of selling space. And we have 1,000 feet in our basement, which is used for storage and a break room, stuff like that—no retail use.

CCNews: How are your prices compared to what the smoke shops are offering?

Ellis: It really depends on what you’re buying. There’s differences in quality. It’s like wine—you have $8 bottles of wine and there’s $20,000 bottles of wine. You don’t have that much variance with weed yet, but it is not a commodity. Having said that, we do have products that compete with smoke shops. We have products like $5 pre-rolls. So I think on price certainly there are things that are competitive. And we have a super knowledgeable staff, so you know what you’re getting and the testing part of it really can’t be understated. These smoke shops, they’re selling poison. Nobody I know in the industry goes to smoke shops. They won’t even set foot inside of them because it’s not a pleasant experience… It’s scary that kids are going in and buying things that have high concentrations of lead and cadmium. You know the number one symptom of lead poisoning? It effects your mental faculties. A lot of the stigma around cannabis is, it makes people stupid, it makes people lazy. Really, some of thos [effecst] are mild forms of lead poisoning. So that’s why it’s really important to test cannabis. [Click here to access Jordan Hart’s Dec. 1, 2022 Business Insider aticle, titled Some illegal cannabis shops operating in NYC are selling weed contaminated with salmonella and pesticides, survey says.]

CCNews: Is the legal cannabis industry impacting alcohol sales?

Ellis: I honestly would hope in the long run they will go hand in hand. I think bars should be able to serve cannabis-infused beverages. It would be really cool to see cocktails that have cannabis and alcohol content. But right now, there is a big divide between the two. A lot of people say, “Oh, with legal cannabis, people are going to buy less alcohol.” We’re not seeing that.

CCNews file photo of a Verdi Cannabis display case by Scott Stiffler.

CCNews: Will Verdi Cannabis host special events?

Ellis: I definitely want my store to be an event space, things like karaoke night, and we’ve thrown around the idea of a painting night, bringing in artists we definitely want to do a lot more events. We also have a good relationship with a local event space called Worknroll. They’re here on 25th, right off the corner of Seventh. They did [many] events last year, things like fashion shows. And they did a Shark Tank event, where cannabis brands came in and pitched their products… I want to see them all over the city. I hope they have a dozen locations in the next couple of years, because it really destigmatizes cannabis. The idea that these people are lazy? I go there and around the clock, people are working, just building empires and it’s beautiful. Yeah, the perception of what a cannabis user does is going to change dramatically over the next couple of years.

CCNews: Do you see that impacting nightlife or any type of recreation?

Ellis: Right now, a lot of the social life in this city is centered around alcohol. If you go out on a Friday or Saturday night to the Lower East Side or wherever, you see a bunch of drunk people. And you know, I’m from a liquor store family, but it would be cool to see how cannabis influences our social lives here in New York. I would love to see someone take one of these [empty, abandoned] old movie theaters and repurpose it into a consumption lounge and show cannabis-friendly movies. I would love to see what public events look like when they’re curated for the cannabis consumer rather than a bunch of drunk people.

CCNews: In a March 11, 2024 Q&A with NY Cannabis Insider [click here for the link to the paywalled article], you noted, “We are about to launch delivery as well as expanding our hours.” What will your delivery zone be, and when do you expect that to start? How will your hours, currently 12pm to 10pm daily, change—and when?

Ellis: We will be expanding our hours to 10am to 10pm on March 24, and we will be launching delivery on April 1. Our initial delivery zone will be Manhattan, south of 125th Street.

WHAT: Verdi Cannabis, a New York State Licensed Dispensary 

WHERE: 158 West 23rd Street (btw. 6th & 7th Aves.)

WHEN: Daily, 12pm-10pm (hours change to 10am-10pm as of March 24, 2024)

Age Requirement: Only 21+ admitted; must show valid ID upon entry and during any purchase

To Contact: Call 212-933-4082 or email info@verdi.nyc.com

To Visit the Website, Click Here

Selling: Flower, pre-rolls, vaporizers, edibles, concentrates, tinctures, topicals, CBD


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