Amongst the bustle of Chelsea’s many illegal dispensaries, a licensed one by the name of Verdi has finally arrived, marking the neighborhood’s first legal weed shop. Unlike many of the initial New York dispensaries, Verdi is family-owned and operated, as well as self-funded. While the market is only a year old, this venture was decades in the making for the Soodak family, with the initial pieces moving even before the founder was born. Though the beginnings were marked with tragedy, it led way to an alternative dream.
Chelsea’s First Legal Dispensary: Verdi Cannabis
Not only is Verdi family-owned, it is ran by a family that has been in New York City’s regulated retail market and the city for generations. Founder Ellis practically grew up on the second floor of Union Square Wines, where his father, Mitchell Soodak, has operated for over 50 years, following in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“I always idolized my dad for having his own business and for having a store. It’s just always made sense as like the platonic ideal of one’s career that someone comes in and they give you money, and you give them a product, and you’re both happier for it. That is truly business to me.”
Ellis Soodak, Founder & Co-Owner of Verdi Cannabis
Though Ellis’ father was unable to fulfill his grandfather’s wish of a father-son business due to a family tragedy, Ellis is giving his father, and himself, a chance to finally fulfill that dream. In a way, “it feels like destiny,” says Ellis.
In 1972, Mitchell Soodak was arrested for a non-violent cannabis charge while in college at SUNY Stonybrook. This arrest led to the untimely and unfortunate death of his father, who had a stroke due to the stress of his son’s arrest.
“They threw a party, and it got out of hand. The police came and arrested everyone and then let everyone go except for my dad and his friends because they were on the lease. They searched the place and found the suitcase [of weed]. So now they’re facing felony charges. One of their dads came and bailed them out. They’re back at the house, and my dad’s high in the kitchen. He overhears his friends say, ‘Well, Mitch’s name is on the suitcase, why don’t we throw him under the bus?’ Ellis shares, touching on the origins of what qualified the Soodak family for a license.
“He freaked out and called his dad, and his dad went, ‘Mitchy, Mitchy, Mitchy. Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it in the morning.’ And sure enough, the next morning at 6 am, he gets a call that his dad just had a stroke and he’s dead. The stress over his son’s arrest killed my grandfather. He died at the age of 45. He never wanted my dad to be in college. He was like, ‘What are you doing with this school thing? You’re just doing drugs. Come on, drop out. Help me run the liquor store. We’ll do a father-son business.’ And, you know, he never got to do that with his dad.”
A New Chance at a Father-Son Business
But because of Mitchell’s arrest as well as their active retail presence, the Soodak family qualified for a Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CUARD) license, allowing them to open shop and sell legal weed in New York. Though his father is now on the brink of retirement, he agreed to go in on the dispensary, owning 30%, while Ellis handles the operation and the other 70%.
“Now, 50 years later, and partially because of that arrest, I am afforded this opportunity to do this with my dad. So, in a lot of ways, it almost feels like destiny that I’m following this path. To do right, not just by my father but by my grandfather as well. In a lot of ways, it feels very surreal at times.”
Alongside the father-son duo, Ellis’ mother is also very involved with Verdi, lending a creative hand with the store design and branding, “My mom actually really stepped up. She works a full-time job, and she has been completely indispensable in terms of creative direction and build out.” He makes it clear that he couldn’t have done it without either of them, “I wouldn’t have been able to do it myself. I have a math degree. I do not have an eye for design. So if the store looks beautiful, it’s not because of me.”
“Family means everything. Family is really important to us. In a lot of ways, this dispensary has saved my family in certain ways. My parents went through a pretty long divorce and didn’t talk for about four years except through lawyers. And the first time they spoke again was about the dispensary. The first time they ever talked, not through lawyers, was to talk about how much their son was screwing up. No, I’m joking. It was to talk about me and the dispensary.”
A Family Operation Beyond Blood
The meaning of family-owned extends beyond blood. The tight-knit team at Verdi is treated just like family— with kindness, support, and understanding. Generous pay, a thrift stipend, the opportunity to have their own brands on shelves, and actually listening to the worker’s ideas and feedback are just a few ways Verdi fosters a family-like environment.
“Once people found out that there was going to be this small business, family-owned and operated, and that we were going to try to pay these people pretty well, and we’re going to listen to our employees, and it’s not just this big corporate structure, that was really appealing to people,” Ellis shares on the company’s culture, adding, “I don’t want Verdi to just be like, okay, you’re a budtender at Verdi, and that’s where you are for a decade. I want it to be a springboard for a career in cannabis as a whole. We empower people to make the big decisions, and we listen to our employees. I go in there, and I talk to these people. We give them opportunities to grow professionally.”
“All these top dispensaries are corporations. We’re a family. And that bleeds into everything we do.”
While Ellis sets the pace, this environment wouldn’t be possible without Shanice, Verdi’s General Manager, Diesel, their security guard, Jumal, their head budtender, his parents, as well as the rest of the team, who was very intentionally curated. 13 out of the 15 budtenders at Verdi have extensive experience in the New York cannabis industry and were chosen for their alignment with the shop’s core values— most importantly, kindness. This principle is evident from the moment you walk into the shop, where Diesel greets you with a sprawling smile, and continues as you browse the shop and chat with the budtenders, all the way up until you leave, with Diesel sending you off with that same big smile.
“We like to say that we’re building the Avengers of cannabis. When suppliers come in, they’re like, “Wait, this guy’s here, and she’s here, and they’re here. Like, whoah, you have all these star budtenders from all these different stores,” Ellis shares.
“The whole system is built to just be as kind as possible. And I think that’s not really seen in New York at times. I want it to really be a store for everyone, whether you’re someone who lives on the block or lives down the street. Regardless, you’re treated with utmost respect and kindness.”
The opening of Verdi was truly a team effort. Aside from his family and employees, Ellis shouts out the branding agency, Faire Projects, who created their logo, the two-person consultant team, Mike Hassel and Britt Buckner of Elevated Strategies Consulting, who helped with recruiting and operations, Aoife Mooney of Cannabis Creative Group, as well as the go-getter realtor, Solomon Tbeile of Kassin Sabbagh Realty, who helped secure the prime Chelsea lease. It’s also worth mentioning Emily Doherty, a local artist who decorated the walls of Verdi with New York-themed, cannabis-infused animal paintings, including a stoned cat, a stoned rat, and a pigeon puffing on a bong.
The Obstacle is the Path
Despite the first-class team, exceptional values, and arduous acquirement of a cannabis retail license, Verdi has hit roadblock after roadblock, a major one being the stretch between license and lease obtainment (three months) and the ability to finally open from there (seven months), amongst many more quandaries.
“A lot of things that are our strengths are also kind of our weaknesses. The fact that we’re a small family-owned business and that we don’t have that big approval chain can also mean that sometimes we make snap decisions that aren’t necessarily as thought out as they should be. Running a small business is wearing a lot of hats. I know that’s such a cliché to say, but it really is. We’ve had multiple leaks in our basement, and our boiler went out, and there’s all these things that you have to learn how to do. But I almost have pride in our imperfections.”
But touching on another cliché, it’s all about perspective. And Ellis’ perspective, from his family and employees to his operations and the way he handles issues, is the reason Verdi is off to such a strong start, even with seemingly endless challenges and no big corporate heads to keep things straight. His leadership is more than admirable and sets Verdi on a one-way path toward success.
“There certainly have been some obstacles, but my favorite quote is a Barbara Corcoran quote, where she says, ‘The obstacle is the path.’ Which is to be expected when you’re starting your own business; there should be obstacles. The path always has obstacles, so meeting obstacles doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It means you’re doing something right. There are always things that are going to break. That, to me, is the fun part. As stressful and hair-pulling as it is, that’s what running a business is. And I find that a little bit romantic in a way.”
More Than Legal Weed
Softly opening on January 12th, with the grand opening two weeks later on the 26th, Ellis and team are mostly focused on staying afloat and becoming respected in the neighborhood, but that’s just the start of the dream. While there are no big goals to be the McDonald’s or Gucci of cannabis, Ellis is a firm believer “in doing small, not scalable things. It doesn’t need to change the world, it can just change your block.”
From as small as neighborhood cleanups and uplifting local artists to as major as starting a business improvement district and lobbying for a way to combine alcohol and cannabis, Ellis wants to do more with the Verdi name than just sell legal weed.
“Right now, there’s really no way to combine alcohol and cannabis in a legal way. I want to see that change. I want to be the spokesman to make that change happen. We have a past of being outspoken kind of lobbyists in a regard. I want to continue to do that,” Ellis shares, adding, “My first time ever using cannabis was the first time I ever drank. I like getting crossfaded. When I go out, that’s how I prefer to do it. I think if someone wants to get crossfaded, we should let them. It would be cool if consumption lounges could also be bars.”
But at the end of the day, “I’m just happy to be the Verdi of weed. That’s enough for me,” says Ellis.
The main takeaway from my interview with Ellis is that he is genuinely just a good guy who wants to do good for his community and his people. And we certainly need more of that in this industry and city. When in Chelsea, let Verdi be your source for legal New York weed.