It’s midafternoon in downtown San Francisco, and amidst the throngs of power-lunching, gray-suited businessmen in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel, I’m sitting at a large marble table across from the man known as Mr. Sherbinski. With a black hoodie, matching Balenciaga sneakers, and an orange hemp-print baseball cap of his own design, the mysterious cannabis cultivator is much jollier than his Bond-villain-like alias would imply.
Mario Guzman—Sherbinski’s real name, which he revealed for the first time during a Forbes interview announcing his collaboration with The High End—is a “hippie at heart” who likes cannabis and coffee, and absolutely loves the two together. As we speak rapid-fire about his company, Sherbinskis, whose signature Hermès-orange vaporizer pen rests conspicuously on our table next to his car keys, it is clear that Guzman has mastered the notion that branding is about selling a feeling. And this idea, it turns out, is truer in the world of cannabis than it is anywhere else.
Guzman’s brand begins at a molecular level. As a self-taught botanist and breeder of cannabis, he grows what he calls “designer” weed: strains of cannabis that have been bred with a couturier-like attention to minute details such as scent, smoke texture, taste, psychoactive effects, and even how photogenic a flower will look on Instagram. Once these superlative plants are bred, their seeds are cloned in perpetuity and become enshrined as designer flavors. Although Guzman and others have described Sherbinskis as “the Supreme of Weed”—and he is indeed opening his first brick-and-mortar shop on the same street in Los Angeles as the famous skate brand—the way in which the breeder develops and releases product shares more with Apple’s product line. New flavors are bred through years of black box research and development, and then released onto the market as highly anticipated “generations” of one another. Over time, Guzman’s most famous weed strain, Gelato, a beloved variety of weed that has been shouted out in scores of rap songs, has given birth to other relatives with names that sound like menu items at a fancy fro-yo shop: Acaiberry Gelato, Mochi Gelato, Gello Gelato.
But for Guzman the concept of “designer” goes beyond growing the best possible cannabis and naming it after high-thread-count snacks. What he truly shares with the fashion designers whom he looks to for a blueprint, such as James Jebbia or Virgil Abloh, is an ability to harness subculture in the name of luxury. Subcultures such as skateboarding, body art, or hip-hop have their own codes, communities, and languages that strictly monitor quality. “You can’t fool stoners,” Guzman says proudly about his loyal and discerning fan base that ranges from Young Thug to John Mayer. Halfway into our second coffee, Guzman and I had already talked about Vetements, vaporizers, and his appearance at a Business of Fashion conference. But I still haven’t even asked him how it all got started.
Thom Bettridge: Tell me about the very beginning.
Mario Guzman: I moved to San Francisco over 20 years ago, and at the time the AIDS epidemic was still going on. People were dying, and they wanted a way to comfort their pain and eat and sleep at night, so cannabis got really huge in the Bay Area. When I saw the way people were benefiting from this, I decided to dedicate my life to it. It was the late ‘90s, and medical cannabis had been around for a few years. Growers started coming out of the woods, but a lot of people from the old school were like, “Don’t do that. They’re going to put your name on a list and send it to the feds.” But I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do this legally. So I started in my garage in the Sunset District with two lights. Two lights turned into five, then into ten. I’m not the most sophisticated person—I dropped out of high school a month before graduation—but I always had an entrepreneurial kind of mind. At the time in California, cannabis was very competitive, so you really had to consistently grow good weed. As I started dropping my own strains, Instagram was coming out, so we became famous for taking pictures with good lighting and making everything we had look like diamonds. Then, the next thing you know, Bay Area rappers were talking about us—and it got bigger and bigger. Now there’s hundreds of songs on YouTube that have references to Gelato, from Calvin Harris to Migos to Travis Scott to Future.
Where does the name of your brand come from?
When I created Sunset Sherbert I was sitting in my living room with a pound of weed, and I was like, “This is the best weed I’ve ever smoked in my life. I can’t believe I just made this.” The Sunset District in San Francisco is where we’re from. And my favorite childhood dessert from Thrifty’s in California is rainbow sherbert. This weed had lime, raspberry, orange, so what I was smoking truly tasted like that sherbert. So I called it Sunset Sherbert. Then I had friends who would come up to me and say, “Dude, where’s that Sherbinski at?” referring to the Sherbert. And I thought, Sherbinski, that’s kind of cool. At the time, I had to protect my identity but also make my name synonymous with some of the best weed in the world. As the name Mr. Sherbinski became more popular, we named the brand Sherbinskis because I knew one day it would be a destination and not just me. Our plan this summer is to open our first dispensary on Fairfax, and be the only dispensary on the same street as the Supreme store.
It seems that in this world of cannabis growing, there are a lot of business owners who once ran black-market operations with no marketing. Now they’re being forced to learn how to market themselves. How did you overcome that?
I decided to take the legal step a few years ago, and when we were getting licensed, I had to slow way down and be like, “How do we do this right? How do we follow every step?” Part of that ended up being a blessing in disguise because all I was focusing on was the brand. We had a great name. Our product was in the right people’s hands. And then there was the mystique of my name. People didn’t know who I was or what I looked like. So people would ask, “Who is Mr. Sherbinski putting out this fire?”
What made you reveal your name?
I’m a private guy. I have a family. I have two kids, and I protect that with everything. But now advocacy takes over and I realize that this is bigger. For me, it’s a moral thing because I want to help people. When you have so many people who come to you and go, “This helps me sleep at night,” it makes you want to help people and do it in style. I want to elevate what people think of cannabis. And when you think of how to evolve it, that’s where high fashion comes in. Nothing breaks through a stereotype like a $3,000 jacket and $1,000 sunglasses. That’s when people say, “Maybe cannabis is something I didn’t think it was. Maybe it’s not the dirty bong in the corner.”
How does it feel to finally come out of the shadows?
It’s a lot less stressful. I developed PTSD from years of operating in an unregulated industry. It’s like taking a load of bricks off my shoulder. Now when parents at my kids’ elementary school ask, “What do you do?” I can say, “I’m in the cannabis industry.” Before I couldn’t say that, and now they’re intrigued.
When you were figuring out how to position your product, was Supreme the main blueprint for you?
The whole thing with being “the Supreme of Weed” was that we had this high-quality stuff that people wanted, but we had limited batches. So naturally that model was just there; it wasn’t even like we wanted to copy them. But I also liked how Supreme was able to take a skate brand and evolve it to a point where people who will never skate in their life know it. It transcended skate, and ultimately that’s a goal of ours, too.
What is “designer” weed, and how did that idea come about?
People used to be like, “You have the best weed. It’s designer!” So then I latched on to that. A year and a half ago I went to my friend Clement Kwan, who owns the brand Beboe with Scott Campbell, and I said, “Hey, you have a really cool brand, but you need some fire behind that. Let me design some good strains for you.” I wanted to show people that vision and create the cannabis identity for brands as they come into this business.
I think it’s interesting to speak about weed in terms of being a designer product, because the product you see people comparing weed to the most is wine, but what you seem to be proposing with Sherbinskis is a lifestyle that goes beyond weed simply being the new wine.
It’s different because people our age are using vaporizers at work. They’re using it to medicate or to get by and feel creative, and it’s changing the way people use cannabis. Right now, cannabis is a big elephant in the room in the creative industry because the creatives designing these brands are already smoking, and it’s a big part of their creative process. But they were always afraid to tell their bosses, the corporate people, about it. Now it’s becoming impossible to deny that this is a billion-dollar industry.
Are you working on making the next Gelato?
And what’s the R&D process like?
When you breed genetics, it doesn’t always come out so great. It can take six months to take the male, pollinate the female, grow those out, and then take the seeds. Then you look at it, and you’re like, “Ugh, that’s not really what I wanted.” When you go through the genetics of a plant, you get to pick and find the traits you want and put those together. I rub the stalk. I smell it. But then, ultimately, what does it look like in the bag? What does it smoke like? It has to pass every single one of those tests.
And what are the effects of good cannabis versus bad cannabis?
If it’s good, it gives you a different feeling. When I have good cannabis, it doesn’t make me tired. It awakens me and focuses me. It does the opposite of making me unmotivated. I think, as a society, cannabis is moving in a positive direction because we’re fighting opiates. My brother is a USMC veteran. 100% disabled. PTSD. He was on over 15 medications, and I moved him in with me. He was literally suicidal. I went running with him on the beach for a year. He lost 100 pounds and went from 50 medications down to 3. All I did was give him a good diet, exercise, a lot of love, and all the cannabis he could take. They had him on Oxycontin, heavy metals. Cannabis saved his life. So I really want to carry the flag of my hippie heart, because the foundation of Sherbinskis is helping people. It’s about asking: How do we take this product that helps me, put the dope jacket on it, put the nice glasses on it, so that it’s not what it was anymore? That’s the future, and that’s how I want to evolve it.