Baker recalls the anxious call she received in 2014 from her son, who was attending school at Georgetown University. He'd promised his girlfriend's father, who works in the plastics field, that he'd find a buddy back in Colorado to investigate the packaging needs of the state's newly-legal recreational marijuana industry -- but none of his friends were available. The father's e-commerce business had been receiving multiple inquiries about child-resistant packaging from Colorado concerns, which the businessman quickly realized were tied to cannabis sales.
Baker, newly retired after being a high school teacher for nearly thirty years, stepped into the breach, promising her son that she'd take on the research herself. She then asked a longtime friend, Diner -- also retired, with a sales background in the cable industry -- to accompany her on the pair's first-ever treks into marijuana dispensaries in Colorado.
Baker says they were "saucer-eyed" over what they saw, as well as "intrigued by the industry, by the people we met who were extremely knowledgeable and wanted to teach us all about the industry." For them, it was stereotype-busting: "I remember thinking this isn't what I expected," says Diner. "The places are so professional, they are so polished, and [the people] work so hard."
When Baker and Diner's research project for their out-of-state client ended, he decided not to pursue that particular market. But Baker and Diner did. "This isn't brain surgery!" Diner recalls saying. "I think we can figure this out."
Figure it out they did. They began taking orders and working with a Bay Area manufacturer, which supplies the jars themselves, in addition to manufacturers in New York and Southern California, which supply the child-resistant caps. Today, Higher Standard Packaging provides packaging needs for about 50 regular customers. Diner says of their rapid growth, "We've doubled our business every year -- in fact, last year, more than doubled."
Some of their jars are fabricated from virgin polypropylene. Another line is made from recycled milk jugs, fabricated using high-density polyethylene (R2). The idea for using recycled material came from a dispensary worker who had studied environmental science. Baker says, "She was appalled by the amount of plastic going in and out of the dispensaries she was a part of. She said, 'Can you please find something that is made from recycled plastic?'" After being presented with the idea by Baker and Diner, their jar manufacturer agreed to use the R2 plastic -- and Higher Standard has now sold 2.4 million jars made from that material.
Both types of plastic containers sold by High Standard are approved for food packaging by the FDA. Most are intended for holding flower: the smallest can hold one to two grams, the largest a half to a full ounce. Other small jars are designed for the storage of cannabis concentrates.
What they don't sell are products made outside of the United States. Chinese products may be less expensive -- but there is a risk they contain the chemical BPA, which can lead to adverse health effects. While doing their initial research, Baker and Diner recall entering a dispensary office, and being overwhelmed by the odor of off-gassing containers. Diner recalls telling the dispensary owner, "You have this beautiful marijuana. It has this really fabulous aroma -- and you've taught me to appreciate [the nose] like I'm drinking wine. And you're going to put it into a bottle that's leaching some kind of chemical smell?"
Some vendors might sell whatever is cheapest in order to maximize profits, but not Higher Standard. According to the two, they also offer personalized service to their clients. "We approach this differently than other people: We are relationship-based salespeople," says Diner. "Most of the people in this space are e-commerce. . . . We found that a lot of our clients hated that." Baker and Diner are there to speak directly with customers (so no order goes wrong over a website), and they offer what they say is competitive pricing.
As a team, their skills complement each other. Baker says of Diner, "I think Barb just brings just immense knowledge about business that I don't have and I'm trying to learn." Diner says of Baker, "Deb is really good at the hunt. She loves the R&D part of it."
They've gained clients through the press they've received. Notably, The New York Times profiled them earlier this year. Journalist Julie Weed wrote, "Now familiar faces, [Baker and Diner] say the budtenders (retail marijuana sellers) are likely to call out, 'The ladies are here!' when the two visit their customers." Baker and Diner joke about the "old broads and cannabis" angle that has become part of the narrative about them.
Diner says Higher Standard has grown organically along with their customers. They also gain new business due to referrals from existing customers. According to Diner, their clients tell others, "You've got to get the ladies!"
Challenges: Diner cites "competition." Baker adds, "And keeping up" -- since there are just the two of them to handle the business. Plus, Diner says there's always, "How to grow this business. Finding the time to set a growth plan, because every day is full."
Diner notes, "For anybody who wants to be in [the cannabis] industry, my philosophy is you better be nimble and adapt to change well, because the changes are daily."
Opportunities: Further national expansion could be on the horizon. Baker says, "We have clients here who are going to be licensing in other states, so we'll be working through them and providing packaging to Washington, Nevada, California." They already have a couple of clients in Oregon, and one in Alaska. If a new state like Pennsylvania opens up medical or recreational cannabis sales, Baker and Diner say they research that state's rules before proceeding further with a potential client. "We'll ship anywhere," says Diner.
Needs: Baker and Diner would like to supplement what they purchase from their jar manufacturer in California with a Colorado-based business, since the costs for shipping from California are fairly high. Baker asks, "Why in God's name isn't there a manufacturer here doing what this industry needs? This is where [the recreational industry] started." They've begun investigating some prospects, locally, checking out the businesses; Baker says it's "amazing" to have finally seen the manufacturing process: how "a big wad of hot, sticky plastic [becomes] a container that we take for granted and use every day."