Vapanada - Our Five Year Journey And What's Next

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  • By Joe Karam
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Vapanada - Our Five Year Journey And What's Next

I started this business 5 years ago.  I had just moved back to Canada from living in Lebanon for 22 years. I landed in Ottawa on October 5th, 2015 and I had no idea what I was going to do.  After unsuccessfully applying for many jobs because of a lack of “Canadian Experience”, I decided to do the Lebanese thing and open my own business. 

 

During a visit to Orlando, my cousin gave me the idea to open a smoke shop.  Since I never smoked anything in my life (still haven’t), I had no idea what a smoke shop was.  After some research it seemed like a good idea and I got to work.

 

I came up with the name Smokavana based on the chain Teavana – it sounded catchy and had a classy feel to it.  Next came the location.  For days I scoured all of Ottawa and made endless phone calls but nobody wanted a smoke shop in their location.  They would tell me they don’t want that kind of business on their properties.  It’s funny how things have changed now with a Cannabis store on each corner.

 

I finally got lucky with our current location on 1581 Bank street.  Luckily the landlord was a fellow Lebanese and said he had no problem as long as I paid the rent. Elated, I literally ran to the bank next door and pulled out $3000 cash and gave it to him before he could change his mind.

 

Since I was new to Ottawa and didn’t know anyone, an old friend of mine introduced me to suppliers and vouched for me so that I could get my first order.

 

Smokavana officially opened on April 1st, 2016 with total sales of $16.03.  We were 99% a smoke shop and had a single stand of ejuice.  I had no idea what an e cigarette was.  A few months later, a young Korean gentleman walked into my store and said I should get into the Vape business.  It was a chance meeting that started a strong friendship and changed the course of Smokavana.  I can humbly state my friend Hoon, owner of Vapingstory & Smoke on Somerset is the reason we are here today.  Without his support, I honestly don’t think Smokavana would have grown to where it is today.

 

Over the next five years Smokavana morphed from a hybrid Vape/ Smoke shop to a full Specialty Vape store.  As many vape shop owners will attest, it hasn’t been an easy ride.  Without going into details, my business was suppressed by banks and payment processors, extorted by  insurance companies, handcuffed by everchanging federal & provincial regulations and of course villainized by the media simply because of the business we were in - vaping.  Never in my 20 years of being an entrepreneur and doing business in over 15 countries have I seen anything like it. 

 

The main reason for the mistreatment of our industry is because of the Youth Vaping epidemic.   It is well documented what companies were the main cause of the kids getting hooked on nicotine and history will be the judge.  I can speak with confidence for my colleagues and fellow specialty vape shop owners that we have never targeted youth or sold to minors.  That being said, it doesn’t matter how stringently we’ve upheld the laws, Vape Specialty stores we’re bundled up with big tobacco, convenience stores and unscrupulous merchants keen on spreading nicotine for the sake of a quick buck.

 

In late 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, we were forced to dissolve Smokavana and rebrand into Vapanada.  Despite all the setbacks, road blocks and covid-19 we managed to pivot and not only survive, but thrive. 

 

Vapanada has four locations and is arguably in the top 3 stores in terms of sales and customer base in Ottawa.  I give thanks to my amazing staff at all locations who with their dedication, loyalty and perseverance have been, without a doubt, the main reason for our success.  Of course, nothing would be possible without our amazing customers who have stuck with us all these years and given us the financial and motivation to grow into the entity we are today.

 

Despite our hard work and good fortune, Vapanada and all Vape Specialty stores across Canada are facing ruin and bankruptcy by 2022.  Vapanada provides the primary income for 15 staff as well as me and my own family.  Our suppliers who also have staff and families will also be bankrupt.  Why?  Health Canada will be putting forth legislation to ban all flavours in vaping products.  This will be a death blow to all vape specialty stores – the same death delivered by the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs.  No question.  We all saw what happened in Nova Scotia.

 

I know Health Canada is trying to save the kids – even if many people go back to cigarettes.  I know they are going about it the wrong way but that’s a whole other conversation.  I also know that there is nothing we, as the Vaping Industry, can do about it. The writing is on the wall .  I am sad that we will lose everything my staff and I have built up over the past five years.  I am disheartened that I will have to start up all over again with a new business in order to secure income for my family.  Not an easy feat at my ripe age of 49. 

 

The one thing I am upset about is that the only people left alive, like cockroaches, after the Health Canada’s meteor hits will be big tobacco with their vape products and the convenience stores.   The very same actors who got the kids hooked in the first place.  Coincidence? You be the judge.

 

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