Cannabis and Foodservice — A Perfect Pairing: An Interview with Rocco Iannapollo
4/20 is right around the corner and Elevation Foodservice Reps couldn’t be more excited. What was once considered a silly stoner holiday has become a way to celebrate how far legal cannabis and hemp have come in a few short years. It’s also a moment to highlight how foodservice products have made legal cannabis and hemp production safer, easier, and more efficient.
Just ask our partner Rocco Iannapollo. He is the Business Development Director of Emerging Channels for Tundra Food Supply and spearheads Tundra’s Cannabis Kitchen Supplies branch as a lead sales representative. He knows that cannabis and hemp producers need reliable foodservice products to complete grow operations and meet demand while adhering to strict safety regulations.
Hailing from Houston, Texas, with a background in oil and gas, Rocco is very familiar with government regulations. (Ironically, he used to be the Drug and Alcohol Testing Program Administrator for ConocoPhillips.) When he saw that he could help cannabis and hemp growers better navigate the foodservice world, he headed to Denver and began selling for Tundra.
Rocco acknowledges that he is serving a changing market. Cannabis isn’t widely accepted or legal everywhere across the country. But Rocco knows if businesses can differentiate cannabis from regular services, everyone will win. Cannabis Kitchen Supplies, for example, keeps cannabis-related foodservice sales separate from Tundra’s major clients, like Burger King, Chipotle and King Soopers.
Below, Rocco discusses his foray into foodservice and cannabis, why the two industries go so well together and what’s next.
Why did you get into the cannabis and foodservice industries?
I wanted to get involved in the cannabis industry because I’ve always had an affiliation with the plant. I always kept an eye on what was going on in the industry. It was through my business experience — gained from more than 25 years working in corporate America — that I realized I could help the marijuana industry. I never ever saw me selling foodservice products to the cannabis industry. I’d never had a sales job before. But, I decided to jump in with both feet.
In your opinion, how is the cannabis industry growing and where does foodservice come into play?
It’s no secret anymore that states are coming online for legal cannabis sales each year. I think we’re up to 38 states (soon to be 40) that have some form of legal cannabis. For Tundra, cannabis sales are actually falling in percentage compared to hemp, as [Cannabidiol] CBD is all the rage right now. The percentage of sales has flipped. 80 percent of my businesses was cannabis and 20 percent was hemp. Now 20 percent is cannabis and 80 percent of hemp. I’ve had some clients flip over from growing cannabis to growing hemp because hemp farms are 60- to 100- to 700-acres and require fewer regulations. They need more [foodservice] equipment to manufacture that much product.
So does cannabis need to be held to the same health and safety standards as food?
Yes. If you are manufacturing a product that is one way or another going to make it into your body, according to the Denver Health Department, you are producing a product for public consumption and you have to adhere to the same standards. The Colorado Department of Agriculture also comes into play, requiring a higher standard of testing and pesticide use in cannabis products, compared to, say, fruits or vegetables.
How did Tundra figure out foodservice products could serve the cannabis industry?
Tundra realized they had a new channel when people would come into their Boulder showroom and buy 700 sheet pans with cash! But Tundra also has a long history of making sure clients are getting food-grade, NSDA-approved equipment. [Cannabis companies] are small mom and pop businesses so a lot of them shop at Target or Wal-Mart. If businesses are using consumer-grade goods, the health department will not be okay with that.
What are the most essential products for cannabis producers to have?
The big mover for me is basic kitchen equipment, including tables, sinks, soap dispensers, sheet pans, and racks. I do sell a lot of disposables as well like paper towels, parchment paper, and nitrile gloves. Gloves are required by the health department, and the cannabis industry requires sturdier gloves. I also sell a lot of wholesale shipping solutions, like small pails that you can ship CBD and distillate in. CBD is a very labor-intensive, expensive product to make, so companies need to be careful distributing it.
Do you work with a lot of different types of producers, from growers, extractors and edible makers?
Some cannabis companies are “vertically integrated” meaning they grow, extract, and dispense. But a lot do wholesale or one service. The biggest thing I’m seeing is on the marijuana-infused product (MIP) side. There are a good number of companies just doing the extraction of bulk cannabis or hemp. Some companies want to control the whole supply chain because they don’t want a random pesticide showing up in an ingredient and ruining a whole batch.
What piece of mind do you want to have when it comes to consuming marijuana?
Being exposed to all of the companies around here, I get to go into all the manufacturing facilities. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. To make some vape cartridges, producers will soak cannabis biomass in butane. The gas gets sucked away to leave just medicine. But this process can be dangerous if those doing it aren’t careful. I prefer products that are solvent-less, which means no solvents like butane or C02 were added to create the product. An example is an ice-water hash, created with just water.
Where do you see the trend of foodservice in cannabis headed? Full-service marijuana restaurants?
That’s one of the new things I’m working on right now: partnering with chefs in the community that are friendly to cannabis. I talked to a lady the other day that makes kombucha. She uses a commercial kitchen magnetic stir bar to keep the kombucha mixed when serving it. I realized it’s also a tool perfect for the cannabis industry to serve up cannabinoid drinks in a bar. I absolutely see cannabis in food becoming popular.