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Million Dollar Cookie: How Berner Built a Business Empire on Marijuana 

Tuesday, Feb 2 2016
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Last May, the annual Bay to Breakers shitshow started two days early in the Haight-Ashbury, right around the time a gold-painted RV rolled up in front of a Haight Street storefront near Masonic Avenue.

A line of young people — white and black and brown but skewing urban, with some suburban kids mixed in, conspicuously fronting tough — snaked down the hill on Masonic and to the left up Haight. They were waiting to enter a storefront a few doors down from hip clothier Pink+Dolphin, whose own grand opening not long before also drew a throng of stylesters, scenesters, and local rappers eager to plunk down $80 for a hoodie.

But not quite like this.

This line was bigger, its energy higher, egged on by the young men on dirtbikes who popped wheelies while buzzing up and down Haight. More famous locals came through, enough local rappers to fill a mixtape. These hoodies were pricier — around $100 and up — but sold just as quickly.

Hovering over everything — the line, the storefront's backyard, and the golden RV, embossed with the name "the Twerkulator" — was a heavy cloud of an unmistakably pungent strain of cannabis.

Cookies had arrived.

The hubbub over the grand opening of Cookies' clothing boutique lasted for three days, well into Bay to Breakers Sunday, when an even-larger crowd of even buzzier young people strolled through to see what could possibly compete for attention with San Francisco's greatest outdoor drinkathon. (The golden RV, for one, with young women inside volunteering to twerk on camera; the collection of people handing out free joints outside the store, for another.) On a weekend when many Haight Street merchants would prefer to roll down the gate rather than deal with the mess and noise, Cookies was doing banner business, ringing up tabs into the hundreds of dollars well into the afternoon.

At the center of it all was a heavyset young man with light skin, a close-cropped head, a perennial five-o'clock shadow, and a tattoo on the pinky-side of his left palm that matched the "Cookies" banner hanging over the store. In between posing for photos and slapping skin with the parade of well-known well-wishers coming through, Gilbert Milam Jr. was clearly in charge.

The Fillmore District native and Galileo High dropout — better known to his hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers as "Berner" — was five months away from turning 32. And this — the crowd, the store, and that telltale heavy marijuana stink, different somehow from the clouds of smoke hanging over every street corner in San Francisco — was all his doing.

"Three fuckin' full days. I don't know why we went with three days. I honestly did not think it would pop off for three days... but all three days was crackin'," Berner said later, on a video posted to his YouTube channel. "We really shut the city down, man. The whole city came out."

The opening of the Cookies store caused a scene — and to this day, it causes some confusion. No, there is no medical cannabis for sale here; the official Cookies dispensary is on the other side of town, on Mission Street south of Geneva Avenue near Daly City. But thinking so is an honest mistake, as everything Berner does — his store; his career as a rapper, going on tour and cutting tracks with Snoop Dogg, Cam'ron, Chris Brown, B-Real, and Wiz Khalifa; his line of weed-themed, hempseed-infused flavored waters, Hemp2o, also for sale at the store — involves weed in some way.

Specifically, it involves Cookies, which in the span of five years has become the best-known name in the marijuana game — thanks largely to Berner putting it directly into Khalifa's hands — and other strains grown by the San Francisco-bred cultivation crew now internationally famous as the "Cookies Fam."

Weed was how Berner graduated from working as a bartender at Jelly's on Mission Rock and a budtender at the old Hemp Center on Geary Boulevard in the Richmond to his current status as multidisciplinary businessman. Weed was how Berner appeared as a special guest on Snoop Dogg's YouTube interview series, in a seat occupied on other episodes by mainstream celebrities like Seth Rogen, PSY, and Jimmy Kimmel (though the episode with Berner has more views than Kimmel's).

Weed helped Berner turn a couple of ideas into a growing business empire that he claims cleared $12 million in 2015. Weed definitely helps when Cookies sells out 100 $100 sweatshirts, advertised on Instagram, in minutes — and without weed, it's hard to imagine Berner producing a show on 4/20 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium featuring himself and Cypress Hill (for which he's on the hook to sell 8,500 tickets).

But since Berner's business does not deal in marijuana per se, it can be on the books. It can use banks, make deals, and attract legitimate investment — all things that even the biggest names in an American marijuana industry transforming from underground criminal hustle to an entrepreneur's game attracting eight-figure investments cannot do.

Activism is definitely not Berner's thing. You won't find him standing at a Mario Woods rally next to Equipto, one of the first rappers with whom Berner cut a track. (You also won't find Berner teaching preschool, which is what Equipto, a.k.a. Ilyich Sato, does for a living.) On hot topics like legalization or regulation of cannabis in California, Berner is strictly agnostic.

"I don't really get involved in all that," he says, before tacking on an honest postscript: "I'm just here to make money, really."

And he is. Kids in London, Canada, and Pennsylvania rock Cookies clothing. There are Cookies-branded rolling trays, grinders, and other accessories in smokeshops all over the country. Hemp2o, on its way towards following 50 Cent's blueprint to riches with the Vitamin Water, is in 1,000 stores around the country.

"In terms of entrepreneurship, it's him and E-40," says Matt Werner, founder of Bay Area hip-hop website, name-checking the Bay Area's prolific recording artist, progenitor of hyphy, and entrepreneur with his own line of wines and, recently released, honey-flavored malt liquor as a Berner peer. "They're on a whole other level compared to a lot of other people."


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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