Stephanie Hua is the founder and chief confectioner behind Mellows, a low-dose marshmallow edibles brand that is fortunate to be able to continue working in cannabis right now as an essential service. Although she admits, it’s been a challenge to balance work and life with a four-year-old at home.
“It’s like having a co-worker in your house who taps your shoulder every 20 minutes,” she said with a chuckle.
Hua grew up on the East Coast, born in New York and raised in Northern New Jersey. She came out to the Golden State in 2008 to be with her now-husband, David Hua, a fellow cannabis entrepreneur.
“We were doing the long-distance thing between New York and San Francisco, but when my lease was up, it was time for me to come out here,” Hua said. “At this point, I can’t imagine living anywhere but California.”
In New York, she worked in advertising and marketing. On the West Coast, Hua took time to explore opportunities in the food industry, a space that always interested her. The move to join the food writing world drastically changed the trajectory of her career for the better.
“I am Chinese,” she shared. “The ‘love language’ of our culture and my family has always been food. My grandfather was a chef and worked in the food industry in New York. Growing up, my mother had a homemade dinner on the table every night, on time. I’ve always been a really good eater, and I’ve always loved writing, so it made sense to try and combine the two. I think the greatest expression of love and nurturing is to feed people. There is a little bit of magic in being able to create something from scratch.”
Making a New Kind of Edibles Company
This philosophy is something that Hua wanted to carry over into Mellows, and she attributes a lot of her journey into cannabis to her husband. While food writing, she went to cover the opening of the new San Francisco Cooking School. While talking to the founder before the official opening of the school, she fell in love with the curriculum and thesis on how to create a new kind of cooking school that was hands-on—connecting students with the local chefs in the Bay Area community.
“At the end of that night, I came home and asked my husband if he thought I could do this,” Hua explained. “His response was, ‘for the rest of our lives I’ll be married to a professional chef who can make anything we could ever want to eat? Yes, absolutely!’ So I took the last open spot, which I think was fate, and embarked on this journey to become a professional chef.”
Right around the same time that Stephanie Hua finished her culinary training, David Hua was founding the cannabis software company, Meadow, and doing R&D in the cannabis space. This meant that the two of them were out visiting a lot of dispensaries and trying different products.
“I have always been a light-weight when it comes to consuming edibles,” Hua said. “At this time, we were still in a medical market, and the products were very much geared towards a medical consumer. Everything was just too strong for me. That’s when I realized there was a real need for an edibles product that was approachable and gently dosed.”
This brought up another question for Hua: In a food mecca like San Francisco, why couldn’t cannabis-infused food be approached with the same level of care, artistry, and attention to flavor? Why couldn’t edibles be therapeutic and utterly delicious at the same time? Thus began her idea for a handcrafted, gourmet edible that eventually became Mellows, which officially launched in 2015. She wanted to open the conversation with people about how cannabis can be nuanced and beautiful.
Mellows are cannabis-infused marshmallows. When Hua’s team was first trying to figure out what their signature products would be, they wanted a blend of nostalgic flavors that people found familiar, but with a foodie twist.
“Our bestseller has always been the Birthday Cake marshmallow,” Hua said. “It’s this irresistible looking rainbow-sprinkled treat, which I really think resonates with people. We also have flavors that are out of the box. Our Brown Butter Sage has become a cult classic because it’s a different kind of flavor profile with a touch of savory. We always try to think about how the flavors will meld together, we think about texture, about the visual appeal of each product. We taste each flavor and ask, is this the most delightful iteration possible?”
While getting Mellows off the ground, Hua said one of the biggest challenges was convincing dispensaries that people would want an edible as low as five milligrams THC. When they launched, the norm was around 20 milligrams per serving.
“I remember having to take one tiny little gummy and try to split it into ten pieces for myself, which was ridiculous,” she mused. “There is a new cannabis consumer entering the market that wants to take something much lower in dose. Fast forward a couple of years, and now you see products that are micro-dosed at 2.5 milligrams.”
Membership to a Fierce Female Circle
Coming from advertising in New York to writing in San Francisco, then the culinary world, and on to cannabis, Stephanie Hua has tackled some extremely male-dominated industries in her career. While men have historically led the cannabis industry, she feels fortunate to be in a bubble of fierce and inspiring women here in the Bay Area who are trailblazing into the industry and carving out a space for everyone.
“Mellows is definitely a female-targeted brand,” Hua said. “But when we would do demos to sample products at dispensaries, I would see the same number of men come up wanting to try as well. We like to believe that deliciousness doesn’t have a gender preference.”
In reality, she knows that people probably do perceive Mellows differently as a female-owned business. However, if you look at the data on who is purchasing edibles, the growing segment of women trying cannabis treats will sway buyers.
“If we can mobilize our core demographic, and introduce this product to women, and take the stigma out of buying cannabis as a woman, we empower a strong consumer which will trickle down to what the vendors buy and shops carry,” she said.
In the end, Hua draws her inspiration back to the strong community of Bay Area women in cannabis who lift each other up and help each other out. Even for something as simple as looking for new packaging, she said someone will always jump up to give a recommendation. Maintaining this ecosystem of support in a very volatile industry makes everyone stronger. There is a wealth of experience and knowledge out there that she knows she can tap into at any time.
“There is room at the table for all of us,” Hua said. “I don’t consider another woman-owned edibles company my competition. Looking at who we want to succeed here, I want her right there next to me. I see that spirit more often than anything else.”
Adapting to a Post-COVID World
Fortunately, from a production standpoint, Hua and her team haven’t had to make too many changes due to COVID-19. They put more safety protocols into place to make sure employees operate safely and feel comfortable coming into work. The most significant change recently is that people are trying edibles more.
“There has been an uptick in edible sales since COVID started,” Hua said. “I think part of the reason is people are trying to save their lungs by not smoking or vaping during this time. Also, people are stuck indoors and may not be able to smoke inside, so they reach for the edibles instead. People are experimenting more right now, and as a low-dose product, we’ve seen a lot more interest in Mellows. This is the best time to try something new if there ever was any!”
Hua thinks so many of the cannabis businesses that have made it to this point are just used to dealing with crazy circumstances.
“We’ve all been stress-tested a lot over the past couple of years,” she said. “So, OK, we have to change up protocols, pivot on a dime, sure we can do that. You can see our resiliency show itself time and time again in the operations of this industry.”
Hua summed up her thoughts by explaining that she is just trying to bring a little bit of delight into people’s lives.
“As the cannabis consumer evolves, we want to be there to show people that it doesn’t have to be a complicated or scary experience,” she said. “We want to open the conversation for people about how cannabis can be a part of their everyday lives.”
Stephanie Hua is also the author of a Best Selling Edibles Cookbook that you can find here: http://yayedibles.com/