Santa Cruz-based company Big Pete’s Treats has come a long way from Pete Feurtado’s kitchen on the Westside. Along with the help of son Pete Jr. and daughter Katie, the family business has managed to produce the No. 1 cookie edible in California.
The black lava rock slopes of the Kīlauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island might seem like an outlandish spot to choose for growing weed. But that’s exactly where Pete Feurtado — aka Big Pete — planted the original seeds for his cannabis industry dreams that have now grown into the top-selling cookie edible in California.
Back in 1979, Santa Cruz local Big Pete was just dipping his toes into the business, working as a trimmer while attending the University of Hawaii’s Big Island campus. He and his friends would hike out into the tropical wilderness to tend to their guerrilla grow on the volcano — a rather dramatic setting indeed.
After his years on the island, Feurtado returned to Santa Cruz, where he worked in landscaping and property management up until the mid-to-late 2000s, when the availability of medical marijuana was fairly novel.
Then, in 2009, Feurtado was in early retirement and not up to much, save for a small grow operation in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But the conversation about wide legalization of cannabis was heating up.
Looking to dive deeper into the cannabis industry, he enrolled in Oaksterdam University — an Oakland-based institution specializing in cannabis education and certification — in hopes of making connections, and maybe even learning some things he didn’t know.
When one of his instructors assigned the project of pitching a cannabis business idea, cookies came to mind. Feurtado put the idea to the test and baked the first batch in his kitchen, catalyzing the Big Pete’s Treats brand that can be found in just about every dispensary in town along with over 100 others in California.
With the medicinal marijuana movement in full swing, and the rumblings of legalization reverberating around the country, Big Pete knew he needed help. In 2010, his son, Pete (aka Pete Jr. or Little Pete), joined the business, followed by his daughter, Katie, in 2015.
From chocolate chip to peanut butter, lemon, strawberry coconut and more, Big Pete’s Treats caters to a wide range of tastes — and attempts to bake its customers as perfectly as its cookies.
Pete Jr., 34, reminisced about just how much the business has changed since legalization.
“In preparation for legalization and increased testing, we had to scale up, and now we’re able to make 20,000 and as many as 30,000 cookies in a day at our Santa Cruz factory,” he said.
Pete Jr. has been with the company since its infancy and has seen explosive growth in just the past few years.
“Going from 2017 to 2018, our business pretty much quadrupled in sales during that first year in the shift from medical to legalization,” he said.
Though Big Pete still acts as brand ambassador, Pete Jr. and Katie have fully assumed their roles as CEO and vice president of sales, respectively, establishing themselves as the new generation of leaders in the family business.
Pete Jr. spoke with Lookout about the evolution of the cannabis industry, necessary marketing precautions, and 4/20 craziness.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Lookout: How has legalization affected Big Pete’s Treats?
Pete Feurtado Jr: I’d say it’s changed in a positive way. I mean, we can sit here and I can give you a list of complaints as far as the taxes go, right? But it also opened the business up to anyone 21 or over so that they can buy our cookies now, and it’s opened up a lot of opportunities for us to grow.
From 2017 to 2018, so basically overnight, our business pretty much quadrupled in sales during that first year in the shift from medical to legalization. Part of that was due to the fact that we had our model pretty dialed in, we were familiar with the testing process already, and we had our licenses. Our product was already perfect for the shelf, since they’re small cookies that always have 10-milligram doses [of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis].
So we really had done all of the groundwork to get ready for legalization for years. Ever since 2010, we had been preparing for legalization, and at this point, we’re looking to build our business in other states.
Lookout: So the normalization of usage hasn’t caused consumers to lose interest?
Pete Jr.: Definitely not. I think we’ve steadily grown ever since legalization and will continue to do so. That being said, we need to continue to innovate and expand the market to other places. We are the No. 1 cannabis cookie in California by a long shot. We have about 60% of that baked-goods market share in California, so growth continues to be the main goal.
Currently, we’re in Florida, we have signed deals in Arizona and Canada, we’re working very hard to close in on Nevada and other places, too. Then, in California, we’re working to expand past just cookies. For example, we’re working on a peanut butter cup right now.
Lookout: Which interest came first, the baking or the weed?
Pete Jr.: Cannabis was our first love for sure. We love everything about it. Obviously, our business started up in Oaksterdam, but also a big part of it was just talking with my dad about business.
After college, my dad and I would just smoke a joint and brainstorm about what we could do with this and the different avenues we could take. My sister, Katie, who’s now involved, was barely in high school when we first launched so she was too young at that point, but since then we realized that we all have a natural entrepreneurial spirit, so business in general was a big point of interest and conversation between the three of us.
So those discussions about business and investments were really important to us, and I think that is our true passion. Even though cannabis was a big part of our lives, the most important thing for me was just learning business.
Lookout: 4/20 is here yet again. What’s it like running a popular cannabis brand at that time of the year?
Pete Jr.: It’s very busy, as you might expect. Really, all of March is pretty busy for us, because we’re getting tons of orders, filling tons of orders, and making sure we have enough of everything so we can keep up with the heightened demand.
As for the celebrations, I think they’ve also grown. It’s all just more accessible now. Pretty much every store or dispensary you go to will have promotions or parties. This time of the year is just a good time to buy cannabis, really, and March and April pretty much always shape up to be two of our best months of the year.
Lookout: Because of that increased accessibility, there’s always concern about younger people and kids getting ahold of these products very easily. What are your thoughts on that aspect?
Pete Jr.: That’s really where the regulation comes in. It’s important, but also it’s important not to overtax the regulated industry because that’s one way that black markets can thrive. People will go to those sources to bypass the higher costs associated with the regulated goods.
Still, though, the regulations are there for a reason. Those rules will address things like not having packaging that will appeal to children, and we work very hard to make sure that the products do not appear like kids products. That also means that we have to pass up on really cool marketing ideas that may be considered appealing to kids. There’s also child-resistant packaging, which will help, but a lot of it’s going to come down to the parents and, just like you should with other products like alcohol, keep it away from your kids or locked up in a specific place.
So, that’s one of the biggest differences between the black market and the regulated industry. We need to comply with ways to not get it into your kids’ hands.
Lookout: Even in the regulated industry, does the size of the business affect quality and oversight?
Pete Jr.: The truth is, you’re always gonna have to be focused on quality. But I mean, luckily, we’re in California, and I think the best cannabis in the world is right here in the No. 1 cannabis market in the world, so it makes it easy for us to maintain high-quality products even when we have to scale up.
When legalization happened, we had to scale up our operations. The way the rules are set up, with testing, permits, fees and taxes, you’ll lose a ton of money unless you reach a certain scale. Obviously, we’re not a huge company like Oreo, but we still are able to make 20,000 and as many as 30,000 cookies a day at our Santa Cruz factory.
Lookout: At the end of the day, are your products more medicinal or recreational?
Pete Jr.: We started out as medical back in 2010, and we got great feedback about our cookies helping lots of people. In those early days, we weren’t making much money by any means. What really kept us going was hearing some of the stories from people at the High Times cup or a HempCon back in the day.
Hearing stories of, for example, someone’s dad with cancer trying our cookies and getting his appetite back and reaching a healthier weight again really inspired us to keep doing what we were doing. So, while I think they do a lot of good things for people, I might say that they lean a bit more towards the recreational side. People like to eat them and hang out with friends or go to the movies and whatnot.
It just hits every kind of demographic square on. Whether it’s a 21-year-old playing some video games or your grandma with insomnia that’s trying to get a good night’s sleep, they really are good for both, and they taste good, too! Because of that, we have a real chance at becoming the national cannabis cookie brand of America. Pretty crazy to think that this is all growing from something we started in my dad’s kitchen on the Westside of Santa Cruz.