BY ALINA NGUYEN
Sundae School was founded by lifelong friends Dae Lim and Mia Park, Korean-American immigrants and self-described "functional stoners" who used to get high and brainstorm design concepts together to rise above the malaise of their daily grinds. That's how the craft cannabis brand and smokewear fashion label was born, offering Korean jeogori-inspired jackets and streetwear-esque loungewear, designed for a smoker to don when savoring one of their Bullets—mini pre-rolls made precisely for that mood-uplifting mid-workday smoke break.
Before expanding into cannabis with their launch at MedMen in 2019, Sundae School started out as a "boutique smokewear" label that launched on 4/20/2017—a cleverly coined phrase that takes the meaning of a smoking jacket to new highs. Sundae School's intention is to help you either kick-start or kick-back with cannabis as a catalyst for collaboration and possibly creative enlightenment—an expression referenced in many a Sundae School campaign. Naturally, they've since collab'd with Boiler Room and their Genesis: Renaissance collection reimagined the 7 days of creation... if God was high. How's that for high-minded enlightenment?
Park explains their team's highly personal process of product ideation as "really the power of authenticity." Hating roaches and wanting a quick on-the-go joint is what led to the creation of their Bullets, and the vision for their just-launched mochi gummy edibles arrived out of feelings of nostalgia for the chewy Asian candies their team grew up munching on. Their beautifully evocative spring/summer 2021 smokewear collection is described as a "love story" to their homeland of South Korea.
Aspirationally, Sundae School as a lifestyle brand seems to represent a state of dreamy mindfulness in which imagination and creativity flow free, guided by a spirited vibe of smoking—and living—with intention. Today, the brand leads a community of like-minded functional stoner creatives with shared values about working towards a better, more inclusive, more diverse, more sustainable future. Sundae School—most importantly to their team's mission—intends to be holistic in their focus on social impact, from their choices in supply chain partners to the way they use their platform as a voice for community activism and advocacy.
We recently caught up with Sundae School co-founder Mia Park and J Tran—their Dean of Student Affairs—to talk about their community-based mission and their newest mochi gummies, just launched in 3 flavors of Sour Yuzu, Milk Tea Boba, and Lychee Dragonfruit.
EMBER: With your newest mochi gummy launch, you chose to partner with Elefante, a company founded by a Vietnamese American woman. Your flavors like Milk Tea and Lychee Dragonfruit are nostalgic and very much rooted in Asian culture. Did these flavors come from your team's collective childhood memories?
MIA PARK: The mochi gummies are definitely based on the childhood flavors a lot of us grew up with in the Sundae School community. We launched a big survey amongst our audience because we wanted to know what flavors they wanted to see in the cannabis space that were underrepresented—a lot of the time, it's a lot of berries [laughs]. That was our first wave of ideation in the brainstorming phase. And from there on, we really searched deep within our own individual experiences: What are some of the flavors that feel very us? We ended up landing on 3 flavors: sour yuzu, lychee dragonfruit, and milk tea boba. We're so excited about them because we're able to share these flavors that were very personal to us with a lot of people.
J TRAN: Our gummies are 100% inspired by childhood trips to the Asian grocery stores with our parents! When it came to finding a partner, we needed someone to intrinsically understand that experience. Working with Julie [and the Elefante] team has been a dream! Our R&D meetings consist of trips to 99 Ranch Market, eating a lot of treats and sharing stories of growing up Asian in America. It has been so fun and rewarding!
How did you land on the perfect final formulation of the gummies? What were you looking for specifically with the texture of the final product?
J TRAN: We took a long time examining the current edibles market and an even longer time discovering what we liked and didn't like about candies. What we settled on was we just preferred the chewier, mochi texture in Asian candies. Ideation has taken two years, but it was really in the last couple months working side by side with Elefante that we struck this simple balance of ice mochi doughiness and a Hi-Chew-esque texture. We are super super proud of it and can't wait for you all to try!
MIA PARK: As you might have guessed, we definitely put our consumers first and we have a lot of small group studies that we involved heavily during our R&D process. Our gummies are made by another Asian American-owned manufacturer called Elefante, the CEO is Vietnamese American. Honestly, that was actually one of the reasons why we decided to partner with the Elefante team, because beyond the mission or the North Star that we have about partnering with minority operators, she also was able to say, "Okay, I know exactly what flavors you're talking about," so it was really, really fun to partner with their team.
One of the things we learned from the group studies is texture is important. And that was a really aha moment for me because a lot of the gummies in the market [don't have the] texture I want from a gummy standpoint. Maybe it's my Asian palate, but I don't really love the grainy, sugar-coated gummies that aren't chewy when you bite into them. So when we developed the mochi gummy—and wanted to mimic the [texture of] Asian candies we grew up with. We're so happy with the current texture that we developed with the Elefante team. Our gummies are absolutely what we imagined them to be, so we're really happy.
Sundae School often tells this story of cannabis as a creative agent—how cannabis can be a window to creativity and self-awareness as well as enlightenment. How has cannabis usage in your personal lives materialized in this way?
J TRAN: None of us are born designers, but have always wanted to tap into that energy. Cannabis helps open up that creative window for us to make dope shit, and so much more. We use our mini pre-rolls throughout the day to power through spreadsheets. Our hash infused pre-rolls at night to unwind. And our gummies on the weekend for free-form fun.
MIA PARK: A lot of the time it's as simple as, 'OMG, all the dots are connecting in my brain because I'm high!' It might sound silly, but there's definitely that transcendental experience, that awakening experience when it comes to cannabis usage. Sometimes it's just recreational, it doesn't always have to be so philosophical either. But I think cannabis is such a catalyst for creativity. Dae and I don't really have a design background but we started a fashion-slash-cannabis company that's really centered around design. So the personal usage of cannabis for us was whenever we would start with a design or concept on the weekends when we were working at a corporate job, we would smoke weed and brainstorm—it felt more fluid and creative, the way we could expand our themes. That's probably why you see a lot of these 'enlightening, awakening, transcending' categories of themes [with our brand]. I think the personal core philosophy specifically for cannabis usage is about being ourselves: being self-aware about who we are, and being proud of what we represent in terms of our heritage.
Sundae School is holistically dedicated to your mission of storytelling diversity by partnering with minority operators and being true allies in the cannabis space. What drove you to adopt this mission? How has it informed every part of your updated supply chain as well as how you interact with the community you've built?
J TRAN: I'm born and raised in Oakland, California, so I have a unique perspective on cannabis and community. As I watched the cannabis industry grow in the last few years since [the legalization of recreational marijuana], I realized how much further away it got from the community that actually built it.
Sundae School has always been a platform that spotlights minority voices. So when it came to our cannabis line it was a no brainer that when we were able to, we would partner with an equity manufacturer. We partner with SF Roots. Not only because we are continually inspired by them, but most importantly, they are our friends. Community to us means striving to build an ecosystem where we all win. And we will continue to do that with every step forward.
MIA PARK: Being a minority brand, we want to be both holistic as well as very focused in our initiatives. We revamped every part of our supply chain in the past year to partner with minority Black and Brown community operators. All of our joints are made with SF Roots, the first Bay Area equity license holder within the cannabis industry. The partnership has been amazing. Obviously, us as a small brand, and SF Roots also as a growing brand, there have been many challenges for us to scale together at such a fast pace, but it's been so worth it because we see the impact.
Recently we partnered with Beam Impact, an online donation provider that allows companies to be able to pick a charity [to donate] funds to. For instance, the Vietnamese community center in Oakland was burned down, and with the Beam we were able to set up a really fast donation-based fundraiser by donating 1% of all our e-comm proceeds to go towards rebuilding, for instance, that community center.
For someone new to Sundae School, which of your favorite offerings would you recommend starting out with and why?
J TRAN: We made the products to be used together, kekeke. We love the combined high of smoking a pre-roll when the edible finally hits :P.
Alina Nguyen is a writer/editor based in Los Angeles.