Wendy Bronfein, encased in crisp, white protective gear, navigated the pristine corridor lined with sealed doors—a scene she playfully likened to the whimsical passageways of "Willy Wonka." Bronfein, at the helm of Curio Wellness, a Maryland cannabis enterprise, described the spot as akin to the film’s Mike Teavee moment.

With an inspector's visit from the Missouri Division of Cannabis Regulation on the horizon, the St. Louis County's new cannabis production site maintained a rigorous cleanliness protocol—a testament to the company's aspiration to secure the coveted Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certification, a mark of excellence that surpasses state requirements and aligns with those set by the FDA for pharmaceutical entities. Since 2013, Curio has upheld this high standard in Maryland.

Spanning 130,000 square feet, the facility dedicates 55,000 to manufacturing, while construction buzzes on the remainder, making way for a cultivation area slated for completion by April. January 2nd marked the official go-ahead for production activities.

Operational control rests with Curio Wellness, yet VMO-Ops Inc.—a coalition involving Viola and Village brands steered by ex-NBA star Al Harrington, Dan Pettigrew, and St. Louis's own Larry Hughes and Abe Givins—holds the license. Since the industry's Missouri inception in 2019, VMO-Ops stands as the solo Black-owned business with a comprehensive range of cannabis licenses.

Investor recruitment, hindered by the pandemic, has been a hurdle since license acquisition in December 2019, according to Pettigrew. The team now petitions for license transference to Curio, a process that could span a year or more, depending on readiness, as informed by division spokeswoman Lisa Cox.

For now, VMO-Ops bears full responsibility for the site's activities pending license transfer approval. Pettigrew assures their continued involvement, citing a substantial prospective stake in Curio, ensuring their input in product development.

Givins terms the Curio collaboration as extraordinary, and despite a shift in license ownership, their influential partnership remains steadfast. Pettigrew, as a patron of the product, praised Curio's superior quality, viewing the transition not as a sell-out but as an enhancement.

Intensive Training and Embracing Workforce Diversity​

Daniel Virag is part of the pioneering team of nine at Curio, dedicating weeks to mastering the company’s unique processes and stringent certification demands. During a tour by The Independent on December 4th, Virag was at his post in the room designated for crafting the "Good Night" and "Good Day" pill products.

"The expertise we bring in tablet creation really sets Curio apart," noted Virag, highlighting his fresh venture into pharmaceutical-style production as a remarkable and forward-thinking experience. These specific capsules incorporate Delta-9 THC, renowned for its psychoactive properties, alongside non-intoxicating elements like CBN and CBD, broadening the appeal of Curio's product spectrum.

Bronfein shared that discussions with local dispensaries have shown a keen interest in such innovative offerings. Curio's product lineup doesn't end there, featuring therapeutic THC and CBD-infused balms for pain relief, an assortment of edibles including chocolates and chews, pre-rolled joints, and a signature product line crafted for Viola.

Pettigrew expressed enthusiasm for presenting Curio products, appreciating the company's medically-oriented ethos, aligning with his view of cannabis as therapeutic. He praised Curio's depth of training and educational outreach, which has been integrated into VMO's own retail training protocols.

As Curio gears up to initiate its operations and increase its workforce, they aim to maintain VMO’s commitment to employee diversity. Pettigrew acknowledged Curio's understanding of the value VMO places on diversity, stating, "They've realized from the start its significance to us." He highlighted that while exact replication of their retail stores' 95% minority and women leadership may not be feasible, Curio is actively considering these aspects.

Bronfein directed attention to the diversity statistics displayed on their website, showcasing that in Maryland, 46% of Curio's 350-strong workforce identify as minorities, with women holding 38% of management roles and veterans representing 22%. "We embody diversity through and through as a company in Maryland," she stated, "and we're committed to extending that same responsibility to Missouri."

A Family-Operated Endeavor​

In 2014, while Bronfein was building her career in television in Maryland, the state's legalization of medical marijuana caught her attention. Her father, Michael, with a career in pharmaceutical distribution, was intrigued by the news she shared with him — though neither anticipated the deep dive this opportunity would prompt.

Gradually, what began as a leisurely project filled with evening and weekend brainstorming sessions developed into a serious pursuit, as they moved towards securing a license. Her marketing and branding prowess, along with her father's healthcare administration experience, provided a robust platform to navigate the intricate regulatory landscape of the cannabis industry.

As the venture grew, her sister and brother came aboard too. "We're a tight-knit unit," she explained. "Our mom stays out of the fray, offering much-needed sanity checks and expert babysitting, affectionately earning her the title of Chief Babysitting Officer."

This familial commitment resonated with VMO, forging a natural partnership between the two entities. "The family dynamics within Curio struck a chord with me," Givins remarked. "A seasoned grower delivering quality products is a win for Missouri's market."

When Harrington and Pettigrew established Viola Brands in 2011, they did so under the name of Harrington’s grandmother, embedding a legacy of community upliftment and diversity within the company's ethos.

The collaboration between the Brofeins and VMO sprouted from shared investor connections, blossoming into what both believe is a fruitful union. "Our network in this domain is one of our greatest advantages," Pettigrew noted. "We’re honored to contribute to what we consider the premier cultivation and processing facility in the state."
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