How Aaron Miller used his culinary background to launch a career with Flight Cannabis
Burned out in the high-stress culinary world, now he’s chilling out in the world of cannabis
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Burned out in the high-stress culinary world, now he’s chilling out in the world of cannabis
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Aaron Miller had just left the registrar’s office at Okanagan College and took off his baseball cap. Sitting outside the building, with a piece of paper in hand, he scribbled down all the trade jobs he heard that the school offered.
Electrical, plumbing, welding, technician, culinary.
Miller’s initial dream was to become an engineer. Growing up, he loved to figure out how things worked, but he had a hard time focusing on single tasks. He was still years away from an adult diagnosis of ADHD that helped him understand why he had trouble concentrating.
It was 2002, his first year at Okanagan College, and Miller was struggling in math when he decided to switch post-secondary fields.
The registrar informed him that he could transfer his pre-paid tuition into a trades program, and that he could let them know within a week.
It didn’t take him a week. Moments after leaving the registrar office, Miller ripped up the pieces of paper, threw them in his ball cap, and closed his eyes.
“I just want to try something and see what happens,” he told himself.
After shaking the hat for a few seconds, he reached down.
Miller made a beeline to the registrar and asked to be enrolled in their culinary program.
“They said, ‘Oh, you’re back already? You don’t need to be back for a week,” said Miller, who would graduate from the program in 2004 and move to Victoria one year later to become a manager at a downtown restaurant.
“I said, ‘Nope. I’ve already made my decision and this is what I want to do.”
Or, at the time, what he thought he wanted to do.
For the next 13 years, Miller stayed in the culinary industry. After working as an executive chef at a Langford Milestone’s, he joined the Truffles Group—a local hospitality business—in 2014 to serve as a sous chef and unit manager at a Royal Roads University cafe managed by the group.
In 2018, though, Miller was beginning to feel burnt out.
The night shifts, hours standing on his aching joints, and birth of his child made him reconsider career paths, again. This time, he hung up his apron to become a Truffles Group financial analyst.
“A lot of people will say their hobbies are reading or biking; my hobbies are working with Microsoft Excel,” Miller said.
One of his first tasks with the group was helping them obtain a cannabis retail license from BC’s liquor and cannabis regulation branch (LCRB).
Miller’s been a cannabis user on-and-off for his whole life, and it helped him cope through burnout.
“I’ve had depression since I was 15, so it helps to keep me elevated. It also helps keep me motivated—sometimes I get in a bit of a funk so it helps to keep me going,” Miller said.
Diving into a new project, when the Truffles Group got approved for a cannabis license last year, was the career switch he needed at the time. In August 2020, Miller officially began as general manager of the newly launched Flight Cannabis Co. in Langford.
“The engaging conversations that I can have with my team who are passionate about cannabis is also a really uplifting effect,” Miller said.
“It’s a lot of fun to talk about something that three, four, years ago could have landed you jail time.”
Although Miller knew he wasn’t building a restaurant, he designed Flight around elements that closely resembled one. All of his cabinetry can be loaded from the backside to push product forward, and the employee line was made with enough space for folks to move back and forth without running into one another.
Flight sells beverages, concentrates, and edibles among other cannabis products. With products that can be consumed orally, Miller also uses his culinary background to help describe the taste combinations and elements of a product to consumers.
Since cannabis was legalized in Canada in 2018—and well before it was official—numerous dispensaries and shops have popped up across the Capital Region District. Miller says his team’s knowledge and one-on-one consultation is what sets them apart from retailers who all purchase wholesale products from the government or LCRB.
“I knew early on that I didn’t have products that would make me stand out from any other retailer, because they all had access to the same product. So, immediately, my very first focus was, ‘We’re not selling products, we’re selling experience,’” he says.
The COVID-19 pandemic increased cannabis use in Canada. In April, the CBC reported that by the end of 2020 20% of people aged 15 and up used cannabis within three months—up from 17.5% from the first quarter of 2019.
Miller says that he’s noticed more cannabis usage in the pandemic, and an uptick in sales when together public health restrictions went into place. But overall the cannabis market has been disappointing, with just over half of sales currently coming through the legal market. More than a billion grams of pot are sitting in warehouses, unsold.
Despite the challenges, Miller says, opening during the pandemic helped them prepare for the uncertain business landscape—Flight took into consideration the implementation of plexiglass barriers in building-design processes—and opened a second location in Nanaimo.
Well after legalization, Miller’s noticed a lingering stigma towards the industry. To try and fight that stigma, he incorporated natural lighting, open-ceilings, and light colours around the building to make Flight feel inviting.
In the rezoning process for their Nanaimo shop in the winter, he met with locals in the area who addressed concerns around the possibility of adding cannabis smokers to the neighbourhood.
“Again, old stigma in people’s eyes would see these wackies hanging around causing disturbances and trouble, and it’s not like that,” he said.
Since opening the Nanaimo shop, he hasn’t heard complaints and is proud with how they’ve been able to ingrain into the community. He credits Flight’s bright aura, and transparency as the keys which helped them successfully integrate into the neighbourhood.
Moving forward, Miller has aspirations to open more stores and become a well-known regional brand that also de-stigmatizes the long held beliefs of cannabis.
“I’ll still get the occasional customer that comes in and is like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never been in a cannabis store. This is so much nicer, I was expecting something in someone’s basement.’”
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Capital Daily: What does Langford need to make it easier to run a business here?
Aaron Miller: They’ve done a really great job in terms of supporting us and providing us with as much community resources as possible. Throughout the pandemic, I often got emails from the city explaining new grants that would help businesses. I think Langford’s done a good job of helping us operate and be successful.
What worries you most about your business?
It’s hard to say because there are so many things that can change in our industry since it’s so young. If you compare liquor as an example, they had 100 years to get to a point where they are now, and we’re trying to cram all of that into a five to 10 year span. So my only concern would be that a major policy change happens at the federal or provincial level that would make business more challenging. But I don’t see that happening.
The only other thing that I have on top of my mind that could potentially change our industry down the road is legalization in the States. That’s a big one, because I don’t know how it’s going to affect Canada once it happens.
What excites you the most about your business?
Innovation in products. There’s always something new coming out. What excites me is being able to talk about something and feel passionate about it and be able to see my team members talking about it and feeling passionate.
What other local company or business leader do you look to for guidance?
Within our own company (Truffles Group) we got Cascadia Liquor, and I look to them because they have been so successful over the years. They have done such a good job with guest retention. A lot of what I’ve brought in—whether it’s systems, policies, or procedures—I’ve taken from Cascadia.
If you had to run another business in town, what would it be and why?
Say I won the lottery, I’d love to run an arcade. I think that would be the funnest thing to do, just to play games and see people having fun.
If you had $10,000 to invest, where would you invest it?
I’d probably look at the looming industry of psychedelics. I think that’s going to be another big boom, especially when it comes to mental health. I think you’re already starting to see mushroom stores popping up, so if you think about how quickly they’re coming up versus the timeline that happened within cannabis I could that being something and that’s where I’d probably invest money.
How do you stay inspired to keep running your business?
My employers provide a great place to work, and I really enjoy the team I work with. I call them ‘team’ but really they're my family. I spend more time with them than I do with my own family sometimes. They bring me into work, my customers bring me into work, they all have an interesting story to tell whether they’re using cannabis recreationally or otherwise. It’s never the same day everyday.
What, if anything, did you learn from the pandemic about your business?
That regardless of how scared people are of what’s going on, people still really like to smoke their weed.
What do you consider your biggest business failure, and how did you overcome it?
The cannabis stores we have are my first foray into opening a business, and I think I didn’t have any failures then—other than not opening on time when I wanted to. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had a failure.
What do you wish you knew before starting Flight?
Everything I know now [laughs]. Going into an industry where there was so little information, right after legalization, anybody who had a store opening was very tight-lipped about their operation and didn’t want to share anything because it was new, exciting, and they wanted to be out front.
There were a lot of things I didn’t know going into this, even the packaging, like how much it’s evolved and how I need to change my shelving around because the packaging is different. I wish I knew to be more expecting of the unknown.