Las Vegas cousins overcome humble beginnings to create popular new weed product

The cousins from New Jersey shared a studio apartment in downtown Las Vegas as they worked to make their mark in the marijuana industry. There was no wall separating where Jacob Silverstein slept on a small bed and where Zachary LoBello lay on a futon.

Chris Kudialis Las Vegas Sun

One night earlier this year, while eating downtown with a potential client, the two realized they had only $12 to their names before a deposit was set to be made the next morning. Instead of ordering off the menu like the client, the two split a small basket of $7.99 chicken wings, which left enough for a tip after tax.

“We just told them we weren’t that hungry,” LoBello said. “There were a lot of situations where we had to compromise.”

The sacrifices have worked.

Silverstein, 28, and LoBello, 26, have staked their claim to Nevada’s green rush as two of its youngest pot entrepreneurs. The founders of Hunter & Leaf, they have taken over a niche market they essentially developed themselves — prerolled marijuana blunts, with pot packed into rolled hemp instead of traditional tobacco paper. Their products, which come in six different strains, are sold in more than a dozen valley dispensaries, including the recently opened Planet 13 Superstore.

Each blunt is packed in a glass tube with a cork stopper, though plans are to offer packs soon. Prices range from $18 to $29.

“We did a bunch of research because we wanted to be innovative, and it led us to develop the market for a premium product,” Silverstein said.

The partnership started during Thanksgiving two years ago when the cousins, who were visiting in their hometown of Toms River, N.J., decided to pursue an independent marijuana business together. Silverstein was working for Las Vegas-based Silver State Wellness — a central valley cultivation and production facility — while LoBello previously worked growing pot in California’s marijuana “gray market.”

Silverstein, a New York University graduate, convinced LoBello to move to Las Vegas, where the duo went all-in on their weed business experiment.

The road to expansion was challenging to say the least, including living for 10 months in that downtown studio.

They shared a bank account for the new company, using small weekly investments from their parents back in New Jersey to develop their first products and pitch the ideas to potential cultivators and dispensary buyers.

Without a marijuana license from the Nevada Department of Taxation, nor the $250,000 capital required to apply for such a license, Silverstein convinced marijuana production and cultivation facility NuVeda last January to take on the Hunter & Leaf project. His pitch to research, develop, produce and market Hunter & Leaf’s products, taking the extra legwork off NuVeda’s plate, made it an easy sell, NuVeda owner Pej Bady said.

“I love those guys,” Bady said. “They’re enthusiastic about their brand, they’re passionate about it and they’re proud of what they’re doing.”

For Silverstein, the partnership represented something he always wanted to do at Silver State Wellness but was never embraced there: to design, produce and sell his own pot products. Once inking a deal with Bady, his dream became a reality. When the cousins partnered with NuVeda, they divvied up their responsibilities for Hunter & Leaf based on their respective strengths.

Silverstein, who worked as Silver State Wellness’ spokesman before leaving the company in 2017, serves on the marketing and business development side of the operation. LoBello focuses on creating the physical products. Or as they put it, while LoBello is tucked away in NuVeda’s cultivation and production facility, Silverstein is out meeting with marijuana business owners looking to slate the company’s next deal.

Just four weeks before Planet 13’s opening last month, store buyer Brandon Garcia heard about Hunter & Leaf’s growth and sought out Silverstein to meet about buying the products. Coincidentally, Garcia said, Silverstein showed up on his own at the dispensary.

“I usually don’t take meetings from people who come to us, but this was different” Garcia said. “I wanted them all along, and thankfully Jacob had the same idea.”

The Hunter & Leaf prerolled blunts are now a “hot seller” at Planet 13, which according to the dispensary’s owners is the largest pot store in the world by square footage.

That milestone alone is enough for the Hunter & Leaf duo to feel validated in their efforts. But with a major New York investor now behind them, their days of splitting chicken wings and living together in crammed quarters are over. Silverstein and LoBello hope to launch several new preroll skews by early 2019 and eventually add cannabis cigars, which last for up to three hours per joint, compared to 20 minutes for the prerolls. The cigars will contain up to 7 grams of pot.

At least, when people from back home ask if any product is on the shelf, they can finally say yes.

“For us, it’s about the journey and less on any final destination,” Silverstein said. “We’re focusing on our long-term happiness and satisfaction.”

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