He always does business in a black long-sleeve T-shirt or sweatshirt paired with matching black denim jeans. A gold chain hangs from his neck, and he occasionally throws on a white San Francisco Giants jersey for good measure. Rock solid, he’s clean shaven on top, but rocks a scruffy goatee on his face. It’s easy to mistake the world’s most successful cannabis entrepreneur for a villain from the Marvel universe, but Cookies founder Gilbert Milan, Jr., (Berner), is anything but that. He’s the legal industry’s shining example of how to do weed right.
“I started this brand to have fun with it and just have access to medicine,” the San Francisco Bay area rapper and cannabis entrepreneur says, referring to his company’s cultivation, dispensary and popular apparel brand, Cookies. “When I look at it now, it’s kind of unreal, really hard to believe sometimes.”
Launched seven years ago in San Francisco, Cookies got its name from the popular strain Girl Scout Cookies—a favorite for its high THC content and smorgasbord of rich terpene offerings. The essence of the then-32-year-old’s new cannabis brand was his undeniable passion for genetics and breeding new strains that produced flavors unlike anything American consumers had ever tried before. Berner had arrived.
He says Cookies sourced from across the world—Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, The Netherlands, Spain—to produce groundbreaking strains such as Huckleberry Gelato, Powder Sugar and Undertow. The brand’s cult following buys apparel and paraphernalia to the tune of millions of dollars each year and the baby blue-colored Cookies logo is ubiquitous in legal states: 52 dispensaries and counting across the country. But the heart of the 39-year-old’s passion project is in genetics.
“My goal has always been to make sure there’s good weed around for the next generation,” he says. “There’s a bunch of people out there growing terrible weed, but we’re growing very precise genetics. We want the world to taste these genetics we’re putting into the universe.”
Berner’s empire has hundreds of employees working across dozens of dispensaries, farms and apparel stores. But he’s not just sitting back and watching. In fact, the 39-year-old billionaire still regularly puts in 18-hour days—remaining as involved in Cookies as ever. His latest mission? Expanding the brand internationally.
The clothes are already there: Cookies fans in Asia, Europe, Africa and Australia wear Berner’s apparel religiously, as if they were family. Fans from Ireland, Scotland, Spain and Italy covered in tattoos of the Cookies logo surrounded him at the large cannabis conference, Spannabis, in Barcelona before the pandemic. Excited customers in Jamaica implore him to speak at their smoking clubs and treat him as nothing short of a national hero from the moment he touches down on the Caribbean island nation.
Cookies SF just launched its first store in Manhattan to great fanfare.
“The excitement around Cookies being in New York was unreal. Not only did our supporters come out and shut the streets down, some of the biggest legacy players in the space from the east coast came to show support, which meant the world to me,” Berner said.
Given his hands-on leadership approach, when did he realize he finally made it in the cannabis industry? He says it didn’t take long after his launch to realize other vendors were copying and stealing Cookies’ patented genetics, always the first sign of success.
The other “ah-ha” moments, he says, come every time Cookies moves into a new market.
“Competitors scramble to find legacy operators when we move in. They bring in celebrities to promote their brands and stand out. Companies that have been there and are well-established in their markets all of a sudden change strategies and up their game because they want to compete with us. It really makes me realize we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Berner admits the hardest part of being a cannabis success story involves the same passion that got him there in the first place: serving others. The son of a Mexican father and an Italian mother, he takes pride in his SF roots and remains close with the people he grew up with in the Fillmore District.
Cookies partners with multistate operators as well as state-specific cannabis companies, such as Gage in Michigan, to launch its bright blue dispensaries across the country—and soon the world. As more countries legalize cannabis, Berner plans to have stores in Israel, Laos, Thailand, Spain and Jamaica, among other places.
“It’s passion, patience, dedication and understanding how to work with people,” he says. “There’s a lot of different egos, a lot of different opinions and a lot of different views on how to do things, but I’ve been able to adapt and work with every single partner we have.”
That passion for working with people extends to longtime friends, family members and acquaintances. In Berner’s words, he enjoys seeing people “shining” and “winning.” Now that everyone knows he’s a billionaire, the requests for his help come from far and wide.
Berner admitted the demand for his help (and money) was one of his biggest hurdles, because assisting others is “genuinely where my heart’s at.” He realizes he can’t be everyone’s go-to for business endeavors, though, and admitted that saying “no” has been the hardest part of his new reality, a reality that included Berner becoming the first cannapreneur to ever be featured on the cover of capitalism/billionaire bible, Forbes.
But, in a flash, everything changed. When Berner was diagnosed with advanced-stage colon cancer in 2021, he says everything was off the table.
“All of a sudden, I didn’t think I was going to make it past 38,” he says quietly. “I was like ‘Man, I’m gonna go out this early?’”
After months of intense—which he describes as “brutal”—chemotherapy and plenty of weed, the cannabis icon miraculously went into remission in March 2022 and is now cancer free. As Berner prepares to celebrate his 40th trip around the sun, he says the next chapter of his life will involve plenty more family time.
“I get to see my daughter graduate and hopefully raise more children,” he says. “I’m going to go full hands-on with this [Cookies] for another five years, and then transition into the background and write films, another passion.”
Looks like Cookies ain’t crumbling anytime soon.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.