In a country in love with rewriting destiny, few things seem meant to be. But for Bay Area native Felicity Chen, it seemed obvious that she would continue the family business her grandfather started after fleeing the Communist regime in China. He initially escaped to Taiwan, where he began sourcing and manufacturing staples of Chinese cuisine, like sesame oil and spices, eventually bringing his expertise to California. Soon he was supplying Chinese restaurants all over the state with his ingredients, including Cecilia Chiang’s esteemed Mandarin in San Francisco.
Chen grew up knowing that quality food was crucial to health and wellness. She also grew up in an area with one of the most important and influential cannabis histories in the world, which mirrored what she knew about food: Cannabis was medicine. So, where many have tried and few have succeeded, and in a departure that initially shocked her family, she decided to combine them, and Potli was born.
Founded amid California’s transition to recreational cannabis, Chen’s Potli has grown steadily over the years into a brand that provides every kind of palate an opening, a means of exploring how cannabis and food can collaborate to create a (literally) higher sort of wellness that, after generations of stigma, can bring cannabis back into balance with food.
“In Eastern Asian medicine, a lot of it is plant-based, and it’s all about food as medicine,” she says. “A lot of the way Chinese people think is with the Taoist approach of balance. It’s all about thinking and using food as a way to help regain chi, and that is what we are trying to strive for, and that is actually also the basis of what CBD does. In the pantry collection, which is honey, olive oil and apple cider vinegar, these main basics cover the palate.”
It began with the honey her parents were making from the hive in their East Bay backyard to ease Chen’s mother’s asthma. Her parents were averse to cannabis because, as Chen sees it, of the lasting legacy of the Opium Wars, colonization and demonization of associated substances, including cannabis.
But as Potli began collecting buzz and accolades, including a collaboration with the esteemed MatchaBar cafe in New York, even her parents couldn’t deny that cannabis could help people. And through Potli they could meet consumers in their own cultural context, rather than be expected to get on board with gummies or vape pens.
“Fundamentally, cannabis came from China. However, because of the Opium War, (many) just rejected any sort of drug because we still hold that trauma of how that affected our country. We’ve now expanded beyond the pantry collection and started to think about heritage products, so there’s still the connection back; it’s a testament to our culture.”
Just this year, Potli won two Emerald Cup awards, for its Dream honey in the CBD edible category and its THC-infused sriracha in savory edibles. Most of Potli’s products have a California-exclusive version containing THC and a non-intoxicating version with non-psychoactive cannabinoids that fans can procure online. Chen is adamant about transparency in the CBD space, which she says has far looser regulations than THC products, which must adhere to the state’s testing and tracking protocols.
“The accountability portion of CBD is very hard; misinformation is so rampant and there’s no baseline in terms of how we’re educating people on it because there’s no governing body right now. I really am hopeful that in places where cannabis is now accessible that there are more companies that are accountable.”
When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the Bay Area, Chen and her all-female team weren’t in the dire straits many other operators found themselves in; their products were meant to be used at home, and it was evident that cannabis was helping a lot of people cope.
Potli had never produced a smokeable product, and hadn’t made any solid plans to, until the surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans, including several violent incidents in the Bay Area, rattled her to her core.
Morris Kelly of SF Roots, a fellow Bay Area native and one of San Francisco’s first equity operators, had reached out with an idea in anticipation of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in May. The idea became the collaborative Protect Our Elders infused pre-roll, with a portion of proceeds going to the Asian Women’s Alliance. Coupled with the release of the hemp-infused Shrimp Chips, a nostalgic childhood treat for many in the AAPI diaspora, it was one of their most successful months to date.
The support from the pre-roll collaboration buoyed Chen and her team to start ramping up for the holiday season, typically their busiest time of the year. As the pandemic continues to demarcate and reconfigure where people can go, the next step for Potli is giving consumers the power to bring the pantry with them. In the works are Potli Pockets, which will put the award-winning Dream Honey and Sriracha into dosable and portable packets.
Since most dispensaries are avoiding demos and indoor events, Chen and her team have also started a series called Potli in the Park, bringing their compliant shrimp chips where they can be enjoyed the most, in a verdant environment with friends.
“Potli is like the farm-to-table California movement, but it’s rooted in this culture that is very expansive. It’s plant-based medicine, it’s health and wellness. Healthy … can be something that is exciting and fun and just sparks joy. It’s been incredible, and I’m really excited for the next few months and what’s to come.”
Amelia Williams is a freelance writer.