Marijuana » Cannabis Culture

The marijuana biz is all about relationships

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Steve Kelnhofer says his employees have become like a family to him. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Steve Kelnhofer says his employees have become like a family to him.
‘Simply Jeff” Engle, one of Elev8 Premier’s glassblowers, remembers the day, now over seven years ago, when he interviewed for his job.

He had been looking for quality water pipes, and stumbled onto Higher Elevations, at its original Eastside location on Paonia Street in Colorado Springs. Inside the shop was a big window through which to watch the glassblowers at work.

“That window changed my life,” says Engle. He bought one of the pipes made by Higher Elevations/Elev8/7th Floor Vapes owner and master glassblower Steve Kelnhofer, and remembers wondering, “How can I do that?”

He followed up, introducing himself to Kelnhofer and giving him his number in case he had an opening in the future. Nothing came of it initially, but a few months later, after a particularly miserable shift at the dairy where he worked, Engle went back to try again. This time there were a bunch of people outside — it turned out to be a group interview for new employees. Perhaps it was destiny, but Engle’s “weird timing” paid off. Kelnhofer, who had lost his number, hired him that day.

Kelnhofer was a pioneer in the smoking accessories business, in the years after medical marijuana became legal in Colorado. He invented the Silver Surfer vaporizer and its less-costly cousin, Da Buddha, and opened his 7th Floor Vapes company in 2004. Back then, there was still a lot of stigma around the industry, and Kelnhofer called his products “herbal vaporizers.” But he says — echoing many ganjapreneurs we’ve heard from over the years — those tough times led him to build strong bonds with those who shared his passions, and that has developed into what he now calls a “work family.”

Over the years, 7th Floor Vapes has also grown and morphed into several companies in different locations. Today it employs 25 local people, and consists of two headshops: Higher Elevations still at the Paonia Street location, and Elev8 Glass Gallery downtown on South Tejon Street. There’s also the glass-blowing studio in an industrial area off of U.S. Highway 24, and the warehouse by the Colorado Springs airport, where the vaporizers are assembled and shipped out. In addition, there are glassblowing classes for the public at the Higher Elevations shop and various websites for ordering products and education on cannabis (elev8presents.com, elev8premier.com, elev8glassgallery.com).

The glassblowing team, Elev8 Premier, currently consists of six employees and turns out custom pipes and rigs for the glass shops as well as glass parts for the vaporizers. They were all taught by Kelnhofer and “Matt Z.” Zimmerman, one of the senior artisans who learned from Kelnhofer over 10 years ago, but is mostly self-taught with a lot of practice.

“He dreams big, and gets big results,” Engle says of his boss, friend and mentor, Kelnhofer.

After almost eight years on the job, Engle is still learning new techniques, though these days he spends less time blowing glass and more time on his computer analyzing costs. Three years ago, Engle took on the job of operations manager for the glassblowing business. With his GED-level education, at times he feels “underqualified,” but by applying common sense and his knowledge of glass, he feels his efforts have helped. Elev8 pays more attention to its bottom line now, which is important for a small business in the growing but competitive marijuana industry.

Kelnhofer values this help: “I can’t do it alone, I am working with my brothers and sisters.” That’s important, he says, “because I spend 14 hours a day there.”

New employees usually start in the warehouse, where those who show good initiative and a work ethic can have the opportunity to blow glass in the future.

Engle notes that the company has to trust people to move them on to that next level, since “hundreds of hours are needed to learn the production pieces.” Glass parts for the vaporizers — such as heater covers, wands and marble knobs — are the bread-and-butter products at 7th Floor, and they take precision and repetition to perfect. “They first have to hone these skills,” Engle adds.

Warehouse employee Chris Polikratis is responsible for running the production line for the vaporizers. “I couldn’t believe my luck, to find both a job and apprenticeship at the same time,” Polikratis says. He began at the company six or seven years ago after answering a Craigslist ad.

Initially, Polikratis did learn glassblowing, but he transferred to the warehouse for more regular income and a family-friendly work schedule that allows him to spend time with his young son and wife.

At the warehouse, he fills the vaporizer orders and assembles extras to build up stock. Polikratis starts with a basic iodized aluminum tube and adds the interior mechanics, wires and lights to them, along with the base and glass pieces that the customer wants. Optional artwork can be added to the tube through a process called “sublimation.”

Polikratis knows all the steps in the assembly process and can run it by himself if need be, handing off the finished vaporizers to the shipping department that sends them out worldwide, including many orders going to Australia and France.

The relaxed family atmosphere and the people he works with are what keep Polikratis at 7th Floor, plus he loves the products.

The company’s culture isn’t just a given; staff work to build community with meal-sharing and social events. Once a month, the company holds a “1st Pay Friday” meal for all employees at the various locations. Polikratis helps out with this on occasion, as different employees take turns bringing food.

Kelnhofer and his fellow glassblowers at the studio try to start the day off with a nutritious breakfast. Homemade fruit parfaits were served on the day this writer visited, and all sat down together to enjoy the meal before turning on the torches.

The Elev8 workers interact very much like family, sharing the same counterculture values, love of herb, and belief in having fun on the job as well as working hard. Employees see themselves as part of a bigger effort, not only to grow this business but also to promote canna culture.

The Elev8 Premier team demonstrates glassblowing at special community events and participates in industry-wide competitions, as well as collaborating with other glassblowers on special pieces.

Speaking of which, be on the lookout for Elev8’s Heady Halloween bash coming up Oct. 27th at Sunshine Studios. It’s the largest of several fun events that Kelnhofer and staff throw throughout the year as a way to thank customers for their support.

“What’s a better holiday for stoners?” Kelnhofer asks.

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