Sprawling new cannabis manufacturing, cultivation facility set to open in St. Louis County

Curio Wellness’ new 130,000-square-foot marijuana facility in St. Louis (Photo by Rebecca Rivas - Missouri Independent)
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(Missouri Independent) – Covered in white protective clothing, Wendy Bronfein stepped into a long, sterile hallway of closed doors.

She calls it the “Willy Wonka-esque” corridor. 

“This is the Mike Teavee part of the tour,” said Bronfein, co-founder of the Maryland-based marijuana company Curio Wellness, referencing the character from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” 

Everything down to the wheels on the carts at the new marijuana manufacturing facility in St. Louis County gets scrubbed regularly. And that’s not just because Bronfein had been expecting inspectors from the Missouri Division of Cannabis Regulation to complete a final audit of the site so the company could begin operations. 

It’s also because Curio Wellness is aiming to be among the few marijuana facilities in Missouri to obtain a Good Manufacturing Practice certification, a standard the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires pharmaceutical companies to obtain. 

“GMP is a standard that goes above and beyond anything that the state requires,” she said. “We’ve had that certification in Maryland since 2013.”

The entire facility is 130,000 square feet, with the manufacturing portion taking up 55,000 square feet. The rest is under construction to build out the cultivation side, where the plants will grow, which Bronfein said, should be completed in April. 

The division gave its final OK for the manufacturing facility to begin operations on Jan. 2.

While Curio Wellness is in charge of operations, the facility’s license is actually in the hands of the ownership group, VMO-Ops Inc. It’s a collaboration between Viola and Village brands, which is owned by former NBA player Al Harrington and Dan Pettigrew, along with St. Louis entrepreneurs Larry Hughes and Abe Givins.

Since the cannabis industry began in 2019, VMO-Ops has been the only Black-owned vertically integrated cannabis company in Missouri, having two dispensary licenses and one manufacturing and one cultivation license.  

But Pettigrew said the pandemic made finding investors difficult to get the manufacturing and cultivation sites off the ground after securing licenses in December 2019. 

Now, the group will be asking the state to approve a request to transfer the manufacturing and cultivation licenses to Curio Wellness. That process could take up to a year, though it may take longer depending on how prepared the applicants are, the division’s spokeswoman Lisa Cox told The Independent. 

Until the application is approved, VMO-Ops is still responsible for everything that happens at the facility, “regardless if a licensee has a management agreement in place with the proposed transferee,” Cox said.

Though the licenses will eventually change hands, Pettigrew said his group will remain involved. 

“Without getting into the details, we have a significant ownership stake potentially in Curio, so we’re not all the way removed,” he said. “Curio has gone out of their way to make sure that not only are we contributing, but they’re making products specifically for us to our specs.”

Givins called the partnership with Curio “unique.” Though VMO won’t be the license holders ultimately, he said, “It doesn’t change the partnership and the influence that we’ll have on the market as a whole.”

As a consumer himself, Pettigrew called the Curio quality “unbelievable.”

“We look at this as kind of an upgrade,” he said. “We don’t look at it as selling out.”

‘Rigorous training’ and workforce diversity


 Katelyn Moody, a process operator at Curio Wellness’ new marijuana manufacturing site in St. Louis, demonstrates equipment that will be used to make edibles, during a tour on Dec. 4, 2023. (Photo by Rebecca Rivas/The Missouri Independent) 

Daniel Virag is among Curio’s first nine employees who have spent weeks training on the company’s process and certification requirements. 

When The Independent took a tour of the facility on Dec. 4, Virag was stationed in a room where the pills “Good Night” and “Good Day” are produced.

“This process is where Curio kind of separates itself from the rest,” Virag said. “As my own experience, because I haven’t been involved with any sort of tablet, or anything like that. It’s really cool and innovative.”

The pills include Delta-9 THC, which is the most well-known cannabinoid for getting people high, as well as other properties of the cannabis plant that aren’t that don’t have intoxicating properties, such as CBN and CBD.

“In our initial conversations with dispensaries here,” Brofein said, “this is the kind of stuff that they were really excited about.”

The company also makes topical balms with THC and CBD to ease muscle aches and pains. And it has a range of chews and chocolates, as well as pre-rolled joints — along with a product line exclusively made for Viola.

“We’re just excited about the ability to carry their products,” Pettigrew said. “They’ve really taken a strong medical-based approach, which we like because obviously our company started as a medical company. We believe that cannabis is medicine.”

Pettigrew also appreciates Curio’s “rigorous training” and educational programs, which VMO has incorporated into their retail locations. 

And Curio is looking to uphold VMO’s strong focus on workforce diversity, as the company brings on more employees when the company begins operations.

“They understood from the beginning how important that is to us,” Pettigrew said. “If you look at our retail stores, I think we’re probably 95% minority-and woman-led. Obviously, we can’t hold to those standards, but they have heard us and are taking those considerations to heart.”

Bronfein pointed to the careers page on the company’s website that has a breakdown of the diversity among the company’s 350 employees in Maryland — 46% of their employees are minorities, 38% of management positions are women and 22% of employees are veterans. 

“We are highly diverse from top to bottom as a company as it exists in Maryland,” she said, “and bring that same accountability to here in Missouri.” 

A family business


 Abe Givins, a co-owner of the minority business Village, talks with an attendee at an educational event about medical marijuana that his company hosted at the Cola Private Lounge in St. Louis on March 5, 2022. His company is part of the Viola Brands franchise, which is one of the largest Black-owned cannabis companies in the country. 

In 2014, Bronfein was working in television in Maryland when the state passed a law legalizing medical marijuana. 

Her father, Michael, had always been in pharmaceutical distribution. 

“I saw the news item, and I forwarded to him kind of like, ‘This is interesting,’” she said, “not really thinking the pursuit of this would come to fruition.”

Dreaming up the company slowly became “a nights and weekends project,” Bronfein said, and they worked towards applying for a license. 

They found the blend of her background in branding and marketing and her father’s in healthcare administration gave them a strong foundation in addressing the most challenging part of the cannabis industry — the regulations. 

Later, her sister and brother also joined the team.

“The four of us all work together,” she said. “Our mom does not. She just keeps us sane on the sidelines, and we call her the chief babysitting officer.”

The strong focus on family is one of the reasons Curio seemed to meld well with VMO, both groups said.

“It’s a father-daughter team, and I really liked it that the company is family-orientated,” Givins said. “And I just think an experienced cultivator putting quality product into the Missouri market is good as a whole.”

When Harrington and Pettigrew founded Viola Brands in 2011, they named it after Harrington’s grandmother, Viola, who inspired the company’s mission. And that’s to “increase minority participation and ownership in the cannabis industry while positively impacting and reinvesting into communities most affected by the war on drugs.”

Pettigrew said mutual investors introduced him to Michael Brofein, and the companies are proving to be a great pairing.

“One of the benefits we have is our relationships within the space,” he said. “We’re proud to be a part of what I consider the best cultivation and processing facility in the state.”

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Rebecca Rivas


Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice, and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as a senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.