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JJ McKay Opens Up About Building The Fresh Toast

The founder and publisher of the prominent cannabis-and-culture media company talks LGBTQ+ representation in the industry, how to navigate business and media, and creating a trusted brand.

JJ McKay Opens Up About Building The Fresh Toast

The Fresh Toast has merited its title of being "the most trusted voice in cannabis," as its purpose is to focus on the needs of the consumer and deliver veritable information surrounding the cannabis industry. Based in Seattle and New York, the media content company produces diverse coverage on popular culture, tech, medical and adult-use marijuana and other lifestyle subjects.

With a social media following of 1.5 million, and led by founder and publisher JJ McKay, The Fresh Toast creates and publishes the most consumer-oriented content in the cannabis space on their digital platform. Their stories are then syndicated to over 200+ newspapers in North America through partnerships with Tribune Publishing, Tribune Content Agency, and Postmedia in Canada. The Fresh Toast also partners with the largest healthcare training companies in the country, such as Skipta, now a division of Informa, which helps them provide content to 1.7 million healthcare professionals about medical business solutions and how to have a conversation about medical cannabis.

Labeled "the Martha Stewart of pot," JJ McKay has been a long-time force in media, helping build and cultivate nationwide consumer-focused organizations. The pioneering entrepreneur has served as Chairman of Mary's Place, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides resources for homeless families, and on the boards of U.S. Bank Washington, Pike Place Market, The Daily Beast and others. Raised in the Deep South from an old family, he currently resides in Seattle (where he is known as a social force for his pre-pandemic entertaining), and spends time in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Adorned in a vintage turquoise French Cloisonné necklace, McKay cheerily sat down with Honeysuckle Magazine to discuss The Fresh Toast, the business of media and LGBTQ+ representation in the cannabis industry.

HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE:  What made you want to start a site like The Fresh Toast and what was that beginning process like for you?

JJ MCKAY: Well, I had always been around media my whole life, either covered by the media or friends who either owned or worked [in] media. I also was on a [TV] cooking segment for a year-and-a-half when I was younger.... So a friend of mine got into the cannabis industry, on the product side, and asked me to help. I kind of backed into helping a little bit, and I said, “You know what, no one's talking to the real consumer, let me be the one to talk to the real consumer, and I think if we raise X amount of money, we could talk to a million people every day and be the biggest voice in the industry.” And he thought that was crazy, so we broke apart. And then I talked to people at Huffington Post and Condé Nast, and they all said, “Brilliant,” and we started the Fresh Toast.

Did you have a strong background in cannabis before starting The Fresh Toast?

None. Zero. I didn't have any cannabis background before starting this. But I had done partnerships with Costco, I was on the advisory board of the Daily Beast, and I had a strong history of understanding the mass public and understanding how to work together to really get your messages out. Pre-Covid, I spent two years giving keynote speeches on the cannabis industry to a lot of the major alcohol and restaurant industries. I was the keynote speaker for Marriott's Global Partners. So, I really talked to a lot of leaders in the industry and drew comparisons to the industry and how things work.

Last year, you reached the milestone of 1-2 million daily views through all of your publication's outlets which is amazing, congratulations! How did you grow The Fresh Toast to be "the most trusted name in cannabis" and is there any sort of pressure that comes with that title, or any challenges you face with it?  

Well, it's kind of a “bro-y” industry, and for the longest time, I was the only gay person I knew in the industry because there's not a lot of prominent gays in it. In the cannabis space, there are some bros, and when we launched, there were some “bro-y” companies who were like “Dude, we already got this dialed in and we're making people come to us.” And one of the companies that had that mentality, didn't have a business plan. They were all about just raising money and traveling by private planes. And I said, “We know what we're gonna do.” So we narrowed our focus, most of our fundraising came outside the industry, and we said, “We're gonna be reliable and respectable.”

Our first partner was the New York Daily News. We were consistent every day with the quality and the number of content. We built a reputation amongst mainstream partners that have done well. We worked with John Hudak of [leading research group] Brookings; on our board is the former head of ABC News. We're very respectable and very careful, and there are some stories we won't run through if we can't verify [them].

What inspired the Gossip category, since most of the articles are more cannabis-based? How do you think having non-cannabis articles and those topics fit The Fresh Toast and its mission?

Our mission is to entertain and educate. We're always about making life better. So these articles match our mission. There was a period where we were the second-largest source of Royal Gossip on Apple News, which is why we kept doing Royal Gossip stories. What we did, especially when we launched, if you look at High Times and Civilized, and some of the other sites, that they're highly “weedy” and that's not something you want on your computer. So we said, “Let's learn about our customers and give them the information they want.” Three of our top five stories aren't cannabis-related stories. They're about sex and culture, but it drives readers to all of our cannabis stories. We wanted to go to the consumer and not force the consumer to go to us.

Switching gears a little bit, we have all heard the discussions about representation in cannabis regarding race, which The Fresh Toast does a great job at covering, but since it’s Pride Month, I’m wondering how the LGBTQ+ community is represented? Do you think the LGBTQ+ community should be more represented in cannabis, and how would you recommend increasing the visibility?  

That's a great question. One, I'm gay, one of our writers is a lesbian. We're very open. We sponsor a fabulous conference, called the Kahner Global Conference, and when you look at that room of 100 people, 93 of those are white males and the other seven are Black, Asian, Indian, and female. I'm almost always the only out gay person in that room. It's a very straight organization, which doesn't mean closed-minded, but it's a very “bro-y” industry and that's why you have a lot of flame-outs. You get those bros like, “Dude I can do everything, give it to me,” and they spend their money ridiculously and then they go. A lot of it is access to capital. Startups take a lot of capital, they take as long as they should. I'm always encouraging others to get into the industry, although it's high risk.

Do you think similar stigmas about the LGBTQ+ community in mainstream media transfer over to the cannabis industry as well? Have you noticed the emergence of "rainbow-washing" in the cannabis industry (the phenomenon of companies trying to appeal directly to the LGBTQ+ community, particularly during Pride)?

Oh yes, we see a bunch of rainbow-washing! We always get a lot of “Here's what we're doing for Pride Month!” We have Uncle Ike's here, which is a chain in Seattle and is a huge ally to the LGBTQ+ community. But there are also companies where Pride is just a sales pitch. The cannabis industry is kind of frugal and it's hard to raise money to get legalization passed, so they aren't really involved in a ton of outside causes. It's not in their top five list of priorities.

You often say that we should compare cannabis, and its coverage in media, to how we view wine or beer. What do you believe makes for a successful business model in cannabis media?

Understanding where cannabis comes in the consumer's mind. I've been in meetings where they think because there's a general acceptance, it means there's a champion and we've gotta do it and all that, but there's a general acceptance of ham sandwiches and you don't see a huge ham sandwich movement in the country.

I had a woman pitch [us] revolutionary packaging of cannabis and demanded [that] we needed to break this story. I said no, because we don't cover business operation news, so every day for five days, she emailed me. I deleted the email, because that's not what we do. And then on Friday, I get a call, and she says, “I've been emailing you all week and I don't think you understand. We have this revolutionary packaging that's gonna change the industry and the public is gonna wanna know.” And then she launches into it. Then I was like, “Look, before you say anything else, let me share something with you. 87 percent of the United States has ice cream in their freezer, as we speak, no one cares about the packaging. Unless you can tell me something that's gonna impress the people with ice cream in their freezer, we're [going to] cover consumer-focused, not business-focused.” We're also consumers, and the truth is, the consumer doesn't care. They only care when something like Diet Coke changes the shape of their logo.

How do you find The Fresh Toast's cannabis content shifting as more and more states become adult-use legal? What do you think are the biggest issues mainstream cannabis consumers face today?

We get tons of feedback every day. And we see what sells and what doesn't. But at the end of the day, just like with wine, 90 percent of people just want the basics. Help me understand how to drink it, how to consume it, how do I come down, how do I go up, what does this do, can I use it at 30 or 70 for sex, can it help me sleep, can it help my back, or can it help my cancer? So, they want to see how it integrates with their lives and how it fits as a toolbelt of other things they're using (Ibuprofen, vodka, etc.) When we started, CBD was a subset of the industry, and now it's in its own side-by-side industry.

How is The Fresh Toast's partnership with Skipta to provide medical polling contributing to your coverage? Has there been any feedback that surprised you most recently?

No, our results kind of irritate [that] part of the industry because doctors aren't going to fully prescribe until it's FDA regulated. Cause you have to [have] a consistency of product. You have to know that if I give you a month's prescription and you fill it in Florida and Texas, you're gonna get the exact same product. Just like you do with heart medicine or Advil or Neosporin. We're just not there yet. And the other thing is it's not covered by insurance-- it's not reimbursable. So, you come to me and I prescribe something, I can't get reimbursed and if I prescribe something and it doesn't work, and something else that traditional medicine could've done, that opens the door for me being charged for malpractice.

At the end of 2020, you expanded The Fresh Toast's social media presence with The Fresh Toast News. What impact have you seen in your readership and your content coverage from this expansion?

We've done stuff on social media for voter registration, and so forth, but what was interesting, during the Pre-election, we were stunned by the evenness of the people who support cannabis who were not Biden-Harris fans. So we did some stories on that. They thought Harris was hard on cannabis users; some of them were one-issue people, they thought they weren't liberal enough or too liberal, so it was really interesting.

Are there any other future plans for the Fresh Toast in the works? Or are there any other projects you’re wanting to take on?

To grow and expand, and we'll leave it at that.

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To learn more about The Fresh Toast, visit thefreshtoast.com or follow @getfreshtoast on social media. For more about JJ McKay, follow @thejjmckay on Instagram.

Tags: LGBTQ, culture