Scott Jennings is a breath of fresh air in the topsy-turvy world of cannabis. He founded the sandwich chain Cheba Hut in Tempe, Arizona in 1998. In the ensuing 22 years, Cheba Hut has expanded to 30 cities in 14 states for a total of 42 locations as of 2021.
What makes Cheba Hut so popular to cannabis consumers is their menu of strain-named subs like Chronic, Kush, Dank, G-13 and Humboldt. They offer "toasted" subs and assorted other munchies, Many of the shops have full bars as well.
The Cheba Hut locations are as follows: Denver (5); Las Vegas (3); Ft. Collins, CO (3); San Diego (2); Phoenix (2); Albuquerque (2); Greeley, CO (2); Little Rock; Chandler, AZ; Glendale, AZ; Mesa, AZ; Tempe, AZ; Tuscon; Riverside, CA; Colorado Springs; Johnston, CO; Longmont, CO; Dillon, CO; Orlando; St. Augustine, FL; Atlanta; Chicago; Baton Rouge; Cincinnati; Eugene; Austin; Dallas; San Antonio; Madison, WI; and Milwaukee.
Jennings now runs the company with 15 partners. He retains majority control, but doesn't run day-to-day operations. He oversees the big picture: steady expansion and keeping the company on its counter-culture mission. Note that Cheba Hut is not publicly traded.
We spoke to the Nebraska native, who's 51, from his home base in Denver.
What’s the genesis of Cheba Hut?
I was a foodie and into counter culture. I went to Arizona State University. I had to get the hell out of Nebraska. I always idolized the beach. I was a pot smoker. I was the only guy in Nebraska who had a surfboard. I grew up on Spicoli. I could make a damn good sandwich. It kind of came from Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams. I was going to do an ice cream shop first and call it Nice Dreams, name the flavors after different types of herb. But that was seasonal. I knew sandwiches, I didn’t know ice cream. Toasted subs are a lot better than regular subs. I wanted to keep it real. I wanted people to see that stoners can be smart business people.
How did you come up with the name Cheba Hut?
It came from the Tone Loc song, which was actually the Harlem Underground song, "Cheeba Cheeba." We got the rights to that song for our video game.
How has marijuana legalization benefited Cheba Hut?
In ’98 when I opened it wasn’t legal then. I did help in some of the states. I still can’t believe it's not legal yet federally. I was getting signatures in my shop before it was legal. We’re teaming up with Last Prisoner Project to get some of these people out of jail for marijuana.
"I was going to do an ice cream shop first and call it Nice Dreams, name the flavors after different types of herb. But that was seasonal. I knew sandwiches, I didn’t know ice cream."
Does Cheba Hut get flak in more conservative states like Louisiana and Texas with the marijuana references?
Not like I did in ’98, that’s for sure. Our people are everywhere, that’s what’s cool to see. When we open up a new Cheba Hut, the workers and the people that come in are like, “Oh, I found my home.” It’s the island of misfits. That’s what still gets me going.
With the Green Rush in full swing, have you had offers to sell?
There are a lot of people sniffing around from private equity. They’re soul suckers. It’s a portfolio move. They’re just jumping on the bandwagon. We understand we need to grow to compete. We’ve got a leadership team in place. They’re kind of running the ship right now. I’m more of an advisor on culture and marketing. I’ve stepped out a little bit. We’re trying to keep it non-corporate.
Clearly, you haven’t sold out. What would happen if you received a great offer?
I can live just fine now. I still want to go play a little bit. I don’t need $100 million to go play. I want an internal buyout and keep the majority. If you lose the majority, then you have no control. At the same time I want my people taken care of.
Have you considered adding pot products to the menus in legal states like Colorado, Arizona and Nevada?
It’s been brought up a lot. It changes the taste of the food. It changes a lot of things. We’ve got our thing down. It’s tough because of the liquor license. If you get high and are drinking, you get fucked up quick.
"You come into town and everyone says, 'Who are these stoners?' Then you win them over."
How about Cheba Hut smoking lounges?
Yeah, it would be a different concept, like next door. It would be cool to have a lounge - you can get it and walk over. It’s so different in every state and even every county within states. But partnerships with those people would be great, or having it next door.
Where is Cheba Hut most successful?
I'd say our stores in Colorado and Arizona. Nevada is coming into its own now. You come into town and everyone says, “Who are these stoners?” Then you win them over.
Where do you see the company heading?
I want to keep it cool as we grow. We want to bring in the fans, people in the culture, not just portfolio builders. That makes it a little more difficult to grow, but we’re taking our time. We’re good at 12-15 stores a year. We want to ramp up but we don’t want to lose the complete feel. We’re looking at 50 stores by the end of 2022. I’m just making sure it stays a cool place to work and keep the counter-culture going.
Readers who are interested in applying for a Cheba Hut franchise, go here.