If you smoke or know someone who smokes, then you know about Raw Rolling Papers. What you may not know is that they have grown into a multinational company that employs over 2000 people, supports its own non profit foundation and creates some of the most recognizable smoking accessory brands in the world! Raw turned the rolling paper industry upside down with their innovations and dedication to natural techniques. The goal at RAW is to produce the best and most natural rolling paper in the world. We visited the Phoenix headquarters to learn more about Josh Kesselman and the origins of the RAW brand. We left with new friendships, renewed motivation for our own work and valuable reminders about what is truly important in this life.
Josh Kesselman grew up in New York city around a father who rolled and smoked cigarettes with flair. He remembers the party tricks that his father would perform with cigarettes. Josh had an extensive paper selection from the time he was young. While attending college in Florida, he was tasked with creating a viable business plan for the community as a senior project. This was in 1993, back in the “Just Say No” era of the 1900’s. While Josh was in school, he always wanted to open up a headshop and so this became his senior project. He knew the community lacked a decent head shop and decided to focus his project on creating a business plan for one. This serendipitously turned from a senior project into an actual head shop where he began serving the locals right away.
While he was still putting the store together, people would come in saying, “Cool, you are opening a smoke shop, are you going to carry dugouts?” Josh would confidently reply, “Of course we are going to have dugouts, what’s your favorite one?” He would just roll with it and make it sound as good as possible, like Tom Sawyer’s White Picket Fence, and the community basically built the store for him. Josh knew what he liked to smoke with, but he had to learn what the community liked. And he did. He would call every supplier around asking for the products that people wanted. This is how he learned the industry inside and out and the store became a success.
Josh made enough money to get his own apartment and made a separate room known as the Knucklehead Pipe Factory, where they made every kind of bong and weird contraption they could think of. People would complain about not being able to roll and not liking rolling machines. Josh and his crew came up with a couple of the first designs for a vessel to pack the ground bud into. They were shaped like a tulip flower at the end. People could buy them and pack it up with weed. “These were essentially the first cones and are the predecessor to the modern RAW cone.” Josh explains. A lot of his inventions came from tooling around in the early nineties. Another thing people were asking for was natural cigarettes. When they arrived, he was expecting to open a pack of natural cigarettes to see the natural color of the paper and was disappointed when he realized it was basic cigarette paper. This sparked the idea that he could make a truly natural paper and this was the moment that changed his life in more ways than one. For starters, Josh lost his head shop and had to leave Florida immediately. You have to remember, these were times when selling paraphernalia, like a glass waterpipe, would land you in jail. Apparently his shop employee sold a bong to the daughter of a local authority and it landed Josh in hot water. Authorities raided the shop in full military style and that was the end of life in Florida. Josh picked up and moved out to Phoenix, Arizona to start anew.
Josh on Arizona: “What you may not know is that Phoenix used to be the capital of many modern smoking accessories. Apogee, Graffix and other companies operated in Arizona. The symbolism of the Phoenix meant a lot to me, rising up out of the ground. We packed up everything in Florida and left the bible belt for Arizona, where I began my rolling paper business by networking and buying leftover stock from Europe. This is how I met the man from Alcoy, Spain; reopened the oldest rolling paper factory in the world. This set me on the path to making Juicy Jays because we had old machines that could make flavored papers. I brought back elements modeled after my father’s rolling papers.”
“The competition hates us (RAW) with a passion. These are hardcore, shrewd business people who wear suits and count on spreadsheets all day to lower costs and increase profits. That’s what their life is like, but that’s not what my life is like. That’s not what anyone’s life, who has any passion about what they do, should be like.” -Josh Kesselman
The RAW paper and cone as we know it today is the culmination of years of feedback and mini ideas along the way while owning a smoke shop. One of the first light bulb moments about making hemp papers happened while Josh was selling homemade tulip shaped cones in the early 1990’s. The tulips featured a frayed tip to look like a tulip and were hand rolled by Josh and his team. They used a dowel rod setup to make the shape and the first ever RAW inspired cones came to life and sold for twenty five cents up to one dollar. Once the rolling paper game started to progress, Josh found himself looking into working with an old factory in Alcoy, Spain. The factory and town had been basically shut down and stripped of its rolling paper heritage by nasty corporations. Josh explained to the owners about his father’s love for rolled cigarettes and the fond memories of the Marfil Arroz papers from his childhood. The factory people exclaimed with joy that their own Spanish elders had made those Marfil Arroz papers. Josh decided to help bring the factory back online and move production and innovation of his products to a region of Spain that had a rolling papers pedigree dating back to the 1600’s. What a beautiful way to preserve the culture of smoking while pushing it forward!
Admittedly, Josh can talk about rolling papers from now until eternity, but major success in the rolling paper market has opened up new opportunities that he is equally passionate about. His company pretty much runs itself and, besides the stress brought on from the old vanguard of the rolling paper industry, he pretty much has time and money to do as he pleases. Part of being on top of the market is being constantly clawed at by the old outdated competitors. These are old men who do not use rolling papers and definitely do not care to see anyone innovate beyond their current methods of using wood pulp and chalk to make rolling papers. The Raw brand have become pioneers in the smoking world with their innovations and now they are applying their skills of problem solving to other more urgent causes.
Josh and his team looks to help solve problems in the world such as digging water wells in sub Saharan regions of Africa. It takes very little effort to cut a check to a charity, but it takes another level of commitment to offer your time. Josh has taken all of his experience and instinct from the business world and used it to optimize his strategy for giving back to his own community as well as others in need around the globe. The rolling paper business includes sourcing materials from around the globe. This journey took Josh to corners of the globe that are third and fourth world levels of poverty. He describes kids from the ages of 2-6 that have just come off of breast milk and have little access to nutrient dense foods. Many communities do not have access to clean water. This period between ages 2-6 is the most crucial for brain and body development. Kids that are malnourished during this time end up growing into adults with underdeveloped brains. Josh started to answer his own questions about how to make a difference, by optimizing his finances and strategy, to do the most good in areas where help could be the difference between life or death for people suffering from famine and drought. There are areas around the world where lives can be saved simply by providing a water well or access to meal kits. Josh started making executive decisions about how RAW money could save the most lives. It turns out that many times it was not in his own community or even anywhere he had ever been before. Josh loves rescuing puppies from local shelters here in Phoenix but he has been able to separate himself from what he calls the emotions of giving. It feels great to give to causes that can help our own community however it takes a bigger step of commitment to help those who are in greater need but that we have never met. We have the ability to change exponentially more lives by stepping out of our comfortable environment and sacrificing for others. Only with great risk comes the potential of a great reward. I admire the willingness to take risks for the opportunity to affect people who he will never meet.
Meanwhile, back in the RAW labs, new innovations include the RAW Black rolling papers. They are made for the most discerning smoker and they are the thinnest RAW papers yet. They are also experimenting with hemp products and have managed to reach a milestone by producing hemp cones in the USA from American hemp. This is a product that Josh is happy to watch evolve until it is just right. For now, he is happy to have brought such an innovative product to market.
It has been our pleasure to give you a behind the scenes look at world’s most popular rolling papers. We are honored to have RAW brands headquartered in our community and can’t wait to see what surprises they come up with next. Thank you to Josh and the entire team for including The Cannabis Cactus in your rolling adventures.
Watch their Instagram videos where they do fun things like rolling a 4 foot cone to be smoked just for fun at the office!
Meet the RAW Team
This Ode to Paper is read over every rolling paper produced by RAW: ‘Paper, we love you – Paper, we thank you – Paper, we respect you’
The RAW team makes it all look like fun and games while a sophisticated network, behind the scenes, keeps the world stocked with rolling papers, cones, trays and new accessories. RAW is a great partner to have in the cannabis community and we are thankful to have them as friends and neighbors right here in Phoenix. Stay tuned to the new products they are innovating. Also, thank you Josh, Casey and everyone at RAW for keeping us stocked up with the best accessories and rolling gear!
Name: Sabrina Elfstrom Position at HBI: Administrator Fave thing about working there: I love everything about working with HBI but most of all is being surrounded by such amazing people daily. Favorite food: Tamales & Tacos! Fun fact about yourself: I have never been on a plane, but hope to conquer this fear one day.
Name: Casey Etheredge Position at HBI: Marketing & Social Media Manager Fave thing about working there: Trying new RAW products! Favorite food: Green Chili Fun fact: I was the very first Official RAW Brand Ambassador!
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