Mysteries of 2018

A drone taxi, cannabis lab and homegrown saki

SNEAK PEAK The top-secret Cora drone taxi was captured in this rare photo on the tarmac at the Hollister Airport, where it is being built and tested. Credit: Bryce Stoepfel

It’s a bird; it’s a plane, it’s…what is that? If you’ve happened to be near the Hollister Municipal Airport and have seen a strange plane/flying car/something else, you may be one of the few to lay eyes on Kitty Hawk’s ultra-secret self-piloting flying taxi, Cora.

“After almost eight years of exploring new frontiers, we had built the aircraft we had been dreaming of: Cora,” Kitty Hawk said in a press release, “an electric, autonomous fully fledged air taxi that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane. The first step to a world where the freedom of flight belongs to everyone.”

Kitty Hawk, founded by Google co-founder Larry Page, got off the ground in 2014 with the help of a $100 million loan from Page’s deep pockets. From testing grounds in New Zealand, all the way to Hollister. Cora can seat two people, travel up to 110 mph and reach altitudes of 500 to 3,000 feet. According to documents released by Kitty Hawk, Cora can fly as far as 62 miles.

“After almost eight years of engineering, re-engineering, and re-re-engineering, we had done it,” read a statement from the company’s website. “We had designed an air taxi…that could take off like a helicopter and transition to flying like a plane. The possibilities were limitless.”

Cora project is top secret

Aside from Page, Google roots run deep in Kitty Hawk. CEO Sebastian Thrun founded the research-and-development “moonshot factory” Google X, which operates as a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc., as well as Google’s self-driving car team. The self-driving technology is a vital piece to ensuring the project’s safety.

Still, Kitty Hawk remains tight-lipped about the project, preferring to release murky statements online rather than open its hangar bay doors for the public to take a look at Cora, understandable considering that Kitty Hawk thinks Cora will lead a transportation revolution that will open the skies to everyday people.

Will Hollister become part of American aviation history, making it the Kitty Hawk of the West Coast? That is to be seen, but we will keep our eyes trained to the sky and ears to the pavement in search of answers.

The science of cannabis

It’s been a big year for cannabis in San Benito County. Recently the San Benito Board of Supervisors voted to allow the commercial cannabis industry to open in the unincorporated county, opening up hundreds of acres for cultivation, manufacturing and distribution. One key component necessary for the cannabis industry, testing laboratories, will come to town with High Sierra Analytics opens its doors.

“Everyone kept asking when we’re going to open,” High Sierra Analytics CEO and founder Thomas Gromis said. “I kept telling them, ‘When we get it right.'”

When voters passed Proposition 64 in the 2016 general election, cannabis legalization came with additional rules, including testing. Testing labs not only determine potency but make sure pot doesn’t contain pesticides, harmful microbes or mold.

Other testing requirements were set to go into effect on Jan. 1, and tests may cost anywhere from $700 to $1,000.

“I didn’t want to get into growing; that seemed like a race to the bottom. I don’t want to chase margins and cut corners just to get by,” Gromis said. “I looked at the regulations and the people who were getting into testing, and nobody wanted to touch the lab stuff because the regulations were pretty daunting.”

For Gromis, a Fresno native, finding a nearby city or municipality that would allow for a testing lab proved difficult. After spending two years obtaining permits, a location and equipment, he’s ready to open for testing this month in Hollister.

Given the warm welcome High Sierra Analytics got from Hollister as it prepares for business, Gromis hopes to offer discounts as a way to help galvanize local business. Gromis will look beyond Hollister, however, serving cannabis businesses within 50 miles.

“We’d like to offer some lower rates here for everyone who’s getting in early and work as an incubator to help this community grow,” Gromis said.

The cannabis testing business requires precise record keeping, and the California Bureau of Cannabis Control can audit a lab’s records at any time. Security is tight at High Sierra Analytics headquarters at 1851 Airway Drive, with guards, gates, cameras and 24-hour access to police.

Given what happened at Sequoia Analytical Labs in Sacramento, a testing lab recently shut down for falsifying results, the need to hire chemists and lab assistants can be an arduous task. If you’re looking for a laid-back pot job, this isn’t the place. Think lab coats, not tie-dye.

“We’re really a fan of OCD people here,” Gromis said. “Our records are extremely important.”

Highway to Hollister

Not long ago, hitting a highway to Hollister wasn’t on Peter Lago’s radar. But the motorcycle lover was on a pilgrimage to Hollister to visit the iconic Johnny’s Bar and Grill when something clicked. After nearly a year negotiating with the old owners, Lago became the owner of one of the county’s most iconic biker bars, also one of the rowdiest joints in town.

“It’s a dive bar full of history,” Lago said. “But there are mechanical aspects of the bar that needed to be repaired, like the plumbing and the refrigerators. The theme does not need to change much. We changed a few things around the bar, but I consider myself a custodian of history.”

Finalizing the purchase of the bar was a bumpy ride for Lago. It took months of financial wrangling with former owner Cherisse Tyson to iron out all the details. A formal key handover celebration on Jan. 1, 2018 proved premature, as the sale became final on April 1.

“Initially the purchase price was $500,000, which at the time, I thought included the building,” Lago said. “It was a big part of the deal and a large assumption to make on my part. I assumed that it was all included based on the condition of the bar. Eventually, we settled on $250,000 for the bar with $50,000 up front.”

From east to the west

Many people wouldn’t guess that the sake they enjoy with their sushi doesn’t come from as far away as they think it might. In fact,  Ozeki Sake U.S.A. has been producing about four million liters of sake a year in the heart of Hollister with $12 million in sales. That’s a lot of sake, and it’s a good reason to say “Kanpai!”

Brewing sake at Ozeki Sake U.S.A. is not an easy labor of love for managers Yoji Ogawa and Manabu Kotake, who are both on six-year rotations in Hollister from Japan. The fruits of their labor and that of 25 to 30 other workers are sent all over the country, and to Europe, South America, Canada and Korea.

One reason why Ozeki decided to come to Hollister was for its clean water. Ozeki Sake U.S.A. uses 12 million gallons of water every year, racking up a $20,000 water bill every month.  

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