John Fritzel owns four marijuana businesses. He reclines on the grass couch at Buddy Boy Brands in Denver on Feb. 26. (Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)

Former Subway franchisee becomes one of Denver’s top marijuana moguls

John Fritzel overcame real-estate bankruptcy to be a power player in a quartet of Denver pot shops

It was 2007 and the years leading up to it had been very good for John Fritzel.

Then it was 2008 and it wasn’t.

By 2009 the one-time Subway franchisee and newest would-be real estate mogul was in bankruptcy, another in the line of business failures caught in the contrails of the nation’s economic collapse.

The future was bleak.

“The music just stopped and there weren’t any more chairs,” said Fritzel, whose Subway success opened doors to an ill-fated real estate venture.

Federal bankruptcy records show Fritzel, then just 35 years old, owned about $1.2 million in property — and debts that topped more than $9.2 million from loans and other obligations in 31 business ventures. His checking account was empty.

“After going bankrupt, there were pretty big battle scars,” he said. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

The young entrepreneur, who admits he can’t be tied down for long, leaned on his business experience and an economics degree from the University of Iowa — he lettered in basketball in 1995 — to try something new.

“Being so dependent on market forces was something I just couldn’t do again,” he said.

He and friends Steve Brooks and Thomas Van Alsburg, both real estate brokers, took a leap over Labor Day weekend in 2010 with a medical marijuana shop, Heartland Pharmacy on North Holly Street in Denver. It’s now called Lightshade Labs.

“It was either that or get a job, which for me is not an option since I don’t handle authority too well,” said Fritzel, 43. “My retail background in Subway and its structured franchise was great training.”

The group quickly learned that the allure of marijuana’s assured profits was merely rumor. Backbreaking shifts were the norm. But hard work yielded results, albeit small ones.

A low-priced advertisement designed to entice new customers brought more than 300 that day, Fritzel recalled. The 16-hour day saw more than $5,000 in sales, he said.

A second dispensary came quickly, eventually allowing the trio to buy out an early investor.

“It just mushroomed out after that,” Fritzel said.

But success came with a price: Fritzel said his family turned its back on him, unhappy with his choice of professions. His parents are real estate professionals in Des Moines, Iowa. His sister, in Denver, has little contact, either.

“My involvement in this business is completely unacceptable to my parents,” he said, “to the point that they have disowned me and do not speak to me because of it. No matter what position or explanation I give them, they view me as a ‘drug dealer.’ Period.”

What he’s become is a power player in a quartet of cannabis businesses — Lightshade Labs, Buddy Boy, PotCo and MJardin — each with a distinct niche. Fritzel holds controlling interest in a combined 32 Denver licenses alone.

Fritzel is the only common thread, partnering with Van Alsburg and Brooks in Lightshade, and with James Lowe and Adam Cohen on PotCo and MJardin, a cannabis business management firm with clients in seven states. Buddy Boy, with seven outlets, is all Fritzel.

With 14 medical and retail locations in all — and nine grow facilities scattered about — Lightshade’s high-end market and Buddy Boy’s middle-road play has moved the companies toward a strong expansion in cultivation space. Lightshade has six locations, PotCo is a single medical brand with one shop. Plans for new grows in Commerce City totaling 200,000 square feet and a 55-acre tract in Pueblo firmly put the companies at the top of the game.

They employ about 400 people — and he expects it will grow to about 1,000 by the end of the year. By his count, “there’s no reason” why the companies couldn’t bring in $250 million in annual revenue by 2018 should voters in other states approve retail marijuana in November.

“It’s a billion-dollar market whether I’m here or not,” he said. “If it’s not me, then it would be someone else.”

David Migoya: 303-954-1506, dmigoya@denverpost.com or @davidmigoya

This story was first published on DenverPost.com