Kayvan Khalatbari has been known to don a chicken suit and mock Gov. John Hickenlooper for promoting beer but not marijuana. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)

How Kayvan Khalatbari built his empire of weed, pizza and comedy

Kayvan Khalatbari generally appears calm, happy and confident, whether he’s on stage for a marijuana policy speech, in the conference room of his Denver Relief pot business, handing out coupons after a comedy show, or seated in one of his Sexy Pizza shops — where the free-pie coupons transform into food.

“I just remember being crazy intrigued,” said Denver comic and producer Andy Juett. “I was like, ‘This guy is living my dream. Cannabis and pizza?'”

“I couldn’t believe how young he was,” remembered Taylor Gonda, co-host of the “These Things Matter” podcast, after being introduced to Khalatbari last year.

“I didn’t know if he was shy or mean or just having a bad day,” said Ean Seeb, who met Khalatbari at a Cherry Creek doctor’s office five years ago while helping him obtain his medical marijuana license. “He was super quiet and only spoke when I asked him questions.”

That’s not a problem for Khalatbari anymore.

The Denver-based entrepreneur is becoming a national brand thanks to appearances on “60 Minutes” and CNN, as well as his co-ownership of Denver Relief’s bustling medical, retail and consulting businesses (with the aforementioned Mr. Seeb).

He has also quickly become the sugar daddy of the Mile High City comedy scene, now sponsoring Gonda’s “These Things Matter” podcast and other showcases, such as
the second annual High Plains Comedy Festival Aug. 22-23.

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On top of that, Khalatbari is also occasionally That Guy in the Chicken Suit, harshly mocking Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper over his stances on legalized marijuana (call him Chickenlooper, please) as well as a philanthropist who sits on nonprofit boards and donates his time and money to kids.

“I’m glad I’ve done a lot of odd jobs,” Khalatbari said from his Denver Relief office, dressed in his standard black polo shirt bearing the company logo. “I think that’s something we’ve lost in this country — the ability to be jack of all trades. To be malleable with life as life throws you challenges.”

Presiding over a growing cannabis, pizza and comedy empire sounds like a stereotypical college student’s dream. Khalatbari curses frequently and has vowed to never wear a suit. His world is awash in green: growing revenues from his businesses; the giddy, whirlwind culture of recreational cannabis that seems to be sweeping the country.

But at 31, he is already a long way from his drug-dealing past in Nebraska, or the aimless, occasionally penniless days he spent after arriving in Denver a decade ago.

“The Laughing Sheikh”

Promotion and marketing are everything to “The Laughing Sheikh,” as Khalatbari calls himself on Twitter.

Not in the sense that they make or break his businesses, but that everything he does — including his money-losing sponsorship of the Denver comedy scene — is in service of building his earnest business profile.

“There are a million ways to give back and be creative and synergize your business,” said Khalatbari, who in addition to co-founding Denver Relief’s Green Team volunteer group will donate about $50,000 this year to sponsor local comedy podcasts and live showcases — more than double what he gave in 2013.

“I’m a firm believer in collaborating and building communities, whether it be comedy or marijuana or restaurants. That’s why I hang out in the lobby before and after shows. You can’t just throw money at something and expect you’re going to build it. You have to be a face.”

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That wasn’t easy for Khalatbari while growing up in Lincoln, Neb.

Born Kayvan Soorena Tyler Khalatbari-Limaki, one of two boys from his first-generation Iranian immigrant parents, he was socially anxious and too smart for his own good, testing far ahead of his public-school classmates and attracting a mentor from kindergarten on who would guide him through high-level classes.

The friction he felt — the “lack of assimilation,” the lack of focus that found him cutting school — lessened after he tried marijuana at age 15.

“I remember distinctly listening to Sublime’s ’40 Oz. to Freedom’ in my friend Andy Rausch’s basement,” he said. “We smoked out of a plastic Graffix bong, and it probably was some Mexican ditchweed-schwag. I used to sell that as well, shortly thereafter.”

Despite donning Bob Marley shirts and flip-flops like “a typical outcast stoner,” Khalatbari said he watched his grades improve thanks to the calming effects of cannabis. He graduated from high school at 16, moved out on his own and worked his way up from busboy to assistant general manager at the Nebraska Club, a private dining establishment where his parents — who had divorced when he was 10 years old — also worked.

After earning his associates degree in architectural engineering from the Milford campus of Southeast Community College at age 19, Khalatbari began working at the Lincoln office of M.E. Group. A year later he was transferred to Denver, where he didn’t know a soul.

He had already volunteered for various charitable causes in Nebraska, so when his brother Hassan found the marijuana advocacy group SAFER in a Google search, Khalatbari pounced upon it.

The pot activism, which included collecting signatures — and, at the behest of SAFER’s Mason Tvert, dressing up as Chickenlooper — jump-started Khalatbari’s entrepreneurial spirit. In 2008 he founded Sexy Pizza with SAFER assistant director Evan Ackerfeld and a few others.

It was brutal at first.

Going downhill?

“None of us had made pizza or run a restaurant before,” Khalatbari said of the joint, a former Pizza Vera outlet on Capitol Hill. “I talked some people into bringing some money to the table, but I exhausted everything I had: my IRA, my 401K, all my savings. My credit was ruined.”

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Khalatbari worked behind the counter at Sexy Pizza for the better part of the year, consistently losing money on his $40,000 personal investment. For a few months during the winter he even rented out his house and lived in a tent in his backyard.

Early on New Year’s Day in 2009, while coming down from a psychedelic mushroom trip, Khalatbari suggested to some of his Sexy Pizza cohorts that they start a medical-marijuana dispensary.

Founding it with “$4,000 and a half-pound of pot,” Denver Relief’s hard-won industry connections and respectable, customer-oriented aesthetic have led it to not only win numerous High Times Cannabis Cup awards, but also to create a national consulting arm that now takes up three-quarters of Khalatbari’s professional time, sending him around the country to meet with legislators, small business-people and industry boosters.

It creates a tight schedule for the early-to-rise Khalatbari, leaving little time for a personal life or romantic relationships — especially since Sexy Pizza now has two more locations (one on South Pearl Street and another in Jefferson Park).

The combined stores are on track to earn about $2.5 million this year, which allows Khalatbari to spend money sponsoring a dozen-plus Denver comedy shows such as “Too Much Fun,” “Propaganda!” and the High Plains Comedy Fest. He also bankrolls the free, monthly culture magazine Birdy, which is designed by Michael King, who creates Khalatbari’s logos and marketing materials (his e-mail signature divides the colorful logos into “Entrepreneurship” and “Advocacy”).

Really, that’s a thing?
Cannabis-infused coffee. Machine-rolled marijuana cigarettes. Joint-peddling vending machines. A THC-infused, ladies-only lube. A food truck selling only infused edibles. The massage of your life, via a marijuana-infused lotion. Yes, really, these are all real things.

The Sexpot brand is Khalatbari’s most synergistic project yet. The name, which started in 2013 as an under-the-table, invite-only comedy show in which attendees could openly toke in his pizza shop, now includes a monthly flagship show at the Oriental Theater and a reputation as the standard bearer of the Denver comedy scene.

Awash in comedy

Later this month, Khalatbari hopes to launch an ambitious Sexpot Comedy website, which seeks to unite the disparate strands of Front Range funny — similar to what the Nerdist network has done in Los Angeles — while also marketing Khalatbari’s cannabis and pizza products to a coveted demographic of young, hip culture hounds.

“His sponsorship has helped create an environment where comedy ‘jobs’ have been created,” said Sexpot co-owner Andy Juett. “Comedy is a meritocracy. Those who are getting that are definitely working hard to earn it.”

Khalatbari doesn’t expect a traditional financial return from the thousands he devotes to sponsoring local stand-up shows and culture podcasts each month. Not at first, anyway.

“Every 30 days I’m spending probably a third of what I would on print advertising and getting much more from it because these (comedians) are doing weekly and monthly shows,” said Khalatbari, who credits the Grawlix comedy troupe for laying the groundwork for Denver’s nationally renowned stand-up scene.

Changing perceptions of his industry — whatever it may be at the time — and helping kids by volunteering for Big Brother programs (as he has since 2007) or serving on boards like the Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestra is “a selfish act,” Khalatbari claims.

As is a promise he made to his 16-year-old self that he would retire by age 35.

“I’m internally frustrated with myself all the time,” said Khalatbari, whose work ethic helps balance a self-described “depressed” state.

But Khalatbari, who employees up to 100 people at any one time and looks to 43-year-old billionaire philanthropist Elon Musk as a role model, feels he’s starting to find a balance between his external and internal worlds, his entrepreneurial and nonprofit well-being.

“Smoking cannabis makes me more thoughtful and even-keel. Has it diverted some of my emotions in a bad way? Probably. But I’m a resource manager, and my success is based on hiring people smarter than myself.”

John Wenzel: 303-954-1642, jwenzel@denverpost.com or twitter.com/johnwenzel

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This story was first published on DenverPost.com