Into the Mystic with Kayvan Khalatbari
Image by Danielle Webster Photography
Talking with Kayvan Khalatbari recently at a Denver coffee shop, I had to ask: are you an activist or a politician? "I think they are one and the same," he said with an easy smile.
That makes sense, coming from a guy who's involved in upwards of a dozen roles at various businesses and organizations in a wide range of industries. The owner of Sexy Pizza is as much an entrepreneur as he is a philanthropist and an advocate. Hell, even his advocacy covers a swath of issues, from cannabis to homelessness to the arts. He's a guy who's actively leading efforts to make Denver a better place to call home. A foray into politics seems like a natural extension of his overall body of work.
In March, Khalatbari announced his candidacy for the mayoral election in 2019. In last year’s election, he came in fifth alongside several other independents in a race that wasn’t even close. “I hear so many people complain about Michael Hancock, but when he ran for a second term last year, he ran essentially unopposed,” he says. “We had fringe candidates that all garnered three or four percent. You shouldn’t run unopposed for that position in a city changing like this one.”
An outspoken advocate for the homeless and the artistic community, Khalatbari says he’s tired of political speak from politicians replacing actual dialogue. “It makes more sense to tell the truth, even though it’s less than desirable and will piss people off and might make me look bad, just to get it out of the way so we can actually make progress.
Khalatbari has lived in Colorado for a dozen years, and he’s been heavily involved in the state’s cannabis legalization movement. He has started successful businesses, including, with Nick Hice and Ean Seeb, Denver Relief, and Crestone Labs, a medical marijuana facility in Illinois. He backs birdy., a local arts magazine that has expanded to other cities. He started the Sexpot Comedy collective and is involved in many organizations, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Minority Cannabis Business Association and the National Cannabis Industry Association among them. They built the Green Team around the concept of cannabis businesses giving back to the community, and the volunteer organization does everything from cleaning up after events to raising money for worthwhile charities. He’s also the guy who filmed that video of Denver police taking the blankets from homeless people last year that went viral. He even finds time to be a big brother mentor for Denver Kids Inc. The Wikipedia page of his ongoing ventures tops 11 printed sheets already, and Khalatbari isn’t even yet 35. Thank god for youthful energy and a disdain for the routine.
“I think I can find compromise without compromising my values and beliefs, if that makes sense,” he says. “I think that’s something that gets lost in politics. Compromising is seen as compromising what I think is right to get this done. I would never do that. If I can’t get behind something, if I see something that might be harmful to people, there is no way I could support it, no matter how much money is behind it.”
He grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, where his family moved after the Iranian revolution. Khalatbari learned to be self-sufficient at an early age, after his father, a gambling addict, twice put the family in bankruptcy. He and his brother Hassan wound up being raised by his mother.
He found high school easy but mostly uninteresting, and learned that cannabis calmed his anxiety, helped him sleep, increased his appetite, and allowed him “to be bored but to show up and pass those tests,” he admits. “I was depressed from things about my childhood, and it helped me not to think about those things. It was a recreational product that I was using medicinally but didn’t know it.”
After high school, he sold fake Rolexes and cannabis to get by while earning an architectural engineering degree. After college, he took a job at an electrical lighting design firm in Lincoln. Then, 12 years ago, the week after he turned 21, he moved to Denver for another engineering position. It didn’t last long. “I was dying inside,” he explains. “I walked in one morning, and as I was going up the elevator, and it’s the third day in a row that ‘Into the Mystic’ is playing in my earbuds. I had turned into a robot, with the same routine every day. I turned in my two-week notice, not knowing I was going to do it a half hour earlier.”
Khalatbari exhausted his savings and maxed out his credit cards to buy an existing pizzeria, which he renamed Sexy Pizza. He rented out his house, moved into a tent in his backyard for awhile while he built Sexy Pizza into a sustainable business.
That pretty much set the tone for everything he’s done since then, and it’s just one reason he thinks he would make a good mayor. “I’m a minimalist. That’s how I run my businesses. I criticize wasting money. What’s needed is not just about spending more, but about spending more wisely.”
Part of Sexy Pizza’s business plan was to get involved in the community and donate some profits to charities, his initial attempt at joining entrepreneurism and volunteerism. “It was the first instance of me saying that I don’t need to market my business by putting an ad in Westword. I can do that by supporting community initiatives, art, and advocacy projects, and you’ll get much more loyal patrons because you’re in line with their values and interests.”
He and Hassan got involved in Safer Alternatives For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), where he met Mason Tvert, and Sensible Colorado, which was started by attorney Brian Vicente. Those connections led him into the medical marijuana community, where he learned cannabis users included doctors, lawyers, and politicians. “It opened my eyes and built the fervor to do what I could about policy reform.”
He thinks that while development in the city is booming, the current administration seems to forget the many underserved communities—DIY artists and the homeless among them. “People are getting pushed to the fringes and losing their opportunity in the city.”
He is especially critical of Hancock’s approach to the homeless issue, which he says wastes money criminalizing behavior rather than trying to help people find ways out of the vagrant cycle. Nobody wants to be homeless, he says. “The travelers are ten percent, and bad apples make it difficult for the rest. You don’t see 90 percent of homeless people who are sleeping in cars or on a friend’s couch. We don’t see the nice homeless—we see the fringe. The majority want to do good. We set our standards by what the worst need and lose sight of the majority of the people.”
To that end, through a crowdfunding project with the Alternative Solutions Advocacy Project, he has been heavily involved in a pilot project offering Tiny Homes to the homeless in the RiNo District. “I think we can affect a lot along the way. Shelters don’t work for everybody. Families get split up in the shelter system. We need outside-the-box thoughts on the table to deal with what this city and a lot of cities are dealing with now.”
So what does he do for fun? “My life isn’t divided into play and work, they’re hodgepodged and merged together,” he explains. “It’s so much more gratifying. My businesses are my work and my fun, and my hobbies, philanthropy, and volunteerism are all under one umbrella. That makes everything so much easier, because then I don’t have to bounce back and forth between these mindsets and attitudes. I’m the same all the time, working simultaneously on fun, different eclectic projects.”
His activism first stepped up a notch when, in 2006, he famously dressed as Chickenlooper and badgered the then-mayor-now-governor to debate, a stunt they pulled again during Hick’s gubernatorial campaign. “Yeah, we were chasing him around in a chicken suit,” he says. “That got me excited about the activism, and we found another way to get attention.”
He and his partners last year sold Denver Relief dispensary last year to concentrate on helping businesses in newly legalized states learn to navigate tricky regulations and incorporate standardized operating practices. Khalatbari has been busy writing and submitting applications for businesses in dozens of states. It’s not exactly exciting work, but it’s no less important. He said that one application for a Pennsylvania company will end up at more than 100,000 words.
Meanwhile, there’s the mayoral race, still more than two years away. He’s taking the time to learn more about issues he isn’t as familiar with, like education.
“I have ideas, but I don’t understand things well enough to make meaningful change,” he says. “So I’m engaging people in education in conversation, people pro and con from the way I think it should be done. I can’t know what someone with six years in office knows about the workings of government, but I can educate myself as much as possible in the meantime.”