Sexy Pizza and City O’ City Owners Team Up for Small Town Redevelopment
Kayvan Khalatbari and Lauren Roberts live in La Veta loca.
Khalatbari, co-owner of Sexy Pizza, and Roberts, co-owner of Watercourse and City O’ City, are teaming up to work on a development project in La Veta, a small town about three hours south of Denver.
It’s the second location in southern Colorado to attract the interest of Khalatbari, a former Denver mayoral candidate. In recent years, he has purchased numerous properties in Trinidad, the last town along Interstate 25 before New Mexico.
“Denver is becoming another generic big city in many ways,” Khalatbari said. “There’s a comedian who jokes that you know Denver is becoming like every other city because it has the best hot chicken in LA or the best donuts in Portland. Southern Colorado is a place to reinvent yourself. and do it with other people in a place that won’t drain you and your wallet.
Roberts knew Khalatbari from his visits to City O’ City on Capitol Hill. He also spoke about his expansion to Trinidad at a serial corporate culture event she hosted.
“That’s when my ears perked up,” Roberts said.
The two Denver restaurateurs are under contract to buy La Veta’s K-12 school, which will close at the end of the school year.
“You just don’t find many places like this that are available or accessible to small business owners like us,” Roberts said.
“Or it’s less money than my 1,200 square foot house in Denver,” Khalatbari said.
“Or my 2,200 square foot house,” Roberts added.
The pair declined to disclose the specific amount they are willing to pay. A new $42 million school has already been built for La Veta’s next school year.
The city, which has a population of 800, is located at the foot of the Spanish Peaks, off the Highway of Legends, an hour’s drive from the New Mexico border. It is known for its community of herders, hunters and artists.
Roberts and Khalatbari have no previous development experience. They called on several partners: Robert’s mother and sister, also co-owners of Watercourse and City O’ City; Sexy Pizza COO Kyle Peters; and Jeff Shanahan, who helped launch Sexy Pizza but also owns Shanahan Development, which focuses on low-income housing in Denver.
“It’s like everything else in my life, you know, I never made pizza or ran a restaurant before Sexy Pizza, and I never really did anything before making them,” Khalatbari said.
The school property at 126 E. Garland St. houses a 22,600 square foot main school, a small elementary school, a maintenance building, a science annex, and a building for carpentry classes on four acres.
Roberts and Khalatbari plan to demolish the small elementary school and build about 12 townhouses for workforce housing.
Beyond that, nothing is fixed. They plan to open a brewery in the school’s main building, which dates from 1911, and transform the seven classrooms into commercial or residential space. Roberts said she plans to open a Watercourse cafe and prep kitchen.
“People care about creating jobs there and creating food systems. They just need people like us who come from different perspectives and experiences to take them there, and not take over, but infuse that into what they already do,” Khalatbari said. “The young people are 18 there, and they left. So you end up with an aging population that doesn’t have a full picture of what’s possible.
Khalatbari has also bought a house in La Veta, which he plans to live in for the long term, and Roberts plans to do the same.
Khalatbari’s interest in southern Colorado dates back to the early days of the pandemic.
“Over a period of nine months, I had given up running for mayor, adopted two young daughters, left the cannabis industry after 15 years and ended a long-term relationship,” he said. “And I was done with all that and I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life?'”
So he “took a soul-searching trip” in his truck to the southwest. He drove for weeks, looking for a small town where he could set up a vacation home and “give my girls a perspective outside of Denver,” he said.
He settled in Trinidad, and within 24 hours of his visit, he bought an old church as an investment. He has since purchased a home, five other historic buildings totaling 50,000 square feet, and a 24-unit residential development.
“I thought it was just going to be a project, but every time I went there I met someone who had always lived there or a new resident of Denver, Atlanta or Austin, and it started to really grow inside me,” Khalatbari mentioned.
Khalatbari opened a Sexy Pizza location in an old train depot he bought in town. Denver’s Mutiny Information Cafe just opened a second location on Trinidad’s Main Street in a building it owns, which also houses a co-op grocery store.
He works with the owners of Hi-Dive on South Broadway, Suzanne Magnuson and Curt Wallach, to open a concert hall in an old hotel.
Khalatbari has also purchased three historic buildings in Raton, New Mexico, just 30 minutes from Trinidad, where he also plans to open a comedy and music venue. And he also owns an 8.5-acre farm there, where he plans to erect greenhouses and an insect farm.
“Cheap real estate and good people are what drew me there,” he said. “The people of southern Colorado just care about the community, and I want to embrace that. It’s nice to get away from neoliberal politics in Denver.
Roberts and his family are also under contract to purchase a nearly 10,000 square foot warehouse in Trinidad to wholesale vegan and vegetarian food for large operations, such as nursing homes and schools. This follows their recent purchase of the City O’ City and Watercourse properties.
And developer Dana Crawford has also been active in Trinidad since 2016, working to restore the old opera house, Fox West Theater and other projects.