It’s all coming full circle for Shy Sadis.
As the owner of one of Seattle’s first medical marijuana dispensaries, Sadis built a small empire in the state’s medical market before a regulatory change combined it with the newly legal recreational program.
Like many entrepreneurs, Sadis moved into the new adult-use economy, opening a handful of successful shops of his own and consulting on several other that are franchised under his The Joint and Starbuds names. But there is still a palpable sense of excitement as he talks about the opening of his newest recreational store at the site of his first medical shop in Seattle’s University District, the closest marijuana retail store to the University of Washington and its 31,000 undergraduates.
It’s been a long journey for one of the country’s pioneering marijuana businessmen, but Sadis is just getting started. He has his eyes on the long game.
“I know my brands would work anywhere,” he says, looking toward the day when cannabis is a fully legal federal business.
Eye on Investment
Despite being one of the nation’s first and most successful marijuana magnates, Sadis is not as focused on the plant as much as he is focused on the business and the brand he is creating. He’s an entrepreneur first, with most of his money coming from the conventional real estate he owned prior to the cannabis industry.
He speaks with a soft, confident voice and smiles with the easy surety of someone who’s done it before.
Sadis has had success in real estate, marijuana retail and in mixed martial arts, a field in which he has not only trained but owns part of a league.
“It’s just so exciting because it’s real,” he says of MMA. “If there’s a new business that comes out and you come at me with an idea, I’ll find a way to fund it.”
His eye for risk and reward has always served him well, and it’s what made him look into the marijuana business.
A quick Google search for “Shy Sadis” brings up an appearance on CNN’s 2013 series titled “Meet the New Pot Entrepreneurs” that labeled him as “the reformed drug dealer” and highlighted his past in the black market. But Sadis says dealing pot was never a big deal for him; it just made for an engaging headline.
He had friends who were growing and selling and realized the potential to supplement his income.
“I just saw an investment opportunity,” he says. “I wasn’t even a user.”
Sadis’ primary focus, then as now, was on real estate, particularly commercial apartment buildings, which are always in demand — especially in a fast-growing city like Seattle. Sadis grew up in the city, bouncing around high schools before graduating from O’Dea in 1991. Through the ’90s, he worked as a nightclub promoter and sold cars before purchasing a building in the city’s Fremont neighborhood.
His portfolio grew from there and Sadis, who characterizes himself as a risk-taker, was looking for the next opportunity.
In 2009 during a trip to Colorado, he visited a marijuana dispensary and started to think about the future. He began making plans to move to the Centennial State, but a chat with lawyer Aaron Pelley, who is now with 7 Point Law and has extensive experience in the cannabis industry, urged Sadis to set up shop in Washington instead.
Staying closer to home appealed to Sadis and he went for it. The paperwork and process of finding a location took more than a year, but in 2010, he opened The Joint in Seattle. In the interim, he purchased the name “Starbuds” as well, but it was the logo for The Joint, designed by Aaron Chapman at ACDG Brand that grabbed him.
“I fell in love with it,” he says of the red and blue sports league-like logo with a pot leaf in the “O” and a lit joint for the “I” that now adorns seven shops throughout Washington.
His original shop, co-founded with friend Derek Anderson, was not the first in the state, but it was among the first in Seattle and separated itself by not hiding in the shadows like most of Washington’s gray-market medical dispensaries. Sadis put the logo above the door and decided that transparency was the best bet for his brand.
“I put my neck on the line,” he says of the days before the recreational market opened.
The Joint set a new standard in Seattle’s medical marijuana community. There was the traditional buzz-in front door to check IDs and doctor recommendations, but the rest of the shop was bright and open.
“We made The Joints look like doctors’ offices,” Sadis says, adding that a clean, welcoming environment conveys trust. “When you walk into a nice facility, you know it’s run well.”
More than just the look, however, Sadis, who got into the business primarily as an investment, says working in medical marijuana gave him a new perspective on the industry and the possibilities of the plant.
“It melted my heart,” he says of seeing what cannabis could do to help those who needed it. The Joint began working with patients to make sure they got their medicine, even if their funding was short that week. “I come from the roots that these are patients.”
Troubles and growth
Sadis opened a second store in 2011 in Bellingham, a college town a few hours north of Seattle, but it did not go as smoothly. After three months of operation, the city raided and shut down his dispensary, as well as two others in town.
Sadis made a deal and all charges were dropped in exchange for shutting down the store and accepting a two-year probation in Bellingham, but he retained the right to open a shop in the event that a recreational market — which was by that point on the horizon — opened.
“It sucked,” Sadis says of the closure. “It was a big hit.”
But not one to give in, he rebuilt, purchasing a dispensary in Seattle and another in Tacoma, an hour south on I-5. He rebranded the Seattle store as Starbuds and the other as The Joint. With no limit at the time on the ownership of dispensaries, Sadis’ portfolio continued to grow. A second Starbuds followed in 2013, as did a third Joint. By the time Washington voters legalized recreational adult-use, Sadis owned 12 stores under three names, adding The Top Shelf to the family.
Sadis’ stores were the first to begin daily specials such as “Munchie Monday” and “Free Joint Friday,” which he says really put him on the map. Sadis also had Mylar bags branded with The Joint’s logo and began pre-packaging before it was required.
“We started all of that,” he says. “It caught on and other dispensaries started copying it.”
During the gray market, medical-only days, Sadis continued his transparent philosophy, always paying taxes and donating or volunteering for local organizations like the Seattle Police and Fire departments. The Joint even hosted a toy drive to help cement itself as a valuable part of the community.
“I wanted to pay taxes and donate to charity because I knew that what I was doing was risky business,” he says, crediting the effort in part to manager Bonnie Fong who insisted on doing everything “by the book.”
End of an Era
In 2012, voters in Washington legalized adult recreational use of marijuana. State regulations limited not only the total number of stores any one person could own, but also on the number of stores that would be allowed to open, creating a lottery for available licenses.
Sadis entered his top three stores — the state limit — in the license lottery and helped friends and family file for licenses of their own.
The state held a random drawing for licenses in each jurisdiction that had more qualified applicants than allotted stores. When the big day came, Sadis was left in the cold, but not out of the game.
“I didn’t win any of my licenses,” he says, “but I did have friends and family win some.”
The state’s first recreational shops opened in the summer of 2014 with Sadis essentially on the sidelines. He still ran a handful of medical dispensaries and consulted on several rec shops, but overall it was a depressing time. Though few people were willing to sell their rec licenses, he was able to buy a retail store in Bellingham, returning legally to the city that had been the site of one of his few misfires.
In July 2016, further state regulations combined the medical market into the recreational one, requiring all marijuana shops to have licenses, but expanding the number of licenses available. Sadis, as well as several friends and family who franchised businesses through him, got licenses this time around.
“Things were looking up,” he says.
A year later, Sadis is once again seeing growth. He personally owns three rec licenses — The Green Leaf in Bellingham, The Joint in the Seattle suburb of Burien and the store he’s about to reopen in the U-District — and consults for multiple other Joint stores and a Starbuds.
Overall, the stores with which Sadis is involved totaled more than $1.2 million in revenue in August 2017.
“We’re building fast. We’re growing,” he says.
The large number of shops increase his overall buying power, helping to keep costs down. And with a focus on the type of customer service he learned during the medical years, he sees nothing but potential.
Vision for the Future
The next fight will be protecting his brands and logos, especially as he looks to expand to other rec-legal states. He is the sole owner of the state trademarks for all his brands.
“It’s been nothing but a battle to protect ‘The Joint’ and ‘Starbuds,’” he says.
But fights are nothing new to Sadis, who also remains an owner of the Legacy Fight Alliance, one of the largest professional MMA leagues in operation. He knows to watch for an opportunity and then take the right risk. It’s served him well in the ring and in business, particularly marijuana.
“I happened to be there at the right time and took a chance,” he says.
He also credits his staff as a major part of his success, saying finding the right people to help carry out a vision is “very important.”
“If I didn’t have Derek and Bonnie, The Joint wouldn’t be where it is,” he says.
Sadis expects a national market to open within the next few years and when it does, he plans to make The Joint and Starbuds two of the biggest names in the country. And with his story arc, no one should doubt it’s possible.
“I’ve been through the stages from illegal to medical to rec,” he says. “I got thrown into this business knowing a little about weed, but came out an expert.”[contextly_auto_sidebar]