PICTURED: Zahur Lalji. Photo by Dexter Brown Photography
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
“I was the guy with 13 jobs,” laughs Zahur Lalji of Camarillo. From retail to banking to entrepreneur, he’s tried his hand at many endeavors — and found success at every one. His most successful, however, is probably Wheelhouse, the cannabis dispensary he founded in 2016 with his friend and business partner Sergio Burga.
Lalji was born in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, to parents of Indian descent. He moved to California with his family in 1980.
“I grew up in Camarillo most of my life,” he says. “And I’m still here. I’ve lived in Camarillo for 40-plus years.”
As a teenager, he had a variety of odd jobs in food (including stints at McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger) and retail. At 20, he got a job as a teller at Wells Fargo and worked his way up to branch manager after a few years. A few years after that, he became regional manager.
Banking was his stock in trade for many years. After Wells Fargo (and a short stay in London) he worked for Commercial Bank of California and Wilshire Bank. He was successful, but craved more.
“I started looking at other opportunities, and decided on cannabis,” he recalls. With his business acumen and background in banking, he could see that it was a growing industry with lots of potential.
Together with Burga, he opened the first Wheelhouse dispensary in 2016 in Los Angeles. In 2019, they opened the Port Hueneme location. Housed in two large buildings, the dispensary also maintains space for a variety of other cannabis-related businesses: eight delivery enterprises and a separate dispensary.
“We’re their landlords,” Lalji says.
He notes that some people are surprised to find that Wheelhouse helps its competitors. But Lalji isn’t afraid of competition — he embraces it because he’d like to see the industry continue to thrive, and because he has faith that Wheelhouse will continue to be a leader in it.
“We believe in the industry growing, and we’re still going to be good at what we do,” he says. “We’ve supported lots of [local] residents that wanted to get into the [cannabis] industry.”
Local is the key factor here — both Lalji (a married father of three) and Burga are committed to working, living and contributing to the place they and their families call home.
“We’re Ventura County guys!” Lalji says. “We know what the county does for us . . . We want to be with our neighbors; we’re just locals. Sergio’s dad has owned his business for more than 40 years. My mom still works at the hardware store in Camarillo. We’re loyal like that.”
To that end, Lalji has a wide list of organizations that Wheelhouse has supported through donations, sponsorships, etc.: Junior Explorers, REACH! (Recreation, Education, Arts and Culture) in Hueneme, DRAGG, Diversity Collective, Food Share, Santa by the Sea, Cops for Tots and many others. He himself serves on the board of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Ventura County.
“Often we personally show up,” Lalji says. “We don’t just write a check. We try to be as involved as possible.”
And every year in March, on the anniversary of Wheelhouse’s opening, the company holds a big fundraiser where they invite local businesses and organizations to participate. “We get together with our brands, the local community and local businesses, and we raise money.”
This year, the event included a drive-in movie screening, and ticket sales supported several local nonprofits, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Diversity Collective and Food Share. And one special person received a very special gift.
“We bought a truck for Martin Boos,” Lalji says. “He’s such a nice guy.”
Boos was a familiar sight to many Oxnard residents, cleaning up the city streets with his leaf blower — an activity he’s been doing for years. Boos was gifted a 2017 Nissan Frontier pickup truck to help him in his volunteer work.
Lalji considers things like this his “community reinvestment act,” an idea that stems from his years in commercial banking: “If I invest in my community, my community invests in me.”
It might surprise some to note that several of Wheelhouse’s community endeavors bring it into partnership with the local police department. Lalji is happy to have this kind of relationship with law enforcement.
“All my life, I’ve respected the police department,” he explains. “Junior Explorers in Oxnard and Port Hueneme, that’s my neighborhood. That’s also a community underserved from a financial perspective. The community needs protection. And I need the stigma to go away that cannabis and the police can’t get along.” And when they do get along, “Everybody wins.”
“It’s in our family background,” Lalji continues. “We’re raised to love our neighbors . . . We’d rather be recognized as individuals that give back to our community.”
Wheelhouse Cannabis Dispensary and Delivery Ventura County, 521 W. Channel Islands Blvd., Suite 1, Port Hueneme, 805-382-0420, www.wheelhouseph.com.