Despite challenges, area cannabis business continues to grow

After years of overcoming challenges, a locally-owned cannabis business has plans, both imminently and in the future, to further its reach.

For the past several years, siblings DJ Loeffelholz, Joe Loeffelholz and Ali Gansemer — all natives of East Dubuque, Ill. — have been building up and expanding River Bluff Collective, a locally-based cannabis company that just opened its first dispensary, River Bluff Cannabis, in Roselle, Ill.

“We have the type of opportunity to create a big brand with the right people,” said DJ Loeffelholz, the business’ CEO.

DJ Loeffelholz said the idea for the company began around 2015, when his siblings were living in Colorado and seeing how the legalization of marijuana in western states was rolling out in the business world.

“I was also able to see how (cannabis products) were helping people around me,” said Gansemer, River Bluff Collective’s chief experience officer. “It was changing their lives and making their lives better.”

DJ Loeffelholz’s siblings moved back to Dubuque, where he was living, to start what would become River Bluff Collective in 2018 by building a team and applying for licenses.

“It was a big risk,” he said. “We started the business right when COVID(-19) started. We took out credit cards, a second mortgage on the house. We all cashed out on our 401(k)s. That was all before we had any insight that we would be successful in the space.”

DJ Loeffelholz said the siblings were “underdogs” when it came to obtaining a dispensary license compared to big cannabis businesses. River Bluff Collective applied for the license in 2020 and was selected in a 2021 lottery for a license in the Chicago area. They were not selected at that time for a dispensary license in the East Dubuque area.

“It was a lot of fluidity and flexibility,” said Joe Loeffelholz, River Bluff Collective’s chief operating officer. “We had to roll with the punches. There are different laws in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. We try to model our products on the most strict restrictions.”

In 2021, the siblings opened a cannabinoid retail store, River Bluff Collective, at 673 Sinsinawa Ave. in East Dubuque.

The store sells cannabinoid products and makes edibles on site. DJ Loeffelholz said the location does wholesale orders to more than 250 stores in an area that spans from Des Moines to Green Bay, Wis., to Springfield, Ill., to Chicago. In addition, distributors for the business sell to 100 other stores.

“The growth has been crazy,” he said. “But we have had to weather that the laws could potentially change at any time. … After the (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) made a change, we had to remove and replace $75,000 worth of one product.”

Both DJ and Joe Loeffelholz said they are in regular communication with cannabis regulators, who have been good partners with the business. They also stressed that members of their team are experts in the cannabis business.

About 20 employees work at the East Dubuque store. Another 20 people work at the River Bluff Collective headquarters on Dubuque’s Main Street, which the business moved into two months ago.

In November 2022, River Bluff Collective opened Dab Lab at 145 W. Main St. in Platteville, Wis., offering drinks and THC products. Seven people are employed at the location.

River Bluff Collective also has obtained a craft cultivation license to grow its own marijuana. DJ Loeffelholz said the business currently is looking for a 50,000-square-foot space in northern Illinois to set up operations. He noted that only 21 craft cultivation licenses had been given out in Illinois prior to River Bluff.

“The challenge is finding a building now,” he said. “Some people won’t sell to us because of what we do. But we’re not victims. … Once we are the 22nd or 23rd cultivator in Illinois, that will give us the legitimacy that we have known we’ve had the whole time.”

He added that the business hopes to have the cultivation facility open by April 2024. Prior to that date, he hopes to open one or two more River Bluff dispensaries.

Gansemer said she and her siblings still hope to have a dispensary in their hometown someday, but the Roselle dispensary opened on April 20.

“We want to grow and sell our own cannabis,” she said. “We want to be vertically integrated. Everything that has happened has been self-financed, but we’ve also had investors taking a chance on us. We have people interested in cannabis. We’re doing everything in our power to make things happen, and our team can feel each other’s passion.”

DJ Loeffelholz added that the River Bluff Collective team also focuses on reducing the stigma around cannabis use and educating the public about the use and laws related to cannabis products. He also said River Bluff Collective tries to sell its products at a lower price, which especially may benefit lower-income individuals who use the products for medical purposes.

“We’ve done the back end into looking at all of the laws, and there’s a lot of rules to follow,” Gansemer said. “But there’s so many opportunities within the market.”

The siblings also are working on opportunities for growth not related to cannabis. DJ Loeffelholz said they plan to open a cafe and coffee shop called 231 at 231 Sinsinawa Ave. in East Dubuque, hopefully around the end of June or early July.

“We’re just poor kids from East Dubuque,” he said. “We grew up humble. … (the cafe) is going to have just normal breakfast. We just want to invest in our community.”

He added that sales from the River Bluff Collective store in East Dubuque have helped the community through tax dollars that contribute to new city projects.

“We are actively creating growth and opportunity in East Dubuque,” he said.

In addition to being able to give back to the community through their business, the siblings also spoke about how they enjoy working together.

“You always hear people say, ‘Don’t get into business with your family,’” Gansemer said. “Though sometimes we disagree, that had to happen. If we just agreed all of the time with one suggestion, we would have gone down the wrong path so many times. They almost know me better than I know myself, and they challenge my thinking. We just went to Easter together, and we’re still excited to come back and talk about this.”