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Cigar Lounges: A Smoker's Last Refuge

Cigar shops are among the few places that a cigar smoker can call home
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

It's 11 a.m. on a warm summer morning in Manhattan, and Billy Fakih is standing behind the counter at The Cigar Inn, a smoldering Rocky Patel Edge cigar in his left hand. The door opens and a customer holding a cup of coffee breezes in, heading straight for the walk-in humidor. "How are you, Nick?" Billy says. The man nods, chooses a dark Camacho from the well-stocked selection and sits down in the shop's cigar lounge. Soon a big man named Lee, a former stockbroker with hopes of freelance writing, joins him, followed by a 30-something security guard from Queens, then a reed-thin surgeon in his 60s from neighboring Lenox Hill Hospital. Each man takes a seat, lights a cigar and talks about the subjects of the day as the sublime sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach play from the large-screen television.

It's a small space, all of four leather chairs and one couch, but for these customers it's a sanctuary. The number of bars in New York City that still allow cigar smoking can be counted on two hands, cigar-friendly restaurants are a thing of the past and the entire world seems to be conspiring against the cigar smoker. Inside this haven, however, they are free to enjoy their cigars in peace. The smoke police do not come here. There is no wrinkled nose and wave of an irritated hand at the first sight of a robusto waiting for the flame. They are home.

With smoking bans spreading across the United States like an irrepressible, choking weed, the cigar shop is becoming the last safe house available to the cigar smoker. Most of the states, cities and towns that have banned smoking still allow smoking inside cigar shops (Washington State is a noted exception) and savvy cigar store owners are responding by creating lounges inside their shops. Instead of merely being a place in which to purchase a cigar, many cigar shops today are now places for them to be consumed as well.

"The cigar store of the future incorporates a commodious lounge," says George Brightman, who manages J. Barbera Tobacconist in Garden City, Long Island, a 2,000-square-foot shop that is about one-third smoking lounge. Brightman, who once worked as director of business development for this magazine, has more than two decades of experience selling cigars.

"If you don't have capacity for your customers to relax and enjoy themselves, you're going to be at a disadvantage," says Brightman. "We're the last refuge of the dedicated cigar smoker. [Customers are] here among other like-minded individuals in an environment where they can be comfortable. You're not going to get disapproving stares and you're not going to be hassled by the smoke police."

In a recent poll on Cigaraficionado.com, three out of four readers said that their local shop had a smoking lounge, and 54 percent said they visited it at least several times a year. And in a survey of 50 leading tobacconists conducted this spring at the Tobacconist Association of America show, 66 percent said their store has a cigar lounge, and 90 percent said the lounge had experienced a recent increase in usage. Having a place to smoke a cigar is increasingly important.

An inviting cigar lounge has reinvigorated one of the oldest cigar shops in Connecticut, The Owl Shop in New Haven. Opened in 1934, the store is located a few steps from the Yale University campus. Pipes—guaranteed to make a college student look more intelligent—have been a mainstay at the shop for decades, but it was the new ownership of Glen Greenberg and the couple hundred thousand he put into renovations in the last year that have made the difference.

"Turning it over to a lounge here really injected a whole new life into the store," says Greenberg, a 40-year-old with a shaved head and hip style of dress. He bought The Owl Shop in 1998 with his father and another investor, acquired a liquor license and yearned to transform its small cigar lounge—which had a circa-1970s, Brady Bunch look—into something classier. Dad and the investor balked, so Greenberg bought them out and went ahead with his plans. When the Connecticut smoking ban went into effect in 2004, Greenberg was sitting pretty. He transformed The Owl Shop from a cigar store with a lounge into a cigar store with a full cigar bar, stocked with upscale liquors. "All of a sudden, because I had the license, it allowed me to smoke and drink," he says.

The refurbished room has a tin ceiling, slow-turning ceiling fans and a huge bar that takes up the middle of the room. In the back are sofas and chairs. The crowd "is very eclectic, across the board," says Greenberg, who decorated one part of the room with old Owl Shop labels, celebrating the long history of the store. He also still employs Joe Lentine, a pipe tobacco blender and cigar expert who has worked there since 1964, when he was 19 years old. "Yale U. grad students, politicos, actorsÉhere egos are left at the door," says Greenberg. "Everyone has this one common denominator—the cigar."

Fifty years ago, when The Owl Shop was a young store, cigar lounges were a rarity—a man could, and did, smoke virtually anywhere, so why hang out in a shop?

"In those days, everyone from the floor worker to the executive smoked cigars. If you paid 25 cents, you were a big spender," says Ron Shapiro, 66, who got his start working for his family's M&R Smoke Shop in the fur center of Manhattan's Garment District in the 1950s and 1960s. "Especially in New York City where we had our stores, you didn't have space for a smoking lounge—unless you were Dunhill or Nat Sherman. Today, if you don't have that extra space to set up a lounge, it's going to hurt the bottom line."

Glen Greenberg, the owner of The Owl Shop, relaxes in his spacious smoking lounge.

Today, Shapiro owns Cigar Factory Outlet in South Norwalk, Connecticut, with his son, Brian. Inside the huge store, which sells cigars by the box, is a roped-off area with about a dozen leather chairs, where members gather and smoke. They've dubbed it Club Perfecto. The members have become friends and know each other by first name. Three have grown so passionate about the cigar business that they have since taken jobs with cigar companies.

Holt's Cigar Co., a Philadelphia shop owned by the Levin family, owners of the Ashton brand, has had a smoking lounge since 1995. "Back then, I think the concept of a cigar lounge was a novelty—not every smoke shop had one," says Sathya Levin, vice president of Ashton Cigars. "We always had people hanging out in the lounge, but ever since Philadelphia passed the smoking ban, it's been packed."

The lounge has a few sofas and chairs, an espresso machine and no television. "Cigar lovers hang out, talk and smoke, and shoot the breeze," says Levin, who travels to many cigar shops across the United States as part of representing the cigar brand. "I think [having a lounge] is becoming more of a standard nowadays. In certain parts of the country, it's almost a requirement."

In Kansas City, Missouri, The Outlaw Cigar Co. has taken the cigar lounge concept to an extreme: once a month owner Kendall Culbertson extends his lounge, which typically holds about 30 people, by adding a 30- by 30-foot tent (it's heated in the winter, air-conditioned in the summer) and partners with various companies to attract men to his shop.

And attract he does: his parties draw hundreds of customers. "At our last event I had no way of knowing how many people were at this party, but we had 1,200 people buy something at the register," he says. "My entire focus for the last three years has been to create cigar smokers. Instead of trying to sell wholesale or sell on the Internet, I had to get nonsmokers to come to my parties." His method is hardly revolutionary, but can't be argued: give away free food and beer.

"You should come to our party on Saturday," he enthuses as he lists the attractions that will be on display: Pepin Garcia rolling cigars, a pro analyzing golf swings, Colibri lighters, Benchmade knives, girls from Hooters as well as his Outlaw calendar girls, and an Apache helicopter from a nearby Army base.

The parties have made Outlaw a must-stop for many of the bigger names in the cigar business, including Jorge Padrón, Litto Gomez and Christian Eiroa, each of whom has visited the store for an event.

Culbertson views the lounge as a man's place to escape and relax. "I see it every day in the lounge," he says. "A guys sits down, he's all wound up—this is truly his place to unwind."

One of the largest, best-stocked cigar shops in America is Corona Cigar Co. in Orlando Florida, located about 15 minutes from Walt Disney World. (It's not quite so close that you can leave the wife and kids in the line at Space Mountain, slip out for a quick smoke and get back before they figure out your evil plan, but you'll be tempted.)

Corona centers around a vibrant bar and lounge area. A couple dozen wines and beers are available, as well as a variety of coffees. The bar proper has a dozen stools and several tables, and nearby is an "L" of wooden chairs arranged around a big-screen TV.

Midday on a Tuesday there's about 20 people in the lounge, some drinking beer, others eating Cuban sandwiches, most watching ESPN on one of the three big TVs. Everyone is smoking. "Burn your fingers," one man jokes to another, who has removed the cigar band from his robusto and is in danger of setting fire to his silver mustache.

The shop proper has five long aisles of cigars and seems to stock just about everything made in the premium cigar world today, big names and small names alike, from bargain brands to some pricey rarities.

"Cut that for you?" asks a man behind the counter, ringing up cigars. "Straight cut? Wedge cut?"

The Corona staff is hospitable and inviting. The clients are a mix of locals and tourists: one man is here with his wife, visiting from North Carolina. They used to come to Orlando to take the kids to the amusement parks. Now they come to Corona for the smoker-friendly atmosphere and for its proximity to a nearby bar, which makes killer Martinis. It's the golden years, and time to take care of themselves.

Owner Jeff Borysiewicz started Corona as a mail-order catalog, then realized he couldn't compete against big discounters. "I said, 'I want to build the best cigar store, and differentiate myself from anyone else,'" says Borysiewicz. "The typical cigar store had a country club feel, or the look of a pipe-smoking den. It wasn't really my style." He opted to make his smoking lounge look like a room from Nicaragua, Cuba or the Dominican Republic, with lively Latin music playing in the background.

A second Corona location in Orlando has an Avo cigar lounge, opened in partnership with Avo brand owner Davidoff of Geneva. "It's Avo themed and Avo branded," says Avo brand manager Matthew Kern of the lounge. "In addition to your typical cigar lounge, it has an element of music. We're trying to combine Avo's passion of music and cigars." Avo Uvezian, creator of Avo cigars, recently moved from Puerto Rico to Orlando. His home is just two minutes from the shop, meaning he is a frequent visitor.

A new Avo Lounge opened this summer at the Burns Tobacconist located in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. Burns is the brainchild of Philip Windham, a mustachioed, cigar-chomping pool lover who runs the gorgeous and spacious Chattanooga Billiard Clubs, where one can smoke virtually everywhere. Windham calls his two clubs "dream rooms," 20,000-square-foot entertainment centers with pool and billiard tables, dart boards, bar service and banquet rooms—virtually everything for the cigar smoker.

The Burns Tobacconist shops—a second one is located in the eastern suburb of Brainerd—cater to those who wish to linger and set fire to a purchase. "We have barber's chairs right in the shop where people can smoke, we have a beer garden outside, and you can smoke anywhere in the billiard parlor," Windham says about the East location. The Avo Lounge is a separate room from the cigar shop in his downtown shop, which is part of a three-story building. The top floor will be a cigar club mirroring the one in his East location.

In California, a pioneer of smoking bans, cigar shops are among the only places in which to smoke. "This is a little oasis," says Brian Telford, who co-owns Telford's Pipe and Cigar Inc. in Mill Valley, with his wife, Susan. "Where can you go indoors in California that isn't your home or your car and enjoy tobacco?"

Telford's has 176 humidified lockers. The Telfords first added a lounge in 1996 when the store was at a different location. This is the ninth move for the store. "And my last," says Telford.

Smoking bans might be old hat for California, but they are new in neighboring Arizona, passed in the November 2006 elections. "I opened my lounge three years ago," says Vartan Seferian, owner of Ambassador Fine Cigars in Scottsdale. "I was watching California. I said, 'This is bound to come here eventually.' I'm glad I did it. I was ready."

Seferian's high-end store has a gorgeous, well-appointed walk-in humidor stocked with all types of premium cigars. While a small sitting area up front is available to any customer, a huge room that Seferian created in the rear serves as his members smoking club. It has several tables (some of which are employed for that most popular of cigar lounge pursuits: poker and other card games), a plasma television, a small kitchen, and coffee and soda.

"It's in the back of the store, which keeps them away from the public eye," says Seferian, speaking like an old-time concierge with an innate ability to know what his customers require in terms of service. "We have all types of people, from the blue-collar to the millionaire. It's an area where they can come anytime and hang out. It's a boys' club. There's a lot of networking."

Jay Fox, who owns six Up In Smoke shops in and around Dallas, Texas, has lounges in most of his stores. "Eventually they're all going to be that way," he says.

As in many cigar lounge situations, the people who gather in Fox's stores have become closely knit. "It's like a club. They'll get together and cook. The networking that goes on is amazing. They have each other's cell phone numbers and they call each other," he says with a chuckle. "People need a place to smoke."

The appeal of the smoking lounge is greatest in areas where smoking is banned, but even in cigar-friendly Charlotte, North Carolina, the lounges are busy. "[Our flagship store is] full every day. Sometimes there's so many people smoking it looks like a Cheech and Chong movie," says Craig Cass, owner of four Tinderbox stores in the Charlotte area, two of which have smoking lounges. If a smoking ban should pass, says Cass, traffic in the lounge "will explode."

In Cass's flagship store, in South Park, the lounge takes up approximately 500 feet of the 2,200-square-foot store, and he believes lounges are the way of the future. "I think in the next generation of cigar stores, the lounge will be even bigger," he says. "It's the camaraderie: we're the modern version of the country day store. People smoke cigars socially."

Virtually every cigar shop owner with a lounge speaks of the loyalty of his lounge customers and the bond he forges with them from their having spent so much time in the store. "They become my best salesmen," says David Garafolo, owner of Two Guys Smoke Shop in Salem, New Hampshire, near the border of Massachusetts. Garafolo has an 8,500-square-foot store with two smoking areas, one with about a dozen seats and a plasma television, plus a members-lounge upstairs complete with domino tables, a chessboard, video games, vending machines, three big-screen televisions, two pool tables and a pair of large oval poker tables of the type you might see on a cable television show. Such an indoor smoking haven is a large draw during certain months in New England. "The winter is crazy up here," says Garafolo.

Smoking lounges of this size are more easily outfitted in the suburbs. Aside from the grand smoking space at Nat Sherman and the spacious smoke lounge at De La Concha, most of Manhattan's cigar lounges are tiny. Most cigar shops on the Vegas Strip and in casinos are also too small for smoking areas. (Casa Fuente is a huge exception—see the sidebar at left.)

Richard Galdieri, owner of Las Vegas Cigar Co., has a tiny shop on the Strip that has "no room for anything," but his bigger shop, five miles from the Strip, has plenty of space for smokers.

"I have a 60-inch big-screen TV, a pool table, shuffleboard," says Galdieri. On fight nights he draws a crowd. In addition to big-name brands such as Fuente and Ashton, Galdieri sells his own house brand, which he has made at his factory in the Dominican Republic.

Cigar shops in the city center of Chicago also tend towards the miniscule: Jack Schwartz Importer has a few chairs in the store and Up Down Tobacco has no lounge at all. Probably the largest smoking lounge in Chicago is the smallish one inside massive Iwan Reis & Co.

About 35 miles north of the Chicago loop in Libertyville is Cigars & More, which Julie and Ken P. Neumann opened in 1998. The shop has two smoking lounges, one of which is designed to look like a living room, with easy chairs, barber's chairs, free coffee and sodas for half a dollar.

"If it wasn't for the lounge, we would not be here today," says Ken. "It's done so much for our business and made our customers loyal to the store. Roughly half our store is a smoking lounge."

Some cigar lounges are nothing but a few chairs. Others have some amenities, and most have a television set or two. Some charge membership fees, which could be as little as $2 monthly or as high as $500 a year, depending on demand and the level of service provided by the lounge. Common etiquette suggests that smokers visiting any lounge should consider fees when sitting down: if you're a member and have paid for the privilege of being there, feel free to bring your own cigar, but if the lounge is simply a couple of chairs provided to paying customers, be sure to buy something, or you might not be given the warmest welcome.

Few lounges sell food, but many shops provide it free of charge, or someone sitting in the lounge may bring in something to eat. At Club Perfecto, the Connecticut lounge, two of the regulars are owners of A&S Fine Foods, a nearby Italian deli, and they rarely come by without a plate heaped with fresh mozzarella, Genoa salami, sorpresatta and roasted peppers. Arlington Cigar in Arlington, Texas, has a grill behind the store and a refrigerator where customers store meat. "They can come here and cook lunch or cook their dinner," says co-owner Mark Bartlett. The cigar lounge in the store is about 1,500 square feet.

Local regulations prohibit many shops from selling alcohol and food, but one glorious exception is Hudson Valley Cigars, in New Windsor, New York.

Pull up to Hudson Valley Cigars and you'll see three buildings, two of them landmarks. The cigar shop is on the far left, Schlesinger's Steak House is on the far right, and the unnamed cigar bar is in the middle. New York State law prohibits smoking in the restaurant, but you can smoke in the cigar shop (which has a few seats) and you can smoke throughout the bar, even while dining on the restaurant's excellent steak.

The shop is run by Glynna Schlesinger, and her husband, Neil, runs the steak house. They rented out the building that is now the cigar store until a friend suggested they start selling cigars.

"I'm a health nut," says Glynna, who sports the toned, tanned and muscular arms of someone who rarely misses a day in the gym. Statues from her bodybuilding victories sit across from the cash register at Hudson Valley Cigars. "I can't stand to be around cigarettes for two minutes—I said, 'How can I take cigars?'"

Her misgivings were put to rest after a trip to a trade show and some pointers on cigar smoking she received from a few manufacturers. The Schlesingers opened Hudson Valley Cigars in 1996, at which time no cigar bar stood between it and the steak house—not even a building. "In the winter, people would have dinner, run to the cigar store, and Neil and I said, 'Let's marry the two with a cigar bar.'"

The couple decided to build a cigar bar connecting the two landmark buildings. The one that's home to the steak house was built in 1762. It has a huge stone hearth from the original construction with a small opening for baking bread, and exposed beams show the rough marks of an axe or adze, signs of Revolutionary-era construction techniques. The building housing the cigar store was erected in 1862. The Schlesingers had to take care so the construction didn't damage the old buildings. The stone walls of each are visible from inside the cigar bar.

The cigar bar proper is a combination of red meat, booze and cigars: a cigar lover's paradise. There's a large bar, which has removable wooden trays that fit on the rail to make it easier on diners, plus several tables, sofas and chairs and a pair of flat-screen televisions. The place draws quite the crowd, and it has made the shop hard to compete against.

"There were three cigar stores in the area when I started out," says Glynna. She says hers is the only survivor. "On Thursday nights, you can't move in here."

For the American cigar smoker, the cigar-shop lounge appears to be the future of indoor cigar smoking. As work spaces, restaurants, bars and in some extreme cases even city parks, beaches and sidewalks become off-limits to the cigar smoker, the local cigar shop is becoming more and more like the age-old smoking club.

"In the older days, they would have gone to restaurants or bars and had their cigars," says Seferian of Ambassador Fine Cigars. "Now that they can't have that, they're going to come here."

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