Cigar Lounges: A Smoker's Last Refuge
Cigar shops are among the few places that a cigar smoker can call home
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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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