Owner, Holt's Cigar Store, Inc., and the Ashton Brand
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Levin: There are a lot of inconsistencies. With a lot of the new brands, I'll smoke a cigar and it'll be good. Other times, I won't like it at all. So, consistency is the biggest problem.
CA: Is it consistency in construction or with young tobacco?
Levin: Both. On the other hand, some of the new brands coming out of Miami are pretty good.
CA: One of the controversies that exists in your business is the love/hate relationship between a retailer and a cataloger. For the retailer who doesn't have a catalog business, it's the enemy. For the retailers that have catalogs, it's a way to enhance your business and give you greater market share and dominance. You have the best of both worlds. Do you think other retailers around the country should be getting into that business, or is it just such a sophisticated activity in terms of manpower, investment, inventory and software that it's hard to justify?
Levin: I think that the mail-order business will expand tremendously in the next few years. We've been successful at it because we've always been cigar specialists and we've always had a large inventory of cigars. That appeals to people. We can offer a tremendous number of different brands, different products, where other people in a lot of small stores can't offer that. It's a question of service. If there is a real strong retailer in a specific city, they'll keep their customers if they give good service. But there is a convenience in picking up a phone and dialing an 800 number and getting what you want and having it the next day.
CA: How many retailers to your knowledge are in the mail-order business?
Levin: I think that there's six or seven pretty strong people in that area.
CA: With new cigar clubs and Internet Web sites opening up all the time, where do you see the market going?
Levin: Cigar clubs are fantastic for the industry. The more places people can smoke cigars in a friendly environment, the more places that promote cigar smoking, the better for everybody. It's a win-win situation for everybody. And the Internet--we are working on our own home pages for Holt's and for Ashton, which should be up in January or February. We should have tremendous potential there.
CA: You also have a smoking lounge, right? How popular is it?
Levin: It's been mobbed ever since we opened the store up. From lunch time on until we close, there are people in there.
CA: When is it busiest? Lunchtime or after work?
Levin: It starts at lunchtime and it goes until around 5:30 or 6 p.m.
CA: What time does your store close?
Levin: We close at 6 p.m. And, Wednesday and Friday nights, we are open until 8 p.m.
CA: Is that because you are downtown and people leave downtown?
Levin: People do leave the downtown. But we like to be open those two nights because there are restaurants on the street where the store is located.
CA: Have you been doing a lot of cigar dinners?
Levin: We've been doing dinners for years. We were one of the first to have big events and dinners.
CA: Are they still popular?
Levin: Yes. As the Holt's cigar company, we do a lot of dinners in the Philadelphia area and in the suburbs. And around the country we do them with Ashton.
CA: Ashton is certainly something that puts you in a special category. It's an established and respected brand. If my memory serves me correctly, it's an old line of pipes. But how did a retailer in Philadelphia originate this brand? Tell us the story.
Levin: The Ashton story. Let's see. I had been a retailer since the early '70s and, in 1980 when we bought Tint's, they were direct importers of Consolidated Cigar products from the Canary Islands. When we bought them, we became the direct importers. Unfortunately, we became the direct importers at exactly the moment when Consolidated moved to the Dominican Republic. There were major problems with the quality of the product. The company was totally unprepared for the move, and ended up sub-jobbing out to all the different factories in the Dominican Republic to make all their products. After that, Consolidated decided they weren't going to distribute their own brand, so they named 15 or so people around the country to do that; we were one of those retailers. So we became an importer/distributor.
CA: For your local market.
Levin: No. For any account we could get in the country. So it was very competitive between the 15 people who were importing Don Diego and Primo del Rey, etc. I finally decided that I didn't want to do it anymore. I was racking up huge bills and trying to get a profit on the slimmest of margins because it had become so competitive with the other distributors.
Levin: Very price-competitive. Everyone had an 800 number. Everyone was trying to get every account they could and it wasn't a good situation for me. So I decided, I know the market, I thought I knew what the consumer wanted. I had been in the business a while. I wanted my own brand. So I stopped being a jobber.
CA: Did you make that decision on your own?
Levin: It was pretty much on my own. My father at that time was out of the business. He was retired. I took the creation of the brand step by step and went very slowly. But because I had Holt's, I didn't have to make a living from Ashton. I knew I was going to come out with my own brand. At the time, I had a relationship with Bill Taylor, who made Ashton pipes. They were becoming successful.
CA: And where were Ashton pipes made?
Levin: In England.
CA: And Bill Taylor was...
Levin: A pipemaker in England.
CA: At this time, you had a pretty sizable retail pipe business, didn't you?
Levin: Yes. I was always a cigar man, but even though I was never that much interested in pipes, the business was okay. A friend of mine was the importer and distributor of Ashton Pipes, and he came to me and asked me to name my brand Ashton. He said that would build brand recognition for the pipe, for the cigar, and they would come out with some other products. He thought that would be the best way to do it. I didn't want to do it. He talked me into it. So we came out with Ashton cigars.