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Smoking on the Strip

Las Vegas's cigar culture is booming, much to the delight of retailers and smokers
Michael Moretti
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006

It's impossible to travel to Las Vegas and not think about premium cigars. The desert boomtown is a cigar mecca and, like playing the tables or dining at a fine restaurant, enjoying a robusto or a Churchill is part and parcel of the Sin City experience.

Cigar retailers, well aware of this cultural undercurrent, are setting up shop in prime venues on and off the Strip and providing comps to casinos. Their shop names are emblazoned on strip-mall marquees and they've become permanent fixtures in the corners of chic restaurants and nightclubs. Business is blazing and the influx of tourist dollars is providing the spark.

"Even if people don't smoke, they have a cigar in Vegas," says Michael Frey of FreyBoy Tobacco. "I knew when I first got into cigars that even if it dies down, the last place it's going to die down is in Las Vegas. If people smoke one cigar a year, it's going to be in Vegas."

Frey's hunch has turned him into a major cigar player on the Strip. And like many things here, it happened fast. A Vegas native, Frey opened his first shop in 1997 at the height of the cigar boom and within a year had opened two more. Ten years later, Frey has seven shops under his belt at prime hotel spots, with designs on several more.

His latest, Casa Fuente, had its grand opening last June. A joint venture between Frey and Robert Levin of Ashton, Casa Fuente is the only shop in the world licensed by the renowned Fuente cigar-making family. Frey bills it as the first "destination" cigar location in Vegas. Located in the Forum Shops of Caesars Palace among high-end boutiques such as Tommy Bahama, Baccarat and Louis Vuitton, Casa Fuente is inspired by the El Floridita in Havana with an astounding cigar selection and a full bar and patio lounge to smoke, drink and people-watch.

Michael Frey, in front of his shop at New York-New York, has seven cigar stores in Vegas and is planning others.
"Las Vegas is unique," says Carlos Fuente Jr., president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia."Where else in the world are you going to get that many people walking by?" Yet, Fuente politely rejected Frey's initial offer to set up shop here. Eventually, though, Fuente accepted, seizing what he felt was a golden opportunity not only for his family but for the entire cigar industry.

"The grand opening was one of the happiest moments of my life. All the people I cared about were there, and I did not realize until then the magnitude of the store," he says. "This store should help every retailer across the United States because it creates excitement and promotes cigars."

To say that Casa Fuente's selection of cigars is creating excitement is an understatement. All of the Fuente labels are in very good supply, including Fuente Fuente OpusX and Arturo Fuente Don Carlos, plus cigars made by Tabacalera A. Fuente, like the Diamond Crown Maximus and Ashton VSG. The Fuente family also rolls an exclusive brand for the shop called Casa Fuente, which is kept behind gates in the walk-in humidor. Other prized and rare Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, such as the Forbidden X and the Rising Sun, are available in limited quantities. Once they've chosen a cigar, customers light up at cushioned stools at the bar or sit on the front patio overlooking the mall and enjoy a French-pressed Illy coffee or a Montecristo Rum mojito with their smokes.

Opening a shop like this anywhere else might seem like a risky gamble, but given the cigar climate in Las Vegas it's a safe bet. "People come to Vegas with a carefree attitude. [They are] more willing to indulge in vices such as drinking and gambling, and smoking fits right in with that," says Matt Arcella, owner of five Davidoff outlets on the Strip: one in the MGM Grand and two in both The Venetian and Mandalay Bay. "Almost every restaurant has a humidor and almost every [restaurant] you can smoke in. You light a cigar in our store, walk through the mall and the casino and into a restaurant, and never have it be inappropriate."

Like Frey, Arcella also benefited from the cigar boom and Vegas's reinvention. "Las Vegas went through a transitional period in the late 1990s, shifting from family-themed properties to high-end luxury properties...The Venetian, Bellagio, the Mansion [at the MGM Grand] and Mandalay Bay. On a micro scale, there was a need for the retail outlets within these new luxury properties to evolve as well."

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