“We never closed,” said Kevin Paige, owner of Butthead’s Tobacco Emporium, a cigar shop and lounge in Danbury, Connecticut. As he took intermittent puffs from his cigar, Paige stood in his shop amid the worst pandemic in modern history, explaining how he was forced to substantially modify how his store operates in order to cope with Covid-19. Unlike many other cigar shops and small businesses in Connecticut, Butthead’s remained open from the onset of the pandemic.
The transition from the modern cigar shop where customers buy and linger to “grab-and-go,” where shoppers leave right after buying, has not been without challenges. Paige had to adopt significant measures to protect the health of his customers and enable them to continue to visit his store, just like many other shops in the state, one of the harder hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, with more than 4,440 deaths attributed to the virus.
As Paige explained, “With the volume that I do, you can’t just turn this thing off and go away for two weeks. The bills are still coming in.”
Butthead’s has more than 4,000 square feet of retail space, which requires rent, so closing the doors to customers indefinitely simply was not an option.
The measures Paige took to maintain his business during the pandemic were a combination of the minimal and consequential. Butthead’s implemented hourly handwashing for employees and installed hand-sanitizing stations throughout the store. And to comply with Connecticut law, all customers have been required to wear masks at all times while in the store.
The biggest change illustrated the serious toll that the pandemic has taken on the cigar smoking industry: the closing of Butthead’s popular smoking lounge. The lounge in the Danbury store (Butthead’s has a second location in Gaylordsville, Connecticut) can seat 12 people when open. Small groups of friends, usually between six and eight people, come to the store to enjoy a few cigars in each other’s company. Butthead’s does not charge a membership fee for its lounge.
But the lounge remains closed. “We don’t allow congregating inside and the lounge area is still off limits,” said Paige. “Our shop is still grab-and-go. The average customer visit is less than five minutes, and that keeps our exposure to a minimum.” Paige also said about the lounge, “It wasn’t a revenue stream for me. It was an amenity that, if nobody else can do it, then I don’t really care if I have it.”
Sales for Butthead’s in 2020 have been similar to 2019. “Sales are larger as people consolidate trips to make fewer visits. We have been aggressive on promotion and that has helped us keep sales on par,” said Paige. He also added that on days when the weather is nice, customers linger and smoke outside, so long as they adhere to social distancing.
When asked if he thought the pandemic would permanently impact the public’s willingness to gather in groups and smoke together in the future, Paige responded confidently, “We’re humans. We’re still going to gather. It’s just how that gathering is going to happen.”
A customer in the store who was buying cigars joined the conversation. “Even if there isn’t a vaccine, I think to a large degree we’re gonna get things back to normal, and we’re gonna accept a certain level of infection and mortality,” the customer said. “We just can’t stay isolated forever. Maybe we’ll wear face masks, but other than minimal changes like masks, I think for the most part things are gonna get back to normal.”