Kurt Kendall is one of the rare breed of retailers whose passion and palate led him to build his own cigar brand. The owner of Vintage Cigar Distributors of New England Inc. and Twin Smokes Shop talked with Cigar Insider's Clay Whittaker about bridging the divide between retail and blending, and the revival of the vintage 7-20-4 cigar brand. The interview first appeard in the October 8 issue of Cigar Insider.
Whittaker: So tell me how you got into the cigar business.
Kendall: In the early '90s I was enjoying cigars with my twin brother Kevin. Me living in New Hampshire, him up in Connecticut, we'd get together occasionally and have cigars. He has a restaurant and a gourmet grocery in Essex and he was selling premium cigars out of his store with great success—you know everyone was smoking cigars in the mid-'90s. We were enjoying smoking them, and got the fever, and decided to get together and open up a cigar shop in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. We actually got the ball rolling, we found a place to do it, and we found out a bit later on that somebody had gotten a head start on us by about a month and had a store opening right down the street. We ended up scrapping the project for personal reasons. I came back to New Hampshire and I wanted to do it, so I opened up a store in 1997, and I continued the name and called it Twin Smokes Shop.
Q: What did you do before you got into the cigar business?
A: I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. And since I was probably 14, we worked hard for a living. My first job would have been in tobacco in Windsor, Connecticut. As an adult I started with labor and worked my way up through equipment, big trucks. I started my own business in the mid-'80s, started an excavation company, with backhoes and bulldozers. And that's where I started smoking cigars.
Q: Is it a challenge being a cigarmaker and a shop owner? Do you find juggling the two creates any conflicts?
A: The retail business—I wouldn't be in this if it weren't for that. I've been doing retail for 17 years. I've learned a lot about manufacturers, about vendors, about companies and about cigars. I wanted to take all the positive things I've learned over the years and apply them to my own business. So from the blending of the tobaccos, I realized I wanted something unique that no one else has. I've applied this all to my business. And my goal is building the brand, not just building the company and making money. For the most part, being a retailer has been 100 percent awesome. There are a few other retailers throughout the country that don't want to support another retailer in manufacturing, which I can respect, but that's part of the business.
Q: So when did you begin blending?
A: I think my first trip to Honduras was with Rocky Patel. Seeing the operation and watching the passion all the people had-it was a whole new side of the business. And I liked it. Rocky had a situation where you could blend your own cigar, and had laid out a bunch of tobaccos. I made my own blend. It was horrible. I didn't know anything about what I was doing. But I found it fascinating that you could put different ingredients together, create different blends with different tobaccos. Over the years I'd gone on several other trips as a retailer with other manufacturers and basically did the same thing, blending things together, tasting the differences, and blending your own and sort of finding your own style. That's kind of how I started. I'm not a real blender; I do it with guidance from experts, and I just kind of put my own touch and taste to it, think about what might be good for the market today.
Q: Let's talk about your preference in cigars.
A: I do enjoy narrow ring gauges. I tend to lean toward 46 ring gauge and under, and I like blending around that, and really noticing the difference of flavors because the factory and the people guiding me seem to blend things around 50 and 52 rings, and I kept saying "better make me one with a 46" and would notice the flavor difference.
Q: The signature size for your portfolio is the Dog Walker. Tell me how that name and that size came around.
A: We got started with the company and came up with the blend for what I call the original 7-20-4. And we came out with five sizes, and I wanted to make the sixth size a traditional londres, [5 inches by 40 ring] which I knew 7-20-4 was famous for, from all the years of collecting the antiques and all the memorabilia. So I researched it, realized it was a narrow ring gauge that I liked, and created that blend. My goal was to create a cigar with a closed foot, so when people lit it they would taste the Mata Fina [wrapper]. As I was communicating with the factory, being a guy that doesn't know all the terminology, I was using the wrong term and I ordered a shaggy foot. So when the first cigars came in, I had 7,000 cigars missing 3/4 of an inch of wrapper on the end and it just wasn't a great blend for me. I was frustrated because I wasn't able to communicate that term and I got the wrong thing. So we were smoking them, and I didn't want to release them because it was the opposite effect of what I wanted. So we ended up sending them all back, cutting them all down. Now we have a cigar 3/4 of an inch shorter. I said "now we've got a Dog Walker," which is a term I used during retail when guys would come in during the winter looking for that short 20-minute smoke. It's too cold to smoke a big cigar, so I called them dog walkers.
Q: Let's talk about your Hustler series—I think you may be one of the only companies with a five-size line of barber poles on the market. What brought you to that blend?
A: I wanted something Connecticut. Although I don't smoke a lot of Connecticut, I was looking at the market for this blend. I really enjoy the flavor and aroma of Brazilian tobacco, so I was trying to combine them. We did a Connecticut wrapper, we tried it on a binder, we tried it in the filler. And as we came up with one of the last blends there was a scrap of Connecticut tobacco on the bench. And somebody just kind of put it over the top and used the thin strip over the [Brazilian wrapper]. And the guy that was smoking it said "Wow this is fantastic—it really changed the blend." So he passed it over to me and it was exactly what we were looking for. I wasn't looking for a barber pole. As I've sold cigars over all these years, only a couple major cigar companies ever came out with a stripe. So we took a gamble, and I held my breath and put it out there. Between the cigar and the packaging and the bright blue labels and the picture of the Hustler it seemed to do pretty well. And people sitting next to one would ask: "what's that?" And it just kind of spread and has been doing really well for us.
Q: A lot of the soul behind your company comes from your love for all things vintage.
A: Well the outlet of owning an antiques store and being an antique collector sort of came together. I was collecting everything from Coca-Cola to cigar memorabilia and I had nowhere to hang it. I was hanging it in my stores and then I filled my house with it and then I started learning the history of the 7-20-4 brand, the fact that it was in Manchester five minutes down the road from my house and my store. I was fascinated by the story, and what a gentleman [owner] Audrey Sullivan was when he was alive. He was really well respected. He also claimed to be the largest manufacturer of ten-cent cigars in the world. Between these facts and the memorabilia I was collecting I just wanted to pay homage and bring it back to the market. The same with the Hustler. I've been staring at an old Hustler box on my desk for years. I've got an old "smoke Spider" sign from 1920. I love that old American memorabilia, and I thought there'd be a good place in the market for it.