Wednesday, December 26, 2007

5 Keys To Retail Tobacconist Success

by: Jose Blanco, Marketing Director, La Aurora Cigars

1. Customer Service
2. Product Availability
3. Store Image
4. Pricing
5. Product Knowledge

*Supplemental Contribution by Jorge Luis Armenteros, CMT: Blanco's 5 keys are short and to the point. We will see if he ever wants to elaborate on these... I have audio tape of him talking about them as he drove me through the streets of Santiago, but the car horns and cursing obfuscate the academic lesson. It really is that simple: Focus on Service, Products, Image, Pricing, and Product Knowledge!!!! That is all it takes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Emotional Taste Perception: content preview

Our tastes (preferences) and sensory perceptions are dramatically effected by our mental and emotional state. And the opposite is also true; our mental and emotional state can be effected by stimulating our senses. As we learned in Taste College, our sense of smell is most closely linked to memory and emotion. But it doesn't end there...

Tobacconist Anecdotes:
1. A customer comes back from an event and tells his Tobacconist about 'best cigar in the world' he/she smoked right off a cigar roller's bench. - The facts tell us this cigar was too humid to smoke and had not gone through the proper "marrying" period.
2. A customer comes back from a vacation in the Caribbean and tells his Tobacconist about the 'best cigar in the world' or 'Cohiba' (in cellophane and plastic box of 15) he/she smoked... - The facts tell us this was a horrible fake.

People on vacation or experiencing extraordinarily fun events while they smoke a cigar will often enjoy the cigar exponentially more than they would have under 'normal' circumstances. Good Times make cigars better! And that is a fact. But the bias that our emotions put on our sensory perceptions must be acknowledged and compensated for.

Many Tobacconists can tell you how great a cigar tasted when the cigar maker gave it to them and they smoked one together... and then 'magically' it just wasn't the same when it arrived in their humidor. Well, the fact is that we are all human and can be biased, if only momentarily.

The Blind Taste Test Experiment: December 18, 2007
Today I sat two accomplished and extraordinary CRT down and blindfolded them (it was a sight to see-see surveillance picture). I took two cigars from the walk-in and cut the first inch off (to confuse the starting flavor). I then lit the cigars in the Tobacconists mouths and let them smoke for approximately 20 minutes. I verbally hinted to them that they could be any of 3 premium Connecticut Wrapped Dominican brands (which they knew we had in the humidor). After 15 minutes one was sure it was a PG Corona and another said it must be made by H. Kelner (maker of P.G., Avo, and Davidoff). The reality is that it was a short filler, flavorless cigar which shall go nameless.

The point is that people can be influenced. Our senses will manipulate information and stimulus until they generate a biased result. I promise you these are two passionate and experienced individuals who have served thousands of customers well; but we are only human. Occasionally our senses will lie to us and a Good Tobacconist must know their limits.

The Food Color, Wine & Yogurt Test
This year I read about two separate experiments where white wines and strawberry yogurts were tasted by professional and/or experienced testers. In both tests, one of the wines and yogurts had food coloring added to change the color to red (wine) and brown (chocolate-yogurt). In both cases, with overwhelming consistency, tasters waxed on poetically about how deep and rich the "red" wine and "chocolate" yogurts were; yet they were actually white wines and strawberry yogurt. In two separate experiments, tasters perceptions were influenced by expectations!!! Simple food coloring made strawberry yogurt taste like deep dark chocolate? Yes. Because the mind is far more malleable than we would like to think.

So, what is the point? Well, it is easy to think we know it all, but that is rarely the case.
1. Try to factor out emotional bias when evaluating Taste-oriented products.
2. Be patient with ourselves, customers, and Tobacconists; we are all fallible.
3. And remember, Taste is Subjective.... that is its nature.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cigar Foreplay

Well, I know it sounds odd, but this is something I have been working on with my fellow CRTs. Most days we are so excited or anxious to smoke the cigar we are looking forward to and we don't take the time to enjoy the Pre-light nuances and characteristics. Even Tobacconists get caught up in the quick pace of life and forget to slow down and savor our time. So we must endeavor to bring more Cigar Foreplay back into our daily lives. In addition to the tactile pleasures of handling a cigar, the subtle aromas and taste of an unlit cigar should be enjoyed by all.

Pre-Light Evaluation + Cigar Foreplay:
- Construction: Inspect the Head & Body
- Sight: admire the extraordinary aesthetic qualities of that "bunch of leaves".
- Touch: general hand-feel; firmness & consistency, weight, balance, texture, etc... Get used to having the cigar in your hand before you light it.
- Smell: The bouquet; both the Foot and the Wrapper .
- Taste: Put the cigar in your mouth and enjoy the nuances of the Wrapper leaf. Take notice of the finish on your palate.

As every cigar and pipe lover knows, appreciation begins long before combustion. And Cigar Foreplay is just another part of the process of enjoyment..... why not spend some time with your next cigar long before you light it?

Sunday, December 9, 2007


The effect of smells/olfaction on the human experience is profound and often very difficult or impossible to measure. As we learned in Taste College - The Human Senses, our sense of smell is more closely linked to Memory & Emotion than any other human sense. Therefore, pleasant smells can have extremely positive and beneficial effects on us. (Thousands of MRI and CAT Scan facilities around the world use Vanilla scent to calm patients.) Pleasant odors can relax and transform our experiences and immediately enhance the quality of our lives. This is the fundamental thesis behind TobaccAromatherapy: lovers of luxury tobacco know that their time and lives are enhanced through the enjoyment great cigars and pipes.

Ironically, those who do not like the aroma of tobacco seem incapable of understanding our reality. Fortunately for us, we are (theoretically) endowed with an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness; so we can continue to seek pleasure and enlightenment with our precious therapeutic pastime. Of course, Taste is subjective and lovers of the leaf are among the minority in today's world so we are often persecuted for our passions. But the fact remains that we have every right to enjoy and enhance our lives through scientifically and historically proven methods.

Keep Smokin', Stay Relaxed (stress kills), and Savor Your Time.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


"Trust is the cornerstone of Tobacconist credibility. Trust is earned through honest and diligent efforts, not once, but consistently, over long periods of time. In general, consumers are wary of advice, opinions, and salespeople. Tobacconists earn the Trust of consumers one cigar or pipe recommendation at a time. Eventually, Trust will emerge and be the irrevocable glue that bonds a customer to their Tobacconist." - TU Code of Ethics & Standards

Trust is the foundation of every relationship....

If you take the bands off of the cigars in your humidor, or the labels off of your pipe tobaccos, pretty much everything looks like generic or commodity products. In fact, without smoking the products, our senses tell us relatively little about the true qualities of luxury tobacco. Consumers are influenced by aesthetics (cigar band & box attractiveness), their peers, and most surprisingly, consumers often believe advertising and internet copy. But the best advice in a retail humidor comes from a retail Tobacconist.

Retail Tobacconists are the only members of our industry who must be accountable to our customers in a face-to-face environment. In fact, retail Tobacconist survival depends on building and maintaining Trust. Just like you trust your attorney and accountant when they give you advice, your butcher to not sell you rotten meat, you Trust your Tobacconist to understand your needs and respect your time and money.

Building Trust takes time, commitment, and consistency. This is not a fly by night, get rich quick business. It takes many years to become a good Tobacconist, and decades to become the best. In that journey a retail Tobacconist cannot be afraid to say "I don't know" or sell a less expensive product when it suits their customers' needs. Retail Tobacconists must do the right thing every time to keep our customers coming back.

Build Trust, and everything else will follow.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Email & Electronic Marketing: content preview

I stopped advertising for my retail stores in 2001 and re-directed that money into products, customer service, and Email & Electronic Marketing; business has never been better. Email has the advantages of being:

-Effective & Measurable
-and did I mention FREEEEEE

I must admit that up until a few years ago I was scared of the whole concept, even though I used email in my professional and personal life. What in the world was I scared of? Cost? Time? Trouble? Yes, Yes, Yes. But, as with most fear issues, I was wrong.

I was afraid that outside email service vendors (those companies that the IPCPR and vendors use to send interactive and multi-media emails) would be too expensive. But, in fact they are CHEAP!!! (Sign up for the TU newsletter on our site and you will see how great our next Holiday newsletter is.) I was afraid of using Microsoft Outlook for other inexplicable emotional reasons, but that turned out to be easy as well.

Fortunately for retail Tobacconists, the IPCPR is working diligently to promote email usage, both for store marketing and political activism. This can be a significant challenge to an old-world, old-fashioned industry, but our future will depend on it.

Tobacconist University is developing rich content to educate Tobacconists on Email and Electronic Marketing. If you have any questions or need any help, feel free to contact us.

EMAIL Marketing Tips:

-Spellcheck, Spellcheck, Spellcheck

-Be Consistent, not Persistent

-Hide (Blind Carbon Copy: BCC) all email addresses to honor privacy

-KISS: Keep It Short & Sweet

-Always have a catchy and succinct Subject Line: do not use all Capital letters

-Use professional language

-Gather Email addresses by raffling off a Humidor or box of cigars

-Have customer bring printed email into store to redeem Special Offers

-Use small and virus-free images: shrink your logos

-Setup a complete 'Signature' at the bottom of the email

-Setup a return email through your website: i.e.

-NO SPAM: The CAN SPAM Act of 2003 requires business to provide a return email address or another Internet-based response mechanism that allows a recipient to ask you not to send future email messages to that email address, and you must honor the requests.

PS: Since we started using Emails to announce special events in my retail stores, we have had record attendance! And customers thank us for it! And it is FREE.

*Contributors to this Article: Jim Luftman, Blue Havana II Cigars & Gifts, Chris McCalla, IPCPR

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Cigarette Additives

The following is a list of 599 additives found in commercial cigarette tobaccos. Luxury and premium tobaccos, whether cigarette, cigar, or pipe, should not contain any chemicals or unnatural flavorings.

Acetic Acid,
2-Acetyl-3- Ethylpyrazine,
Aconitic Acid,
Alfalfa Extract,
Allspice Extract,
And Oil,
Allyl Hexanoate,
Allyl Ionone,
Almond Bitter Oil,
Ambergris Tincture,
Ammonium Bicarbonate,
Ammonium Hydroxide,
Ammonium Phosphate Dibasic,
Ammonium Sulfide,
Amyl Alcohol,
Amyl Butyrate,
Amyl Formate,
Amyl Octanoate,
Amyris Oil,
Angelica Root Extract, Oil and Seed Oil,
Anise Star, Extract and Oils,
Anisyl Acetate,
Anisyl Alcohol,
Anisyl Formate,
Anisyl Phenylacetate,
Apple Juice Concentrate, Extract, and Skins,
Apricot Extract and Juice Concentrate,
Asafetida Fluid Extract And Oil,
Ascorbic Acid,
1-Asparagine Monohydrate,
1-Aspartic Acid,
Balsam Peru and Oil,
Basil Oil,
Bay Leaf, Oil and Sweet Oil,
Beeswax White,
Beet Juice Concentrate,
Benzaldehyde Glyceryl Acetal,
Benzoic Acid, Benzoin,
Benzoin Resin,
Benzyl Alcohol,
Benzyl Benzoate,
Benzyl Butyrate,
Benzyl Cinnamate,
Benzyl Propionate,
Benzyl Salicylate,
Bergamot Oil,
Black Currant Buds Absolute,
Bornyl Acetate,
Buchu Leaf Oil,
Butter, Butter Esters, and Butter Oil,
Butyl Acetate,
Butyl Butyrate,
Butyl Butyryl Lactate,
Butyl Isovalerate,
Butyl Phenylacetate,
Butyl Undecylenate,
Butyric Acid,
Calcium Carbonate,
Cananga Oil,
Capsicum Oleoresin,
Caramel Color,
Caraway Oil,
Carbon Dioxide,
Cardamom Oleoresin, Extract, Seed Oil, and Powder,
Carob Bean and Extract,
Carrot Oil,
beta-Caryophyllene Oxide,
Cascarilla Oil and Bark Extract,
Cassia Bark Oil,
Cassie Absolute and Oil,
Castoreum Extract, Tincture and Absolute,
Cedar Leaf Oil,
Cedarwood Oil Terpenes and Virginiana,
Celery Seed Extract, Solid, Oil, And Oleoresin,
Cellulose Fiber,
Chamomile Flower Oil And Extract,
Chicory Extract,
Cinnamic Acid,
Cinnamon Leaf Oil, Bark Oil, and Extract,
Cinnamyl Acetate,
Cinnamyl Alcohol,
Cinnamyl Cinnamate,
Cinnamyl Isovalerate,
Cinnamyl Propionate,
Citric Acid,
Citronella Oil,
Citronellyl Butyrate,
Citronellyl Isobutyrate,
Civet Absolute,
Clary Oil,
Clover Tops, Red Solid Extract,
Cocoa Shells, Extract, Distillate And Powder,
Coconut Oil,
Cognac White and Green Oil,
Copaiba Oil,
Coriander Extract and Oil,
Corn Oil,
Corn Silk,
Costus Root Oil,
Cubeb Oil,
Dandelion Root Solid Extract,
Davana Oil,
2-trans, 4-trans-Decadienal,
Decanoic Acid,
Diethyl Malonate,
Diethyl Sebacate,
Dihydro Anethole,
5,7-Dihydro-2-Methylthieno(3,4-D) Pyrimidine,
Dill Seed Oil and Extract,
Dimethyl Succinate,
3,5- Dimethyl-1,2-Cyclopentanedione,
3,7-Dimethyl-6-Octenoic Acid,
alpha,para-Dimethylbenzyl Alcohol,
alpha,alpha-Dimethylphenethyl Acetate,
alpha,alpha Dimethylphenethyl Butyrate,
Ethyl 10-Undecenoate,
Ethyl 2-Methylbutyrate,
Ethyl Acetate,
Ethyl Acetoacetate,
Ethyl Alcohol,
Ethyl Benzoate,
Ethyl Butyrate,
Ethyl Cinnamate,
Ethyl Decanoate,
Ethyl Fenchol,
Ethyl Furoate,
Ethyl Heptanoate,
Ethyl Hexanoate,
Ethyl Isovalerate,
Ethyl Lactate,
Ethyl Laurate,
Ethyl Levulinate,
Ethyl Maltol,
Ethyl Methyl Phenylglycidate,
Ethyl Myristate,
Ethyl Nonanoate,
Ethyl Octadecanoate,
Ethyl Octanoate,
Ethyl Oleate,
Ethyl Palmitate,
Ethyl Phenylacetate,
Ethyl Propionate,
Ethyl Salicylate,
Ethyl trans-2-Butenoate,
Ethyl Valerate,
Ethyl Vanillin,
2-Ethyl (or Methyl)-(3,5 and 6)-Methoxypyrazine,
2-Ethyl-1-Hexanol, 3-Ethyl -2 -Hydroxy-2-Cyclopenten-1-One,
2-Ethyl-3, (5 or 6)-Dimethylpyrazine,
Fennel Sweet Oil,
Fenugreek, Extract, Resin, and Absolute,
Fig Juice Concentrate,
Food Starch Modified,
Furfuryl Mercaptan,
Galbanum Oil,
Genet Absolute,
Gentian Root Extract,
Geranium Rose Oil,
Geranyl Acetate,
Geranyl Butyrate,
Geranyl Formate,
Geranyl Isovalerate,
Geranyl Phenylacetate,
Ginger Oil and Oleoresin,
1-Glutamic Acid,
Glycyrrhizin Ammoniated,
Grape Juice Concentrate,
Guaiac Wood Oil,
Guar Gum,
Heptanoic Acid,
trans -2-Heptenal,
Heptyl Acetate,
Hexanoic Acid,
cis-3-Hexen-1-Yl Acetate,
3-Hexenoic Acid,
trans-2-Hexenoic Acid,
cis-3-Hexenyl Formate,
Hexyl 2-Methylbutyrate,
Hexyl Acetate,
Hexyl Alcohol,
Hexyl Phenylacetate,
Hops Oil,
Hydrolyzed Milk Solids,
Hydrolyzed Plant Proteins,
5-Hydroxy-2,4-Decadienoic Acid delta- Lactone,
4-Hydroxy -3-Pentenoic Acid Lactone,
4-Hydroxybutanoic Acid Lactone,
Hyssop Oil,
Immortelle Absolute and Extract,
Isoamyl Acetate,
Isoamyl Benzoate,
Isoamyl Butyrate,
Isoamyl Cinnamate,
Isoamyl Formate, Isoamyl Hexanoate,
Isoamyl Isovalerate,
Isoamyl Octanoate,
Isoamyl Phenylacetate,
Isobornyl Acetate,
Isobutyl Acetate,
Isobutyl Alcohol,
Isobutyl Cinnamate,
Isobutyl Phenylacetate,
Isobutyl Salicylate,
alpha-Isobutylphenethyl Alcohol,
Isobutyric Acid,
Isovaleric Acid,
Jasmine Absolute, Concrete and Oil,
Kola Nut Extract,
Labdanum Absolute and Oleoresin,
Lactic Acid,
Lauric Acid,
Lauric Aldehyde,
Lavandin Oil,
Lavender Oil,
Lemon Oil and Extract,
Lemongrass Oil,
Levulinic Acid,
Licorice Root, Fluid, Extract and Powder,
Lime Oil ,
Linalool Oxide,
Linalyl Acetate,
Linden Flowers,
Lovage Oil And Extract,
Mace Powder, Extract and Oil ,
Magnesium Carbonate,
Malic Acid,
Malt and Malt Extract,
Maltyl Isobutyrate,
Mandarin Oil,
Maple Syrup and Concentrate,
Mate Leaf, Absolute and Oil,
Menthyl Acetate,
Methyl 2-Furoate,
Methyl 2-Octynoate,
Methyl 2-Pyrrolyl Ketone,
Methyl Anisate,
Methyl Anthranilate,
Methyl Benzoate,
Methyl Cinnamate,
Methyl Dihydrojasmonate,
Methyl Ester of Rosin, Partially Hydrogenated,
Methyl Isovalerate,
Methyl Linoleate (48%),
Methyl Linolenate (52%) Mixture,
Methyl Naphthyl Ketone,
Methyl Nicotinate,
Methyl Phenylacetate,
Methyl Salicylate,
Methyl Sulfide,
2-Methyl-3-(para-Isopropylphenyl) Propionaldehyde,
Methyl-trans-2-Butenoic Acid,
alpha-Methylbenzyl Acetate,
alpha-Methylbenzyl Alcohol,
2-Methylbutyric Acid,
2-Methylheptanoic Acid,
2-Methylhexanoic Acid,
3-Methylpentanoic Acid,
4-Methylpentanoic Acid,
(Methylthio)Methylpyrazine (Mixture Of Isomers),
Methyl 3-Methylthiopropionate,
2-Methylvaleric Acid,
Mimosa Absolute and Extract,
Molasses Extract and Tincture,
Mountain Maple Solid Extract,
Mullein Flowers,
Myristic Acid,
Myrrh Oil,
beta-Napthyl Ethyl Ether,
Neroli Bigarde Oil,
Nonanoic Acid,
Nonyl Acetate,
Nutmeg Powder and Oil,
Oak Chips Extract and Oil,
Oak Moss Absolute,
9,12-Octadecadienoic Acid (48%) And 9,12,15-Octadecatrienoic Acid (52%),
Octanoic Acid,
1-Octen-3-Yl Acetate,
Octyl Isobutyrate,
Oleic Acid ,
Olibanum Oil,
Opoponax Oil And Gum,
Orange Blossoms Water, Absolute, and Leaf Absolute,
Orange Oil and Extract,
Origanum Oil,
Orris Concrete Oil and Root Extract,
Palmarosa Oil,
Palmitic Acid,
Parsley Seed Oil,
Patchouli Oil,
4-Pentenoic Acid,
Pepper Oil, Black And White,
Peppermint Oil,
Peruvian (Bois De Rose) Oil,
Petitgrain Absolute, Mandarin Oil and Terpeneless Oil,
2-Phenenthyl Acetate,
Phenenthyl Alcohol,
Phenethyl Butyrate,
Phenethyl Cinnamate,
Phenethyl Isobutyrate,
Phenethyl Isovalerate,
Phenethyl Phenylacetate,
Phenethyl Salicylate,
Phenylacetic Acid,
3-Phenylpropionic Acid,
3-Phenylpropyl Acetate,
3-Phenylpropyl Cinnamate,
Phosphoric Acid,
Pimenta Leaf Oil,
Pine Needle Oil, Pine Oil, Scotch,
Pineapple Juice Concentrate,
alpha-Pinene, beta-Pinene,
Pipsissewa Leaf Extract,
Plum Juice,
Potassium Sorbate,
Propionic Acid,
Propyl Acetate,
Propyl para-Hydroxybenzoate,
Propylene Glycol,
Prune Juice and Concentrate,
Pyroligneous Acid And Extract,

Pyruvic Acid,
Raisin Juice Concentrate,
Rose Absolute and Oil,
Rosemary Oil,
Rum Ether,
Rye Extract,
Sage, Sage Oil, and Sage Oleoresin,
Sandalwood Oil, Yellow,
Smoke Flavor,
Snakeroot Oil,
Sodium Acetate,
Sodium Benzoate,
Sodium Bicarbonate,
Sodium Carbonate,
Sodium Chloride,
Sodium Citrate,
Sodium Hydroxide,
Spearmint Oil,
Styrax Extract, Gum and Oil,
Sucrose Octaacetate,
Sugar Alcohols,
Tagetes Oil,
Tannic Acid,
Tartaric Acid,
Tea Leaf and Absolute,
Terpinyl Acetate,
2,3,4,5, and 3,4,5,6-Tetramethylethyl-Cyclohexanone,
Thiamine Hydrochloride,
Thyme Oil, White and Red,
Tobacco Extracts,
Tochopherols (mixed),
Tolu Balsam Gum and Extract,
para-Tolyl 3-Methylbutyrate,
para-Tolyl Acetaldehyde,
para-Tolyl Acetate,
para-Tolyl Isobutyrate,
para-Tolyl Phenylacetate,
Triethyl Citrate,
3,5,5-Trimethyl -1-Hexanol,
para,alpha,alpha-Trimethylbenzyl Alcohol,
2,6,6-Trimethylcyclohexa-1,3-Dienyl Methan,
2-Undecanone, 1
Valerian Root Extract, Oil and Powder,
Valeric Acid,
Vanilla Extract And Oleoresin,
Vetiver Oil,
Violet Leaf Absolute,
Walnut Hull Extract,
Wheat Extract And Flour,
Wild Cherry Bark Extract,
Wine and Wine Sherry,
Xanthan Gum,


Content Previews

On this blog you will find content previews which will eventually be refined into multi media academic curriculum for Tobacconist University.

This is content which is in development and is being thoroughly researched. It contains enough substance to be published now, but we are continuing to add to it before it is fully integrated into the curriculum.

I hope you find the information useful and informative, and enjoy reading it.

If there is any topic you would like to see covered in the future, please let us know. Your questions, comments, and contributions are valuable and always welcome.

10.13.2008 - Cutter Etiquette
10.10.2008 - Humidor Etiquette
10.5.2008 - Gift Packaging
9.23.2008 - Cigar Rolling Table
9.9.2008 - Figurado Geometry
8.29.2008 - Wrapper School: Cigar Geometry
7.22.2008 - Price Everything
7.7.2008 - Exact Change - Register Procedures
6.18.2008 - Cigar Mold
5.2.2008 - Default Positions
4.20.2008 - Tobacconists: Human Assets
4.09.2008 - Receiving Inventory
4.06.2008 - Cigar Myths
3.30.2008 - pH Balance & You
3.1.2008 - Stockholm Cigar Syndrome
2.29.2008 - Cigar, Cigarette, Tobacco Taxes/Age
2.27.2008 - The New Customer
1.26.2008 - Leverage
12.26.2007 - 5 Keys to Retail Tobacconist Success
12.19.2007 - Emotional Taste Perception
12.15.2007 - Cigar Foreplay
12.09.2007 - TobaccAromatherapy
12.08.2007 - Trust, Trust, Trust
12.02.2007 - Email & Electronic Marketing
11.20.2007 - The Cuban Conundrums
11.17.2007 - Tobacconist Whisperer
11.07.2007 - Building A Walk In Humidor
10.27.2007 - Keystone Is Keystone
10.20.2007 - The Butcher, S-CHIP, & Our Future
10.16.2007 - Planning A Future (part 1)
10.16.2007 - Planning A Future (part 2)
10.14.2007 - The Outlaw Tobacconist Genius
10.08.2007 - Education vs. Information
09.30.2007 - Make Up Girl vs. Certified Tobacconist
09.20.2007 - Retail Shoplifters
09.15.2007 - Carry an Unlit Cigar
07.04.2007 - Benjamin Franklin's 13 Virtues

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Cuban Conundrums

As consumers and Tobacconists we are all familiar with the history of cigars as they relate to Cuba. In fact, Tobacconist University started as Cuban Cigar University after many fact-finding and educational trips to Cuba in the 1990s. The history and traditions of cigar making are undeniably rooted in Cuba. Yet, the most exciting developments and products in the cigar industry today are occurring in Central America, Africa, and the Dominican Republic. Our current and unprecedented Cigar Renaissance is occurring outside of Cuba yet it stands on the shoulders of hundreds of years of Cuban traditions and innovations.

With that said, learned aficionados understand the differences between quality and mythology. And with regard to Cuban cigars, there is a world of difference between perception and reality. Some say they can be the best and worst cigars in the world... But we can definitely state that the qualities of the soil and climate can produce extraordinary and distinctive flavors.

As retail Tobacconists we see first-hand the amazing level of Romanticism in our consumers hearts and minds. People ask us every day, "Do you have Cubans?", "Do you have Cohiba?" and when you ask them what their favorite cigar is, they often tell you it is a Cuban. Often, mentioning a Cuban as your favorite cigar can be a psychological/egotistical badge of honor. Yet retail Tobacconists know that the quality and diversity of product from outside of Cuba is outstanding and today's connoisseur does not need to smoke anything Cuban to be satisfied.

So what should retail Tobacconists do when customers bring in Cuban cigars to smoke in their shops? After all, you wouldn't drive through Wendy's and take it into a McDonald's to eat. In my opinion, all cigar lovers are part of a brotherhood of sorts, so in my retail shops we allow you to bring in whatever you want and smoke it. There are so few places left to smoke that it would seem heartless to kick a cigar smoker to the curb. And we must hope that these customers will value our service and give back in some other way.... in theory at least. But I fully understand why many retailers will not allow you to bring in outside product to smoke. That is their decision and as long as they pay the rent, it is their prerogative to make it.

Another unique feature of the Cuban Conundrum is that many American consumer and trade magazines allow Cuban cigar internet and mail-order companies to advertise on their pages and websites. I suppose a consumer magazine can justify that by saying they are catering to their readers' interests, but I can't imagine any justification for our trade magazines to allow this kind of advertising when it takes business away from American Tobacconists: this undermines the very clientele which they claim to serve.

These issues are convoluted by the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and the unparallelled brand equity of "Cuban" cigars: there is no other luxury product in the world whose terroir is so revered, not even Bordeaux wines. But that is no excuse for companies who claim to serve Tobacconists to then undermine our businesses (i.e. see Keystone is Keystone). Sadly, retail Tobacconists sometimes seem like the under valued, under appreciated 'red-headed step children' of the luxury tobacco industry. And this is done by our vendors.... not to mention how society views us.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


I like to think of Tobacconist Whisperer as my own little management theory, but in reality it has been borrowed from the original Horse Whisperer(s) and Dog Whisperer (Cesar Milan). It has taken me almost fifteen years to get to the point where I can use the Tobacconist Whisperer techniques and I am finding them just as valuable as anything I have ever learned from Peter Drucker, Ken Blanchard, Tom Peters, or any other management guru.

Tobacconist Whispering is the art and science of understanding natural human behaviors, instincts, and reactions; then using that knowledge to illicit desired actions from Tobacconists and Customers. Tobacconist Whispering is employed through Calm & Assertive behavior.

It is easy enough to understand that stress and angst lead to more stress and angst. A stressed manager will stress their Tobacconist who will in turn stress the customer. No matter how hard we try, our own dispositions and body language will affect and effect those around us.

For example, recently I walked into my Princeton store to find a Tobacconist on the floor trying to fix the fax machine while another was fussing with the credit card machine. The machinery had gone haywire and there were customers coming in and out of the store. Both of my Tobacconists had flustered and frustrated demeanors. One had their brow sweating and the other looked ready to strangle a chicken. I'm sure a decade ago this would have led me to get angry and frustrated as well. But I now know that all of these problems can and will be fixed; they are just machines after all. The only variable worth focusing on in this mini-catastrophe was the CUSTOMER. Our job is always to focus on the customer and not let anything get in the way of that. If you focus on the customer then you realize that nothing else matters. We must encourage that customer to come back through our good service and having two hysterical or frustrated Tobacconists does not help. So I walked into the shop and focused on being more CALM than ever, telling employees to RELAX and FOCUS ON THE CUSTOMER. I used my body language, tonal inflection, and words to CALM the situation and get everyone re-focused. If I had come in cursing, barking, or overly assertive it would have compounded the already downwardly spiraling situation.

The Tobacconist Whisperer techniques are about letting your mood and emotions set the tone for what you want out of people, and lead by example. Consider your employees (and customers) like your loved-ones and ask yourself: How do I want my loved-ones to be treated? What do I want my loved-ones exposed to? Treat them with calmness, respect, and fairness. You are in a position to create a perfect world for yourself and it starts by LEADING BY EXAMPLE.

Every retail Tobacconist knows that when it rains it pours. Often we are dealing with broken humidifiers, machinery problems, schedule changes, POS issues, and much more. All the while, we must provide a comfortable and hospitable environment for our customers: that burden/responsibility/honor rests on our shoulders, so we must lead by example.

And the Tobacconist Whisperer techniques work equally well on customers. Through our body language, tone, and words we can manage our customers as well. One of the first things I tell our Tobacconist Apprentices is that "You never know what a customer has been through on a particular day". If someone comes in and is nasty or angry, that is OK. Perhaps they received terrible news that day or lost a loved one: these things happen every day. It is not our job to judge them, but rather to do our best to bring something pleasant and positive to their day. As humans, retailers, and Tobacconists we must be willing to accept and forgive in order to move forward. Conversely, if a customer is ever belligerent or too nasty, every one of my Tobacconists is authorized to throw them out forever; because no one deserves to be treated with disrespect. There is a lot of grey area here, but if you train and educate with the right values your Tobacconists should be able to make the right decision without letting their egos or emotions get in the way.

Ultimately, Tobacconist Whisperer is about being cool and collected under pressure; body language counts! With December and the holidays around the corner, these are excellent values to be reminded of. The ten days before Christmas are extraordinarily challenging for good retail Tobacconists: we handle ten times our usual traffic and try to maintain our own high standards, since we want those customers to come back during the year. Ironically, the majority of our holiday customers are the most challenging, question and doubt-filled customers: they are called SPOUSES. So my advice to myself and every other Tobacconist this year is buckle down, be cool, and focus on the customer. Everything else should take care of itself...

POSTSCRIPT: The Tobacconist Whisperer content will be available through Service College. In the tradition of our open-source Academic Curriculum, TU encourages all credible and Certified Tobacconists to contribute their knowledge, thoughts, and opinions to help their fellow Tobacconists excel. Please let us know if there is anything you would like to contribute to Service College.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Building a Walk-In Humidor: part I

Building a Walk-In Humidor is the kind of project that seems a lot easier to do than it really is. A Walk-In Humidor must be able to maintain precise Temperature and Humidity regardless of the outdoor climate: it is like creating a self-contained ecosystem in your home or work.

While craftsmanship and aesthetics will vary, there are a few important issues to keep in mind.

· Locate the Walk-In on the interior of the house/building to avoid temperature variations created by the sun and season.
· Always acclimate the wood for a minimum of 72 hours to 70% RH. All wood will expand in high humidity.
· If you are staining and sealing any of the wood, do it outside of the Humidor so the Spanish Cedar will not absorb the chemical aromas.
· Use all-weather nails and screws that will not rust or bleed onto the wood.
· Make sure all electrical outlets and machines are grounded and use surge protectors.
· Use a plastic vapor barrier between your interior walls and the humidor lining material (Spanish Cedar).
· Insulate the Humidor as much as possible to preserve your temperature and humidity.
· If you are using drywall as a substrate, use the mold resistant variety.
· Always wear safety goggles and a mask when cutting or sanding wood!

Any discussion of Humidors would not be complete without mentioning and understanding Spanish Cedar. Spanish Cedar is a hard wood that easily absorbs humidity and releases a mild, spicy aroma for many years. When used in a humidor it should not be finished with lacquer or urethane; the wood should be exposed so it can breathe and release its fragrance, as well as absorb moisture.

Unfortunately, Spanish Cedar is also very expensive so it may not be a prudent expense. Fortunately, it is not necessary to use when constructing a Walk-In. You can use Spanish Cedar as trim or shelving to save money and still get the great aroma it provides.

Take Note: Spanish Cedar produces an extreme amount of dust when cut or sanded so always wear a mask since the dust is extremely carcinogenic. And even worse, the dust will impregnate your system and ruin your taste buds for days.

Cooling & Heating
Maintaining a cool temperature is often the biggest challenge to a Walk-In. Raising the temperature above 72° or 73° F will put your cigars at risk for a Tobacco Beetle infestation. Keep in mind that the ‘hot spot’ in the humidor will be towards the top where hot air and heat from lights will accumulate. If you are building your Walk-In below grade, in a basement or cellar, then you may never have to worry about cooling.

In commercial applications the thermostat for the air conditioner can be located inside the humidor, which makes it relatively simple to control temperature. When this is not possible, it may be necessary to add a small air conditioner to the Walk-In. The size of the air conditioner will vary depending on the room, but there are generally two important issues to consider:
· Disposing of the residual water created by the a/c.
· Evacuating the hot air produced by the a/c.

Most portable and wine cellar air conditioners have a heat vent hose which can be exhausted outside or into an adjacent room (check with specific manufacturers). If you are able to vent outdoors, then this solution should work well for the water which needs to be removed. Otherwise, some portable air-conditioners have water reservoirs which can be manually emptied. In addition, there is technology which mists the excess moisture back into the environment.

If you keep your building at a comfortable temperature it may not be necessary to heat the Humidor; the machinery, humidity, and interior walls may trap enough heat to keep the Walk-In at 70° F during the winter; it is also possible to keep your cigars in the low 60° range and maintain acceptable humidity. If the temperature gets too hot, you may want to have a manually controlled damper/vent or exhaust fan on the ceiling of the humidor which can vent into the attic; this will allow hot air out and cool air in during the winter months. Remember: Heat is the enemy of Cigars.

Building a Walk-In Humidor: part II

Humidification & Water

Passive Humidifiers, typically used in humidor boxes and cabinets, will not be powerful enough to humidify an entire room so Active Humidification is the best choice. The most common Active Humidifiers have a fan blowing over water and re-directing the moisture into the room. Some units should be positioned high in the room while others work best on the floor while they fan the moisture up (check with your specific manufacturer). Most Humidifiers will have the option of installing a water line or you can simply refill the reservoir when necessary; having a dedicated water line will save time and maintenance work in larger Walk-Ins.

Additionally, a Humidistat should be used in conjunction with the Humidifier to accurately regulate the humidity.

As always, use distilled water and/or invest in a Reverse-Osmosis (RO) water purification system which will pull all of the pollutants and minerals out of the water: make sure to use plastic tubing when using an RO system since the water will eat away at metal plumbing.

Even with distilled or RO water, it is still important to clean out the humidifiers. Algae can still develop in the water reservoirs so regular maintenance and cleaning will be required. RO water purification systems also require filter/cartridge changes approximately every year.

Building a Walk-In Humidor: part III

Lighting can be tricky for two reasons: lights produce heat and the wrong type of bulbs can fade and damage your cigars during prolonged exposure. In addition, Humidor lights should render true color to convey the actual beauty of your cigars. Avoid fluorescent and incandescent lights which distort color. Instead, invest in low Ultra-Violet (UV) and Infra-Red (IR) light bulbs which replicate daylight; the same lights used to illuminate artwork are perfect for cigars.

Allowing fresh air in and out is essential to any Walk-In. Walk-Ins should not be hermetically sealed. They should be able to allow fresh air in and expel hot air when necessary: cigars need fresh oxygen to age properly and avoid moldy conditions. In a commercial environment, fresh air exchange can be facilitated by the frequent opening and closing of the door, but in private Walk-Ins, care must be taken to keep the air circulating.

Walk-In Humidor Ventilation is a subtle process; changing the air in the room about once every day is sufficient. Often, the very small gap around the door is enough to allow air exchange, without significantly hampering the Humidor’s performance. A Walk-In should not have a return duct inside; this would result in humid air being removed too quickly.

If your Walk-In has a supply vent for cooling and heating, this vent should also have a manual damper so you can control the input, depending on the season and your specific needs.

Just like with great cigar making, there are very few hard and fast rules when constructing a Walk-In Humidor. Everything depends on your unique constraints and circumstances: heating, cooling, ventilation, humidification, and resources will be different for everyone. But, the principles and issues articulated here apply to all situations.

Our experience tells us that Temperature is often the most critical issue, and if you are lucky enough to put a Walk-In in a basement or cellar that self-regulates, then you should count your blessings. If you have the resources to provide independent climate control to your Walk-In then you are also in a privileged position. But there are options and solutions for everyone else as well.

Each Walk-In is an experiment that must be well planned and executed. Having multiple thermometers and hygrometers located throughout the Humidor will be necessary to understanding the small ecosystem you have created. If you need to change the system, tweak the variables: move the machinery, adjust the damper, or contact Tobacconist University® if you need any help.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Spanish Cedar: TU Content Preview

Cedrela odorata

Also known as Cedrela odorata, Spanish Cedar is neither Spanish nor Cedar. Known as Cedro in Spanish, this species is part of the Meliaceae, or Mahogany, family. It is a deciduous tree found growing in Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, and the species has also been introduced in parts of Africa and Florida. Spanish Cedar is a hardwood, being a Mahogany, and it is also naturally resistant to insects due to its volatile oils, which also produce its distinct aromas.

Originally used for cigar boxes because of its resistance to pests, hygroscopic qualities, and natural abundance, Spanish Cedar is the most popular wood associated with cigar preservation and packaging. While the symbiotic relationship between cigars and Spanish Cedar has existed (and will continue to exist) for hundreds of years, it is not necessary. In fact, due to increasing conservation efforts and rising prices, Spanish Cedar is often substituted with veneers, fiberboard, teak, and other lower cost alternatives.

Sap & Dust
Spanish Cedar is usually kiln dried to minimize the bleeding of sap. Otherwise, the sap will stick to and damage any cigars it comes into contact with. If you must remove any bleeding sap from the wood, sanding will remove most of it, but alcohol or acetate may need to be used to remove it completely. And it may continue to bleed at a later date. In addition, Spanish Cedar produces a very fine and extremely carcinogenic dust when it is cut and sanded, so great care must be taken when it is worked with.

These are just some of the challenges box makers face when they grow, harvest, dry, mill, cut, mortise, join, sand, staple, nail, and fashion this unique wood into an extraordinary packaging vehicle for our precious products. Ultimately, the journey of a cigar box is nearly as long and storied as it is for cigars.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Certified Professionals

Professional Certification attests to your knowledge, skills, and education. Many industries provide (multiple) certification programs for their workers, allowing them to better serve their customers. Following is just a small sample of the types of professional certifications available:

Beer Judge
Pool & Spa Professional
Help Desk Professional
Aviation Industry Professional
Project Management Professional
Security Professional
Computer Technician
Pest Control Professional
Ergonomics Professional
Law Professional
Barber, Hairstylist, & Hair Color Professionals
Organizing Professional
Construction Professional
Mold Inspector
Insurance Professional
Dental Assistant
Pharmacy Assistant
Veterinary Technician
Residential Planning
Hospitality Management

Monday, October 29, 2007

1950s: Wine & Cigars Diverge

The Sommelier Society of America opened its doors in this country in 1954. This educational and certification institution has helped create the public perception that wine is a sophisticated and enlightened human pleasure which enhances one's quality of life. And it is precisely that "Public Perception" which protects the wine industry from the type of hysterical crusading that is hurting the luxury tobacco industry today. In our society, luxury tobacco is perceived no differently than "Big Tobacco". And this is our single greatest challenge! Because the reality of our industry is far more positive than the public perception.

It was also during the 1950s that Homogenized Tobacco Leaf (HTL) was developed and commercialized. This non-premium amalgam of tobacco leaf, chemicals, stems, and other additives allowed for the homogenization and mass commercialization of non-premium cigars. Today, more than 90% of cigars sold in this country are non-premium products and use some form of HTL. This has made the cigar industry much more similar to the cigarette industry than wine. From a purely capitalistic perspective, this business model makes perfect sense: cigar companies were looking for growth, economies of scale, mass distribution, and more profit, so they followed the lead of the cigarette industry. Sadly, we have spent the last 50 years paying the price for our industries' similarities.

The last decade has truly been the most difficult and destructive time for the luxury tobacco industry, with one odd exception. Just before the spread of anti-smoking laws and the rise of draconian tobacco taxation, there was the release of Cigar Aficionado (CA) in the early 1990s. CA helped position the cigar industry in a completely new light with class and sophistication, as a luxurious pursuit and savoring of time. But this shift was more of a trend than a substantive change. And the reality of anti-tobacco crusading completely overshadows any of these positive facts. Any Tobacconist can tell you that the "boom" years were filled with "image smokers" who wanted to smoke cigars to look like the fancy and cool people on the pages of CA. But those customers are long gone now.

The effect of CA on our industry has been extraordinarily positive and dramatic, but it is far from being enough. To project culture and sophistication is not the same as having it, or earning it, or being accepted and embraced. So here we are.... still fighting S-CHIP, anti-smoking laws and absurd taxes.

"Nobody can give you Freedom. Nobody can give you Equality or Justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it." - Malcom X

By "take it" I mean: We must EARN it. We must educate ourselves on our products, history, traditions, and enlighten those around us. To change our reality, we must first change ourselves and then the world around us. The fight for our survival is about educating our society and carving out a viable place for us to thrive and contribute. If you believe any of this, then you must get Certified to help us take back our dignity and preserve the luxury tobacco industry for generations to come. Certification is just the beginning of a Foundation of Credibility. Just like Sommeliers prance around as the darlings of our modern society, perhaps Tobacconists will one day get their deserved respect.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Keystone Is Keystone

Keystone, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, is "something on which associated things depend for support" and "the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place". Without the "keystone" in the latter definition, the structure will collapse. This is also the case with our industry's Keystone Margin: without retailers having the ability to make a reasonable markup, we will collapse. Retail Tobacconists cannot make enough money to sustain themselves without a reasonable markup on single cigars. Anything less than Keystone results in the commoditization of our products, declining margins, and ultimately 'going out of business' sales.

As a retailer, I do not sell any products that are not Keystone, nor am I interested in supporting any company that does not support my ability to make enough money to survive. Obviously, mail order and internet operations thrive on non-keystone products and deals: they exist to thrive on and undermine the brick and mortar (B&M) keystone marketplace. And our economy proves this is a viable strategy for growth - just look at the big box retailers and discounters in every community. But this market thrives on reducing quality and diversity in exchange for cheap homogenized products. One of the worst and most damaging examples I can think of is the Shop-Rite supermarkets here in NJ, where they have a large selection of premium cigars at retail prices that are unbelievably cheap. I, of course, refuse to shop there. But I am not single-handedly able to make any kind of impact on their bottom line. Obviously manufacturers should refuse to have their premium handmade products sold next to shaving razors and tampons. So what are they doing about it???

Ultimately, the Keystone Margin is that which B&M Tobacconists 'depend on for support'. And if we want to see our industry get new customers, introduce new and innovative products, and survive, we must protect B&M Tobacconists, which means protecting our margins.

This year the Supreme Court ruled that manufacturers do in fact have the right to establish a minimum retail price for their products. Lets hope our vendors have the chutzpah to protect their retailers, sacrifice a little in the short-term, and preserve our industry for generations to come.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Butcher, S-CHIP, & Our Future

I pulled up to the butchers (Joe & Emil) today and noticed the driveway and landscaping had been completely re-done. It was refreshing and beautiful so I assumed they must have taken on a female partner, or something otherwise evolutionary must have happened. Since they lament the difficulties of finding good help and the future of their family business (they have no children), I don't expect major face-lifts or cosmetic upgrades at this special little country butcher shop. Yet, when I walked in I couldn't help but notice how much fun they are now having with a new vacuum sealing machine they recently purchased. They are invigorated with ideas and opportunities to package and brand their meat products; it is quite the sight to see. So, I asked about the face-lift and it seemed only natural to them to invest in their business. While they have limited their shop hours to four days a week, they continue to honor their customers and products with every fiber of their being.

I realized today that I go to the butcher for many of the same reasons my customers go to my stores: they are my 'Tobacconists'. When I was in college I used to ride the bus to Georgetown Tobacco every Saturday. It was the highlight of my week back then, but now that I am a Tobacconist, I go to the butcher. It seems there must be a deep need in me to connect with people who honor traditions, products, and their customers. Hand crafted products and artisans share special values and community; and this is one of life's greatest joys, in my opinion.

So, I learned a few lessons today, but the most pertinent comes on the heels of the recent S-CHIP vote. While the battle has really just begun, it is never too late to re-invest. This is the just the beginning of our fight for survival as Tobacconists; but that is OK. The first Sommelier organization did not come to America until the 1950s, so Tobacconists are not that far behind. Over the next few weeks Tobacconist University will have some dramatic and historic announcements, so NOW is time to start crafting our future.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Planning A Future (part II)

I employ about a dozen retail Tobacconists, most of whom are Certified and the others are apprenticing. I provide health insurance for those who need it and I consider it my responsibility to help my Tobacconists develop as people and professionals. An organization is only as good as its people, so this is an easy investment to make. The best reward for this is that my turnover is 3 years, so I keep happy employees for a long time: that pays for itself! Additionally, I have had many employees move on in the industry and go to work for prestigious companies, so I sometimes feel like we are making a positive contribution to the industry. But, when Tobacconists ask me what I think about them opening up a retail store, I tell them they are CRAZY!!! Now let me qualify, 9 out of 10 people want to own their own business, but probably 1 out of 10 are capable. So I am partly trying to filter out 'talkers' from 'doers'. Running a normal business is hard enough; running a retail tobacco business can feel like guerrilla warfare.

But recently I felt a little guilty about my position on the matter. Isn't it two-faced to do all that I can to "Preserve Luxury Tobacco for Generations to Come", and then discourage talented individuals from becoming retail Tobacconists? Perhaps... I just want to make sure there is a bonafide future in it for them. There are many retail Tobacconists that are semi-retired with plenty of money in the bank that don't care if the industry succeeds or not, they just want to partake in their hobby. And there are plenty of wealthy hobbyists in the industry as well. In fact, most of the industry is made up of middle aged, affluent men. This is no surprise, but it does not bode well for our future. We need young blood. We need more passionate men and women in their 20s and 30s coming into the industry.

So on Saturday morning I am sitting in the shop, talking with a cigar salesman who I like and respect. I'm looking at him thinking "thank God for young guys like you coming into the industry". But danger lurks in the shadows. I have seen this before. Will he leave in six months to go sell HP printers or telecommunication services, or whatever? I have seen them leave us before. How do we keep young talent? How do we inject enough innovation and credibility back into this industry to preserve it for generations to come? If we can't keep our best and brightest, we will certainly fail.

There is far too much taxation and legislative uncertainty in our world to promise anyone a bright future. This must change. The industry must rally behind a plan to promote our acceptance and credibility in society. We must stabilize the hemorrhaging and strengthen our foundation while projecting our credibility. We must focus on getting young, innovative, passionate souls into this industry NOW!!! And work on giving them a future with hope and promise instead of fear and uncertainty.

I'm on it. Are you?

PS: remember, retail Tobacconist Certification is free.

Planning A Future (part I)

Judging from this picture (taken in Disney World) my mother recently sent me, I was a young aspiring Tobacconist as early as the 1970s. But it wasn't until the 1990s that I started fighting against the first wave of smoking bans in Princeton, NJ. Like the rest of those battles throughout the country, we eventually lost. Just like we lost the battle against ever increasing cigarette and cigar taxes as well. I can count a handful of last minute tax increases which were followed by letters to my retail company telling us we must pay 'x' amount of floor tax on whatever arbitrary date the legislators picked. Could this ever happen to Microsoft or GE? I doubt it. But they say small business is the heart of America...

I can't imagine any other industry having to deal with such unpredictable and debilitating legislation. But retail Tobacconists have persevered around the country. Somehow, we have weathered each of these storms as well as the internet/mail-order age and not disappeared off the face of the earth. It seems miraculous, and I don't know that this would be possible in any other industry! We are lucky to have loyal and passionate customers. Unfortunately, we do not have enough loyal and happy customers to effect serious taxation and policy change at the state or federal level. This is not because we are not a morally, intellectually, or politically righteous group, but rather because of the hysterical and reactionary nature of the times we live in. I call it a "Shock & Awe Society". Eventually, I believe we will be able to undo much of the hysterical legislation we have had imposed on us; after all, nothing is permanent and eventually we will all have to agree to respect each other and live together, both smokers and non, big and little business, and politicians and civilians. In our society there must be room for all perspectives and individual freedoms. At least, these are my hopes and dreams...

On Thursday, Oct. 18th, we will see if we have to face yet another repressive and life-threatening tax hike. I was going to write this after Thursday, but I realized it doesn't matter when I write it. Tobacconist University will continue to move forward no matter what the S-CHIP fiasco turns out to be, just as I will move forward with my retail company, no matter the outcome. I decided long ago to stick with the ship, and go down with it if necessary. My worst case scenario ambition is to be the last Tobacconist standing. Perhaps I am an idiot. But I would like to think that I am a man of conviction. I would like to think I fight for what I believe in, and in this case that is "Preserving Luxury Tobacco for Generations to Come". And above all, I believe in leaving the world a better place than when I found it.

It was past midnight this Saturday morning and I was in the shop with a few Tobacconists and a famous cigar maker. I was talking about the saga and strife that retail Tobacconists have suffered through, and our lack of PROACTIVE help and solutions. I found myself getting very emotional, another few seconds and my eyes would have teared up. I was talking about a future for Tobacconists. We may be the most challenged industry on the planet and it is a terrifying landscape. Frankly, I think we get very little help, and the first time I have ever seen the whole industry rally against a tax was when S-CHIP was announced; that is the first and only time I have ever seen cigar makers rally together to fight a tax or any anti-tobacco legislation. I suppose it is darkest before dawn.... so maybe they are ready to wake from their slumber. But for many retailers, it may be too late; and this probably suits the mail order companies just fine.

Recently I learned that one of the owners of the largest mail-order cigar businesses in the world doesn't even smoke cigars. When he purchased the company, decades ago, someone told him it would cloud his 'Business Judgement'. So he never smoked, and over the years he grew his company into a powerhouse brand, which I will not mention here. This mentality and lack of honor and passion for our products is part of the problem. This is why our industry has had its head buried in the sand for years, while hiding behind 'Big-Tobacco', waiting for them to do something... But 'Big-Tobacco' has no credibility, nor should they. Instead, they focus on their profit and loss statements, quarterly dividends, and growing in the 2nd and 3rd world. If you've owned their stock over the last decade, you have done very well.... congratulations. But during that time, Tobacconists have suffered a great deal, and consumers are losing their rights and places to smoke.

to be continued...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Outlaw Tobacconist Genius

I liked the last blog so much (Education vs. Information) I was thinking of never adding another entry again, but I can't help but highlight one of the smartest and most impressive Tobacconists I have ever met. Let me clarify "met". I was standing in the line at Starbucks in the Houston convention center and I thought I recognized the face in front of me. It was Kendall Culbertson; founder of The Outlaw Cigar Co. in Kansas City, Mo. I had just read an article about the Outlaw Tobacconist in a trade publication and was impressed with his promotional hi jinks and retail philosophy. So I said 'hi', .... blah, blah, blah... 'nice to meet you'. And that was about it.

Now, the latest issue of Tobacconist magazine has arrived and I have read another article about Outlaw Cigar Co. (by Stephen A. Ross, page 51). But this article is infinitely better than the last one I read; highlighting the real genius of the Outlaw Tobacconist. I can't stop repeatedly reading the article because there is so much helpful and amazing information. Kendall is a revolutionary and brilliant Tobacconist and businessman so I would like to quote a few excerpts and ideas here. I believe there is something valuable to learn from almost every Tobacconist: there is so much information, knowledge, and wisdom in retail Tobacconists!!! We have far more in common than we tend to think... But I think i have found my new Guru...

- "If you do a good job of creating a cigar smoker, you're growing your own business as well as others. Grow the pie; don't worry about the size of your slice. If the pie grows, your slice automatically gets bigger." (I could stop writing now, because this says it all)

- "An aged cigar is better and it's unique. I try to convince people to age cigars themselves because they are so much better." (this is good for business and customer appreciation)

- "How much better does the cigar taste with the story..." (Sidney Frank, entrepreneur behind Grey Goose said: "Americans want to pay more, you just have to give them a good story")

- "You've got to get people interested in your business ... show them that you are having a good time" (Amen)

- "Why are cigars in convenience stores, liquor stores and grocery stores? They're not going to create new cigar smokers .... haven't you just sold out the cigar industry's ability to gain cigar smokers?" (Hallelujah! and shame on those manufacturers that bypass their retail Tobacconists to generate simple revenue instead of lifelong and loyal customers)

- "A guy is not going to get passionate about the cigar he's smoking by buying it in a grocery store"

- "I believe that I'm in the health business. Whats the number one killer of men? Stress. What can you do to relieve stress? You can't just tell someone to relax. A cigar is a great way. When a guy smokes a cigar for an hour and a half or two hours and has fun with the other guys, he's relaxing. What is unhealthier - the smoke that he gets from the cigar or the stress that he would have if he didn't take it easy for an hour and a half each day? I think its the stress by far. I'm saving your life because I'm relieving your stress. A cigar a day can be a big relief and it paves the way for more downtime." (Savor Your Time and focus on Your Quality of Life)

- "You must hire people that are already passionate about cigars" (the main ingredient of any great Tobacconist is Passion!)

And there is soooo much more. I almost regurgitated the entire article, so I will have to stop here. To me the lesson is, Care about your industry, your profession, and your customers, and you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Outlaw Cigar Co. does amazing events where they have even brought in Apache helicopters to amuse their crowds... While this is totally absurd for most of us, the principles, ideas, and values they espouse are applicable to all retail Tobacconists, and immediately actionable!!! So, Get to work.

PS: (shameless self promotion) you can read a little about Tobacconist University on page 31
PSS: What's going on in Kansas City, MO....??? Between Xikar and Outlaw, there must be something special in the water... we should have a convention there!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Education vs. Information

I have been wanting to write this particular blog for years and now the thoughts seem to be percolating, so the time is right. The differences between Information and Education are at the heart of Tobacconist University values and our vision/mission.

Distinguishing between the two can be the difference between just living and a life well-lived.

Information is typically what you get when you watch the evening news and hear sensational sound bites about Britney Spears, obese Americans, or when you hear politicians spinning their language about S-CHIP, anti-smoking statistics, and a myriad of other things. Information is data, often sensationalized for our limited attention spans. And it is indisputable that we live in the Age of Information. Between the internet, cell phones, tv, print and broadcast media, we are always being bombarded with information. Information is the nutritional equivalent of a twinkie; it may taste good but there is relatively little substance or value in it.

Information is about Quantity, while Education is about Quality.

Education is Information put into context with a perspective grounded in values and principles: and that is what Tobacconist University is about.

This topic is resonating with me right now because we are making a big push to enhance our already unparalleled glossary and turn it into a multi-media encyclopedia. We have endeavoured to find every tobacco glossary (in the English language) and make sure we don't miss a thing. In that process, we have discovered an overwhelming amount of Information, opinion, and/or subjective interpretation. When we find words worthy of the TU glossary, we go through our library of books, cross-reference (3x), call experts, and then re-create the most valuable definition possible: after all, we are trying to create a timeless educational curriculum.

But, I am astounded at the amount of crap/information in the marketplace. There is very little content created with a long-term vision and an eye towards Quality. Much like the world we live in, Quantity often trumps Quality, so people don't even attempt to create accurate and compelling content. Fortunately, you can rest assured that TU will never take this easy way out. Sadly, this trend carries through most of the Information we find on the internet. Even emails/newsletters I receive through the industry are full of erroneous or absurd information. I get a handful of so-called "expert" emails on a regular basis and they are always filled with incorrect information. Many of these so-called "experts" (I will call them "Fakeperts") are merely pontificators trying to position themselves as thought-leaders in an effort to sell you products: that is one of the reasons TU does not sell any products or advertisements. And ultimately, these Fakeperts are doing harm to our industry and consumers while they try to make a quick buck.

Education requires research, perspective, and context. Consequently, Education requires vision, commitment, and integrity. These are the values that will help "Preserve Luxury Tobacco for Generations to Come". Since we are an open-source Academic Curriculum, we encourage credible Tobacconists to contribute their knowledge to our institution. In that process we can help aggregate, promote, and strengthen the foundation upon which this industry is built: which is great Tobacconists! Without great, credible, and professional Tobacconists, our precious industry will die.

So, Educate yourselves!!! And help us Educate!!!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

TU vs. CCU

Internet traffic is a funny thing. Today I woke up to see that we got hundreds of visits from Sweden. Some days we are big in Europe, Asia, Latin America, but mostly our visitors come from the north eastern part of the United States. Since we haven't really marketed TU, we rely on word of mouth and passionate individuals to spread the word. But there is always a bit of mystery when people in the middle east or far off countries find TU. Fortunately, once they find us, they are hooked and we see them coming back regularly.

Between Sweden and the cigarfamily website today, I noticed we get lots of hits/links to Cuban Cigar University (CCU). Frankly, I'm just glad people visit, but I thought this would be a good time and place to clarify the relationship and differences between TU and CCU.

I started CCU as the in-house training college for my retail Tobacconists, following a research and educational trip to Cuba in 1996. It became so popular that we started giving public courses and Certifications to consumers as well as Tobacconists. By 2003, we incorporated CCU into TU and the TU website. CCU was cigar focused. TU is a much broader and more ambitious project intended to benefit ALL retail Tobacconists, consumers, and the industry. Ultimately, it just seemed selfish to hoard all of the CCU work just for ourselves, so the concept of TU emerged. Today there is a CCU website (address) and people all over the world find it and use it on a regular basis: I think the word "Cuba" carries a lot of weight in consumers' minds. But that site is really just the Tobacconist University site. So, in case you are wondering why the content is the same, that is because Tobacconist University emerged from Cuban Cigar University. And hopefully, one day, the word TOBACCONIST will carry as much weight as Cuba...

Monday, October 1, 2007


I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the Sponsors which have made the free educational, certification, and professional services of Tobacconist University (TU) possible. Our efforts to "Preserve Luxury Tobacco for Generations to Come" would not be possible without the intellectual and monetary contributions of our Sponsors. We are particularly proud of our no-advertising policy and open-source Academic Curriculum which ensures an unbiased, thorough, dynamic, and democratic learning institution.

Ironically, I am the only Tobacconist University Sponsor at the moment. Ironically, I have been sooooo busy over the last 4 years of development that I have barely leveraged TU assets for my retail company A Little Taste of Cuba (ALTOC); except for Certifying every Tobacconist. In the future ALTOC will have the entire TU website co-branded with our logo at the top left hand corner of every TU page. TU will be hot-linked to the ALTOC website ( , which I have also neglected) with quick-links to the FAQ, HOW-TO, Glossary, and Campus pages. All of this in an effort to provide our retail customers with the most value-added services possible. And always striving to enhance customers' product, industry, and Tobacconist appreciation.

But as they say, that is neither here nor there.... I really just wanted an excuse to show off the new Sponsor Logo. I will not use this for ALTOC because we are currently putting together our family of Founding Sponsors; they will be a distinguished group of vertically integrated companies. This is a slow process and we are at various stages with several extraordinary companies. Over the next two weeks the final batch of Sponsor Proposals will go out and then we will wait and see what the future holds.

Ultimately, this Sponsor Logo will be a Badge of Honor for those companies extraordinary enough to use it. The TU Sponsor Logo will be absolute proof that these companies are committed to Brick & Mortar Tobacconists, consumers, and our precious industry. Fortunately, we can accomplish a lot with very little; annual Sponsorship will cost less than a one page ad in Cigar Aficionado. By providing the free educational services and committing to higher standards we will usher in a new age of Credibility for this besmirched and maligned industry. Cigar & Pipe makers deserve a great deal more respect than they are currently getting; as do retail Tobacconists, since we are their ambassadors and the final point of contact for passionate consumers.

I hope you like the Sponsor Logo: it is a symbol for companies who 'walk the talk'. In the future, if you see a company using it to show their pride, you will know they are truly committed to their consumers and Tobacconists!