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.