Sunday, April 26, 2009

De La Concha + Padron = Excellence

On Thursday April 23rd I had the privilege of attending the Padron event and dinner at De La Concha Tobacconist, indubitably one of America's greatest tobacconists. De La Concha's GM and soon to be Certified Retail Tobacconist Ron Melendi was gracious enough to invite me to the event, feed me, and give me the opportunity to learn from the best. As anyone reading this article knows, Padron and De La Concha are the best at what they do, simply because they focus on two things: Products & Customers. It is in their blood; you can see it in their eyes; it is palpable and you can feel it when you are around them. They are focused and committed to the point that they are inspirational.

I think what inspires me the most in this case is the extent to which a great tobacconist will go to provide their customers with extraordinary service and value. Mr. Melendi has started the tradition of turning his retail store into a fine dining restaurant in the middle of NYC since the anti-smoking laws have become so draconian and repressive. He could easily not provide an extravagant dinner event and merely settle for an afternoon visit from a cigar maker. But, he is not the type of person to compromise or give up. Instead, De La Concha closes their store early and transforms their already elegant retail environment into an extraordinary fine dining restaurant, served by nothing less than the best, Rue 57, located just up the block. What other business or group of professionals would go through such trouble to provide their customers with this kind of value? I don't know of any other profession that goes to these lengths to serve.

Ultimately, it was a privilege to attend the event and meet so many great tobacconists. Ron and the other exemplary tobacconists at De La Concha will go down in the annals of history as the best and most committed professionals who refuse to be beaten, stifled, or compromise. It was an honor to see them in action.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Salt: The New Smoke?

I'm sitting at my desk on a Sunday afternoon working on my monthly retail taxes. This paperwork nightmare takes about six hours since the state governments don't seem to understand the concept of streamlining or efficiency. Much of the information I have to provide is redundant and/or useless... but I persevere because I love being a retail tobacconist. In a momentary diversion I noticed an article (and an even better article) on the internet about NYC mayor Bloomberg and the 'health' dept. rallying against salt and launching new efforts to curtail its use - not just in NYC, but across America! First they banned smoking, then trans fats, and now they are focusing on salt. All of this comes from a democrat, turned republican, turned independent who changed the state law so he could stay in power for another term. I feel like I'm living in some horrible version of the future I had nightmares about ten years ago. I fear that our nanny govt. will be dictating our weight, complexion, taste, language, opinions, and clothes ten years from now. In the year 2019 our supermarkets will probably be void of food and filled with nutritional pills made by some non-governmental organization (i.e. partnership between pfizer & con-agra), just because our legislators and health zealots deem it in our 'best interest'.

Smoking was the gateway civil right, but we are well past that now. In the midst of our economic recession all I hear politicians talking about is new taxes and laws. Whereas, I would just like to see the old laws work, govt. made efficient, individual liberty/choice/freedom preserved, and the slavery of 'sin' taxation abolished since it is unfair (albeit politically expedient). It used to be republicans would fight smoking-bans, excessive taxation, and the usurpation of our individual liberties... but today, there is no difference between the political parties in office; they are just two sides of the same coin serving lobbyists and manipulating public perceptions with junk science and a 'holier than thou'/'we know better' mentality.

I, for one, would like more options come election time. I would like to see a (cigar smoking, salty french fry eating) politician who runs on the platform of no new taxes and laws. Just a simple leader who believes in correcting the path we are on. Someone who is not afraid to look inward at the bureaucracy and make if work, instead of compounding the problems with ad hoc solutions, feel-good laws, and obfuscations. But, above all, I want to vote for someone who believes in Education vs. Legislation! Because all people are born free and the American government should be in the business of preserving that.

Sadly, I don't have a better solution as I am still waiting for the greatest minds of our time to stand up and return this great country to the vision of our founding fathers. The best I can do is fight for what I believe in and put my money where my mouth is by fighting to preserve the retail tobacconist profession - that is why Tobacconist University exists. At the very least, we should all be members of the CRA and never lose sight of the fact that individual liberty (freedom) is the greatest human value.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dr. Shoplifter - 3.23.2009

This shoplifter stole over $150 worth of cigars in two visits on the same day. You will notice he has handfuls of cigars before he leaves the humidor and then magically appears at the register with just ONE cigar. You can follow the video clock to see the time-continuity. He takes advantage of a blind spot at the door to shove the cigars in his pockets, knowing that no camera or person can see him. And the fact that he was a friendly and regular customer kept tobacconists from suspecting him of being the scumbag that he is.

Go to the TU Forums for more Shoplifter Content. We are building a Most Wanted section for retailers to submit their pictures and information. Hopefully we can all learn from these experiences and catch a few of these criminals. I have put Wanted posters with his picture up in my store and will begin the prosecution process. Unfortunately, local prosecutors and judges have never been able to get any kind of significant restitution to us. Years ago we prosecuted a $1000+ thief and handed over all the videos, but the prosecutor, for expediency sake, simply prosecuted the one easiest theft, so the judge awarded us about $19.80 - which is insulting considering it takes hours just to compile the video footage.

Ultimately, shoplifting is the killer of all retail, and having a walk-in humidor makes tobacconists particularly vulnerable. Yet, many tobacconists like myself take great pride in providing the walk-in environment to our customers. I can only hope that we will be able to continue to provide this special service and that our customers and vendors will appreciate the sacrifices we make to be the best retail tobacconists we can be.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Best Sommelier in America 2009

Last Monday I had the privilege of being a (cigar) judge at the American Sommelier Association's Best Sommelier in America 2009 competition in NYC. It was an extraordinary and significant experience on many levels and for several reasons.

First, I had the opportunity to spend the day with my host, who I affectionately like to call 'America's Tobacconist', Mr. Michael Herklots, the GM of Davidoff of Geneva stores in NYC, as well as another great tobacconist, Mr. David Kitchens, GM of Holt's. Just spending time with two extraordinary tobacconists would be enough to make it an educational and rewarding experience. But, the most educational and rewarding part was watching and learning from America's Best Sommeliers. The four finalists exhibited extraordinary professionalism, knowledge, and panache while performing for the wine and cigar judges. In particular, it was inspirational to see the world's greatest professionals competing to be the best. Their focus, intensity, and commitment was impressive, to say the least.

Ultimately, the fact that there is a cigar part to the Best Sommelier in America competition is probably the most significant point to make. The American Sommelier Association and their President, Andrew Bell, honor our industry by including cigars in the competition. By doing so, they acknowledge and reinforce the fact that cigars are an organoeleptic delicacy worthy of study and enjoyment, just like great wine and food. This simple fact should not be lost on tobacconists and consumers. Unlike the wine industry, tobacconists are swimming upstream against a torrent of taxation and repressive legislation every day. As we move forward, our survival will depend on our ability to build and project our credibility, which is why TU Certifies Tobacconists. There is much to learn from the wine industry and sommeliers.

Best Sommelier in America 2009
Michael Engelmann
Gary Danko, San Francisco

First Runner Up
Fernando Beteta, M.S.
NoMi, Chicago, IL

Second Runner Up
Inez Ribustello
On the Square, Tarboro, NC

Third Runner Up
Hristo Zizovski
Restaurant Jean Georges, NYC, NY

.... but, of course, they are all winners in my book...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Smoking Bans: A Moment of Truth

The most definitive study to date concludes that smoking bans in all fifty states of America have had no impact on heart attack admissions and mortality rates. The study, conducted by researchers from the RAND Corp., Congressional Budget Office, University or Wisconsin, and Stanford University, concludes that workplace smoking bans have had no effect on heart attack rates and there are as many areas showing decreases in heart attacks as there are showing increases! So much for the junk science and fear tactics our legislators and public policy makers use to justify usurping our freedoms. You can read of the The Rest of the Story by Dr. Michael Siegel.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Double Our Business - NOW!

It's simple math, really - just convert 10% of cigarette smokers to cigars and you double the size of the cigar industry. This is our reality, and in the process we can help enhance the quality of life for millions of Americans.

I continue to believe that tobacconists are modern day freedom fighters, enduring torture, demonization, and endless taxation for their beliefs and passions. If you don't believe me, just note that today is April 1st, 2009 and tobacconists all over America are being slapped with massive tax and cost increases on their products. The inventory, paperwork, price changes, and customer implications are brutal. Is there any other group of business owner or consumer being as severely taxed, legislated, and debilitated? And in this economy! It's pathetic. But, there is hope! Now is the time to help our cigarette smoking customers end their allegiance to inhaling.... Particularly if they are consuming products laced with chemicals and additives. They will thank us for it. Help someone savor their time and they will be a customer and friend forever.

PS: Dear legislators, politicians, government people; please stop taxing us to death. And by 'us' I mean all Americans, but especially those in the luxury tobacco industry.