Group of cigar aficionados acquires north end smoke shop
The new partners in Cigars for Aficionados of Springfield sealed the deal over cigars, naturally.
A regional insurance manager, an accountant, a marketing specialist, an Internet technology project manager and the shop's manager comprise the new investment group in one of the city's oldest smoke shops at 727 North Grand Ave. E.
They all have in common a taste for cigars, fine cigars in their estimate.
"We were sitting around smoking cigars, and we started asking questions. We wanted to preserve it as a club, the ambiance and the atmosphere. CFA is a designation for cigar smokers," said David Heckler, a regional manager for Pennsylvania Life Insurance Co. and one of the five new partners.
Heckler said the former owner, Springfield attorney Frederic Nessler, was looking for a group that could devote more attention to the day-to-day operations. Nessler continues to have a minority ownership through a trust.
"We just thought by bringing in new capital, we could preserve and expand the business," said Nessler. NorthStar Inc., a local investment group, owns the building.
The other partners are the store manager of three years, Robert Mack of New Berlin, and Internet technology specialist Mark Langenfeld, accountant Nick Ciaccio and marketing specialist Tim Nation, all of Springfield.
Heckler, who described himself as a faithful customer from the beginning, said the group's first step was to come up with a new business plan, including cross marketing with local restaurants and bars.
"The economy affects every business. But most of our customers are regular customers. The guys who are going to smoke cigars are still going to smoke cigars," he said.
Full circle, nearly
The business moved three years ago back to the same north-end block where Sangamon County Clerk Tony Libri started it in 1995. Libri, who at the time was Sangamon County auditor, also headed a local investment group.
Libri sold the business to Nessler about three years later. The business was on West White Oaks Drive for about 10 years before returning to North Grand Avenue in 2007.
Mack points to a restored brick wall as evidence of the building's age. "Staple & Fancy Groceries" reads one section. Another, partially obscured, reads "pure and wholesome baking power."
"We put a sealant on it. One of our objectives was to preserve the building as it was," said Mack, a retiree described by his partners as "the face of the business." He estimates the store has 100 to 150 brands, each with its own variety of size, shape and blends.
Other than adding a conference room, the group has left the shop as is, including walls full of famous cigar aficionados such as Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jordon, Demi Moore and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The description "man cave" is never far away for the smoking rooms that come complete with cushy chairs and couches, wide-screen televisions and game tables, but Heckler said women also frequent the shop.
Mack points out that while cigar fans often use the term, the shop is not a "club" in the legal sense. There are no memberships or dues.
"We are a retail shop that sells cigars and tobacco," said Mack, who added that the group wanted to assure the business remained in the north-end neighborhood. Mack is also the only paid employee among the new partners.
Economy, smoking bans
Roberto Restrepo said he likes to drop by the shop during his lunch break from his job as a senior analyst with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, a few blocks away at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
Thanks to city and state smoking bans, Restrepo said it has become harder to light up his favorite cigar, though he added he understood the health concerns.
"It gives people like me an oasis to really relax and enjoy ourselves. We form a group here, and we're not infringing on anybody's rights," said Restrepo, who described himself as an "occasional" smoker of cigars.
Langenfeld, who serves as the shop's tobacconist, said the recession has had an effect on the type, if not the volume, of cigar purchases.
"They are more cost-conscious. But as they buy different cigars, their tastes change, and they start to smoke more expensive cigars," Langenfeld said.
"There's a ... price range. Three years ago, it was maybe eight to 10 dollars. Then it went to seven to nine or six to eight dollars. Now, we see it coming back a little," he added.
While there is no data on annual cigar sales, the biggest news in the latest issue of Cigar Insider is the pending merger of Macanudo and C.A.O cigars, two of the world's largest cigar manufacturers.
Statements from the companies indicated the merged business would have annual production of 2.5 billion cigars worldwide.
Central and South America have emerged to dominate cigar production, said Langenfeld, who added that the purists believe cigars from the region now match, or maybe exceed, the legendary Cuban cigars.
Cigars were included in a 1962 U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, though industry history has it that cigar-fan President John Kennedy tried to exempt the Cuban smokes.
But both Langenfeld and Heckler said, much like wine and beer, there are as many opinions on what constitutes a good cigar as there are cigar smokers.
"If you get 10 different guys in here, you'll get 10 different opinions," said Heckler.
Source: The State Journal-Register