Colonie pipe and cigar shop operator says walk-in and Internet business is booming
The Business Review
The upstairs lounge, a comfortable space with leather chairs and free soda in the mini-fridge, at Scott Bendett’s store is one of the few remaining public places in which it’s acceptable to light up. Despite a declining number of smokers in the state, Bendett, who runs the Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe in Colonie, said business is thriving.
Perhaps jolted by the implementation of the Indoor Clean Air Act in July 2003, which banned smoking in workplaces, bars and restaurants, there are 500,000 fewer smokers in New York state this year than there were in 2001, according to the state Department of Health.
Smoking, especially cigarette smoking, is less and less socially acceptable, said Waterford resident Bob Bogan, who is a regular customer at Habana Premium. Bogan, who mostly smokes cigars, said the general disdain isn’t as heavy for pipe and cigar smokers, but it’s nice to have a place where smoking is invited.
“It’s like a club,” Bogan said. Any given evening you’ll find six or seven people hanging out in the lounge watching television, playing chess or just talking.
What makes cigar smokers different from cigarette smokers, Bogan said, is that cigar smokers aren’t smoking out of need.
“I don’t need to run out and smoke a cigarette,” Bogan said.
Habana Premium is designed to encourage a sense of connoisseurship. Like wines, the store’s blended tobaccos feature descriptive names and labels. The “Milk-n-Honey” blend, for example, is described as “loaded with the finest black cavendish and a single-malt highlight. Perfect for the cool night.” Some of Habana Premium’s tobaccos are custom creations by on-site tobacco blender Russ Ouellette.
A walk-in temperature- and humidity-controlled cooler houses thousands of cigars, priced from $1 a cigar to the $40 each Davidoff’s, available nowhere else between New York City and Buffalo. The store also sells pipes, tinned tobacco and accessories including collectible Zippo lighters and humidors.
The pipes, the specialty tobaccos and the humidors have an element of art to them as well as utility. The store sells pipes priced $3 to $1,000 and humidors from $30 to $1,000. Bendett said the tinned tobacco, which costs between $10 and $12 for two ounces, is mostly by mail-order.
Bendett, 39, grew up around cigars–he remembers collecting baseball cards in cigar boxes as a kid. While working in New York City, where he operated a financial public relations firm, he started a cigar-of-the-month club. When he and his wife moved back to the Capital Region about 10 years ago, he decided to open Habana Premium, despite never having worked in retail.
The store originally opened in the Colonie Center mall, where it immediately did well. The mid-1990s were a boom time for cigars, Bendett said.
Habana Premium moved into its own building 21⁄2 years ago because an older friend said buying a building would allow Bendett to build equity, providing an investment for the future.
Bendett first saw the power of the Internet when he was running his cigar-of-the-month club, but didn’t really start to take advantage of e-commerce until four years ago when he created PipesandCigars.com. The shipping operation for the Internet business is run out of the store’s crowded basement and has significantly boosted the store’s sales.
The anti-smoking push has likely actually benefited the cigar and pipe industry, said Pamela Zyniecki, whose family operates Edleez Tobacco in Stuyvesant Plaza in Guilderland. Some smokers have quit smoking cigarettes and now smoke a pipe or cigars.
Bendett said he does think about the health risks associated with smoking, but balances them against the pleasures cigar smoking provides. There’s enough of a local market for upscale tobacco products that Bendett is considering opening a second store.
“I believe every now and then to indulge in a cigar should be an acceptable practice,” Bendett said. “Maybe Philip Morris didn’t do the country right with cigarettes, but I feel like cigars and pipes are unfairly put in that category.”