Ashes to Ashes | Tobacconist magazine

Ashes to Ashes

Vintino’s Premium Cigars & Smoking Lounge

By Greg Girard

As you drive south on Tamiami Trail along Florida’s west coast, it’s clear southwest Florida is the newest destination of choice for thousands of northerners looking for a warm place to escape or retire. Ten years ago, you could call the stretch of road between Fort Myers and Naples almost tranquil. Today, of the top 10 fastest growing areas in the U.S. according to Forbes magazine, six are in Florida, three are on the west coast of Florida, and the No. 1 area is Fort Myers.

Still, as you drive south through Bonita Springs and Naples, traffic calms (a relative term), and just before Tamiami takes a gradual eastern turn toward Miami, you come across a building with a decidedly Florida facade, palms trees in front waving in the breeze and a pleasant shaded patio off to the right. You’ve arrived at Vintino’s.

And, no, it’s not a new Italian restaurant.

“You saw driving in, we put up that big sign, ‘Vintino’s Premium Cigars & Smoking Lounge,’ and I guess Naples, being an older community, a lot of people might not read all the details,” says co-owner Joe Tarantino. “Vintino’s, apparently, sounds like a great new Italian restaurant, and when we first opened we had countless people—I’m talking multiple a day—pull in, walk in the door and say, ‘Your restaurant smells like smoke. Where are your tables?’

“We had people go so far as to tell us, ‘No, my friend ate here last week, and they said it was great. So where did the restaurant go?’ ‘No ma’am, I can tell you that that did not happen.’ They would argue with us! It got to the point where we’d see an older couple pull up in the handicap spot, they’d get their walkers and canes out, and we’d run to them and tell them, ‘Hey folks, just want to make sure you’re aware that this is a cigar store and not a restaurant. So we were forced to put that 24-inch lettering, really large font, that says ‘Cigars’ up on the sign. It helped.”

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Joe and his partner Leo Vincent are enjoying their morning Arturo Fuente Chateaus, which also happen to be their best-seller, as Joe tells that story. It’s a gorgeous April morning, and as the stories continue to flow from both owners, you feel like you could sit there all day.

Vintino’s, as you may have guessed, is an amalgam of their last names as well as the name of Joe’s grandfather, Vincent Tarantino, who came to the U.S. from Italy. Both natives of New Jersey, Joe and Leo opened Vintino’s in 2015, after almost a year spent renovating the former funeral parlor. As Leo aptly puts it, “Ashes to ashes.”

IMG_3740.webLeo Vincent & Joe Tarantino

Like the origin of most tobacconist shops, the idea of Vintino’s came from the passion of cigar smokers. Rewind several years, and Leo is knocking around Jackson, New Jersey, “playing golf and smoking cigars.” When a couple of stockbrokers opened a tobacco shop in Jackson in 2005, Leo became a regular, until he found himself watching the counter for a couple of hours to then working full time to eventually buying the store.

“They ran it for three years and wanted out, so I got a partner and bought the place,” says Leo. “Immediately, I turned it around. I got the Padrons, I got the VSGs. Ashtons were good to me. We eventually moved from 800 square feet to 1,600 square feet and built a small lounge so people could have a locker. We’d play cards, and it really became a community environment, really nice. Your customers become your friends.”

One of his regulars was Paul Tarantino, Joe’s father and a silent partner in Vintino’s. Paul, after owning and running several successful liquor stores in New Jersey, was making the gradual transition down to southwest Florida, and one day he told Leo he was thinking about opening a tobacconist shop in Naples and asked if Leo would be interested in helping him set it up.

“I go, ‘Set it up? Are you kidding me? I want to run the freakin’ place,’” says Leo. “I saw my opportunity to get the hell out of New Jersey. It’s cold. So he brought me down, we went to all the cigar stores in the area, we played golf, and you can see the lifestyle is so different from New Jersey. So I told him I’d like to run it, but I honestly thought it was just ‘cigar talk.’ You know, a couple of guys smoking cigars. Dreams.”

But Paul, and his son Joe, never considered it just talk. Joe, in particular, was ready for a change after several years working at a marketing firm that had him living in different Florida cities every few years. At the time, he was living in Sarasota, but he’d had enough of the nomadic life.

“My sister, my parents had committed to Naples, and I missed [them],” says Joe. “I grew up in a big Italian-American family in the Northeast, and all of a sudden I’m in a new city, no family. I missed it a lot. Having been born and raised in the same town my parents went to high school, I’d go into the hardware store and I knew the guy that owned it and his family. Go into the grocery store, half my friends worked there. There’s the restaurant your family has been going to for years. You felt like part of a community.”

With that motivation, Paul and Joe decided on a tobacconist store, reflecting a passion they both enjoy. Leo says, “So one day, [Paul] comes to me and goes, ‘I got the building.’ I’m like, what building? I’d already forgotten all the conversations and all. He says, ‘For the cigar store.’ And then it became real. I guess I’m in.”

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They closed on the building Jan. 1, 2015, with hopes of opening the doors in June or July, but renovations on the building, as they often do, took longer than anticipated. “I moved down in May, and this was a freakin’ mess,” Leo explains, waving his arms around the store. “This was a cinder block wall, and they had to punch holes through it. They’re putting in air conditioning and the smoke removal system, and every day you’d come here and it’s so freakin’ hot, you’re miserable. And I’m thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ Meanwhile, you’re not getting paid.”

Joe was still working full time up in Sarasota, so he would drive down on Friday nights to work the weekends on the store and go back to Sarasota on Sunday evenings. They worked on what they could themselves—“I painted some,” says Leo—including building the humidor, with the rest contracted out. They worked through the permit process, which Joe described as fair but thorough: “We stumbled a couple of times, but now we’ve pulled like a hundred permits through the county for renovations and other products, so I feel like if we had to do it again, we could do it in about half the time.” And then finally, come October, they opened the doors … to a resounding silence.

Naples is a seasonal town, and October isn’t the ideal month to open a new business. Not to mention the week their store sign went up during construction, another new tobacconist shop sign went up just a half-mile north of them.

“Neither of us knew the other was coming, but we both had the same exact idea,” says Joe. “It’s one of those moments where we’ve been planning this for two years; you do all this work; invest all this money, blood, sweat and tears into the building; and you flip the open sign and you’re like, ‘OK, I hope they come now.’ It’s a big leap of faith.”

Now, nearly three years into the business, it looks like a successful leap (the other tobacconist shop has since closed). “My faith was always in that we, as cigar smokers, would look for a place that is comfortable and has a great selection of cigars. It really is that simple. I always try to look at it from this side of the counter,” says Leo, pointing toward the customer side. “I’ve gone to places that are really beautiful, but spiritually, they’re defective. There’s no warmth when you walk in. You get a vibe: This guy wants my money, but that’s it. He wants nothing else to do with me. Here, someone walks in, it’s ‘Hey, how are you?’”

Part of the appeal is keeping their inventory fresh, but they also recognize, especially with an older clientele, that brand loyalty often trumps trying the next new thing.

“It’s a little gamble,” says Joe. “We have 60 to 65 percent safe bets, major brands everyone has heard of, and then the rest we rotate trying new things. Some catch on and become big sellers, and some wind up in the $3 bin. We’re always trying something new.”

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There have been bumps in the road, of course—from adjusting their business plan to accommodate seasonal traffic to recognizing that cigar tastes are regional (what works in New Jersey doesn’t necessary work in southwest Florida) to creating incentives that will keep seasonal customers shopping at the store even when they return to their northern homes. Both owners say Vintino’s is about creating a memorable experience and a lasting community.

“We’re not a year-round place,” says Joe. “We have customers that come to visit mom and dad at Thanksgiving. We have customers three years in a row, we’ll see them for a week almost every day, and then they’re gone. We have a guy that comes down every year in March and is at the store five to six days a week, but then we won’t see him for 11 months. So for us, it’s all about customer interaction—being part of a community that they want to come back to. Somebody walks in and you don’t know their story or where they’re from. We get to know them.”

Adds Leo, “I think we already knew coming in that everybody that walks in—everybody—is special. We’re connectors. When you come in, no matter who you are or what you’re doing, I’ll introduce you to everyone. When people say, ‘I got an issue with my air conditioning,’ I can say, ‘Talk to Art.’ We become an extension of their homes. Let them walk out of here with a smile, and what happens is they come back.”

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