Edleez Tobacco Inc. offers comfort and service
By William C. Nelson
Stability, history, full service, family ownership and management—not all businesses command every one of these operational advantages. When you find a retailer that has managed to tie them all together, you invariably have found a successful enterprise. Edleez Tobacco in Albany, New York, exemplifies the effectiveness of long-term branding, well and lovingly executed by principals who tend to their business as though it were their home. After 36 years under Zyniecki family control, Edleez is, in fact, in many respects, a home—not just to the owners and employees but, importantly, to their customers as well. And as any sentimental soul knows, home is a place you want to keep going back to.
The 2,000-plus square-foot Edleez retail space, located in the midst of Albany’s bustling Stuyvesant Plaza, is a welcoming, smoke-friendly establishment where cigar and pipe enthusiasts find refuge from a world where accommodations such as this are becoming too rare. This isn’t to say that Albany proper is lacking for nice tobacco shops. John Zyniecki, who co-owns Edleez with his sister Pam Kuczenski, shows no reluctance in proclaiming Albany blessed with tobacco retailers. “The Albany area has quite a few very fine tobacco shops,” Zyniecki says, “some of them just a few miles from us. So there’s quite a bit of competition, but I believe we’re all doing well.”
Zyniecki says friendly customer service is the secret sauce in any flourishing shop. That’s hardly a revelation; most successful merchants know in their bones the importance of closeness to the customer. “Our staff knows a lot of our customers on a first-name basis—especially store manager Mike Mastel, who has been with us for 10 years and is very good about remembering names.” Not only do the people who work at Edleez tend carefully to the visitors moving in and out of the store; they fairly shine with the good humor and spirit of people who obviously enjoy what they do. The shop’s staff seemed, on the day we visited, to feel as comfortably and joyfully ensconced in the world of Edleez Tobacco as did the dozen or so customers relaxing in the store’s smoking lounge. It is a vibe you can’t put a price on. For any merchant depending on repeat business, that warm ambience is a veritable golden goose.
“You don’t make money on a lounge, unless you charge for memberships. But the lounge is something our customers truly wanted, and charging them for access, somehow it just didn’t seem right.”
- John Zyniecki
Edleez takes its name from the siblings’ parents, who in 1981 purchased the store, then called J.P. O’Leary Tobacconist. Zyniecki says, “My father’s name was Ed, and my mother’s was Lee—short for Leota—so, Ed and Lee Z.” He continues, “At any rate, Dad was at home recovering from surgery in 1981, and his doctor told him he should walk a mile a day as part of his rehabilitation.” Luckily, the Zyniecki patriarch, a cigar lover, resided just a half-mile from the tobacco shop, so his daily stroll consisted of a hike to the store to enjoy a fine smoke. “That became his routine,” Zyniecki says. “And one day the owner asked him if he knew anyone who wanted to buy a tobacco shop. So my mom and dad talked it over, and three days later the store was theirs.” For many years the Zyniecki elders ran the store, prior to the involvement of the kids. Ed and Lee Zyniecki died just three years ago, only 10 days apart, but by then the next generation was at the helm. The store passed to John and his sister Pam, who hold the fort with four other payroll employees, keeping business hours seven days a week. John Zyniecki himself only works the store part time, being still in the midst of a long career in data processing with a local corporation. He regards himself as “the silent partner” and says his sister is “the not-so-silent partner.”
Edleez is a model of consistency and tradition, and Zyniecki says the family isn’t looking to make any radical changes to a formula that has seen the business through. Edleez carries a large selection of primarily mid-grade pipes (more than 800 pipes in the house), including familiar names like Savinelli, Nording, Stanwell, Bjarne, Charatan, Dunhill, Comoy’s, Peterson and Jobey. Savinelli and Peterson are their top sellers. Lane 1-Q is the bestselling pipe tobacco at Edleez, as it is nationwide. The store is outfitted with all other smoker accouterments, including Savoy humidors and Harvey canes—the latter, again, in the name of tradition. “The canes were my mother’s idea,” Zyniecki says.
On the whole, though, Edleez has always been a cigar-centered business. “Things haven’t really changed very much over the years in that respect,” Zyniecki says. “About 75 percent of our revenue is cigar-related.” The 500-square-foot walk-in humidor contains about 800 facings, according to Zyniecki, and that is easy to believe as you stroll its passageways. The store’s best-selling cigar line at present is Rocky Patel, with Perdomo coming in second. There is a computerized list of products, but the store uses no bar-coding. To help boost customer engagement, once in a while Edleez stages a special event, and the store offers a reward program: 5 percent credit toward product purchases after a customer spends $200. But for the most part, life in the store proceeds at a steady, unadorned retail hum.
Zyniecki characterizes most of his customers as locals, typically in the 45–60 age range. Being located near the State University of New York at Albany gives the store access to a well-heeled client base, along with some student traffic (although Albany County’s recent adoption of a 21-year-old smoking age has cut down on the student business). In addition, Zyniecki says, “Being the state capital, we do get quite a few travelers coming through. And we always get a boost in summertime traffic from the proximity of Saratoga racetrack, which is just a halfhour’s drive from the store. But I’d say three-fourths of our customers are locals, mostly repeat business.”
Zyniecki seems a bit ambivalent about the spacious lounge where Edleez offers couch and chair space for about a dozen comers. “You don’t make money on a lounge, unless you charge for memberships,” he says. “But the lounge is something our customers truly wanted, and charging them for access, somehow it just didn’t seem right.” He does note that the lounge draws in a certain contingent of reliable business—“a lot of regulars come in almost every day to smoke a cigar, especially in the wintertime.” They watch sporting events on three big television screens on the wall at one end. Usually, one is tuned to horse racing, one to golf and one to baseball. “We’ll have the sound playing gently on one of the TVs. All the guys get together in there for the sports or for private conversations—it’s truly a great mix we get in there,” Zyniecki says. “For instance, today we had a veterinarian, a lawyer, a car salesman, a truck driver and a financial adviser, all in there at the same time, all communing over a shared hobby. They’re not all of the same income or background or personal persuasion, but they all share the same welcoming attitude.”
Zyniecki notes that one complaint he hears with some frequency comes when he moves products around in the store. “It’s unavoidable,” he says. “With so many products, I have to move things to a different shelf sometimes, but the customers don’t like it very much. Still, it is good for the business on the whole.” Theft is a minor issue but one requiring eternal vigilance, a fact of life that never quite goes away. “And it’s not the guys you think it is, either,” says Zyniecki. “The guys we catch stealing cigars are not the young kids out of the university. It’s older guys, people who have money, people who should know better. We have to spend quite a bit of time reviewing video to catch them.” Zyniecki reports that the biggest headaches in running the business concern taxes and the complications that flow from taxes. “And the 21-year-old smoking law,” he adds.
The Zynieckis maintain membership in the IPCPR, the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, the Tobacconists’ Association of America (TAA) and the New York Tobacconists Association—“to help fight the tobacco laws,” says Zyniecki. “But we’re not really very politically involved in any more hands-on way.” The annual IPCPR and TAA shows are where the Edleez organization does quite a bit of its buying. Otherwise, says Zyniecki, “We prefer to deal with company representatives.”
The Edleez website is charming but not overtly commercial. Online visitors have to telephone orders in and give a credit card number, and the store will ask customers unknown to them to send a copy of a driver’s license for age verification. A young part-timer, Mia Flores, handles the social media presence, consisting of occasional email blasts, Instagram and of course Facebook.
Zyniecki says, “The business is on cruise control right now. I can’t afford to expand any more. But we’re doing OK.”