By Jorge Armenteros
For 20 years we have operated A Little Taste of Cuba in Princeton, New Jersey, in a 683-square-foot space. Our retail theater consisted of a humidor of 130-plus square feet with couches, chairs and stools placed throughout the store for customers to use for free. As a full-service tobacconist, we have sold millions of dollars worth of premium cigars, pipe tobaccos and the related accouterments in this small but well-organized space.
In early 2015, I heard that the retail space adjacent to our existing store would become available. While it has always been a dream to expand our shop, I couldn’t fathom how we could possibly increase sales enough to pay the rent. Under our traditional business model, we would have to sell another $250,000 a year just to pay for the new space, furnishings and build-out. That kind of growth seems unachievable. The only other way to make the project viable would be to charge a usage fee for the new amenities (seating, air cleaners, etc.). The challenge, of course, to changing your business model is that your customers have already become accustomed to the value-added service of free seating. Ultimately, they feel entitled to it because they have never known anything different.
After considering the risk of alienating our small percentage of free-seating customers and balancing it with the benefits of creating a more welcome environment for all of our customers, I decided it was worth it to try and enhance our products and services. After months of planning, engineering, architectural work and construction, we realized we could indeed break through the walls connecting the new and old space and provide a much better environment for sampling, tasting and enjoying cigars and pipe tobaccos.
After nine months, the Tobacconist University (TU) Tasting Room at A Little Taste of Cuba officially opened on Jan. 1 with more than 20 seats in half a dozen separate areas, a state-of-the-art air cleaning and filtration system, TV, oak walls, tin ceilings, lockers and everything else lovers of premium tobaccos need and want. While we are 30 percent toward achieving our financial goals, the feedback and response from our paying guests has been extraordinary. They love the space, the air is great, the amenities are extremely comfortable, and our TU Certified Tobacconists have more time, space and freedom to focus on the in-and-out customer traffic in our retail area—seemingly a win-win for everyone!
But, that’s not nearly the end of the story. After battling through all of the challenges related to starting this new business, embracing the risk and building the space, we were notified that the local health department had “issues” with our expansion. That’s a terrifying thought, since we believed we had studied the law and know that our smoking ban exemption allows us to expand and/or move. And while I felt confident we were well within our rights, nothing terrifies a business owner more than government intervention and regulation—especially when that regulation and authority is based on poorly, loosely and/or ambiguously written laws.
The New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act and 2007 Regulations allow us to have a tobacco retail establishment exemption. It specifically says that smoking is permitted for pre-purchase sampling for “cash and carry” purposes. We lobbied hard for these exemptions when the smoking ban was passed because we know that sampling is integral to the purchase process when spending significant money on luxury goods with organoleptic properties. It’s the same premise as liquor stores allowing sampling of wines. While we would have preferred more generous wording or latitude in the law, this is what we got, and we have to make it work. We tell our customers that the Tasting Room exists so that they can sample products if they have the intent to make a multi-unit “cash and carry” purchase.
Through the expansion process, the local health department made sure we have proper signage reflecting the law, and they have been in several times to inspect the premises. They’ve also photographed our signage and store several times.
During the last two “inspections,” I inquired why they keep coming back. After all, we are within our rights of the law, and they concur. They suggested that we don’t want to look like we are “having fun” in the Tasting Room because of the way the law was written. This is an actual discussion I had with them. So, we put up blinds. They told us that the presence of couches, chairs and a TV may indicate that we are doing more than sampling, but the word “may” is too ambiguous to enforce. So, we educate our customers and post the law because we have every intent to operate within the law.
Then, during the last “inspection,” they asked me how long it takes to smoke a cigar—15, 20, 25 minutes? I said, “No! It could take a couple of hours! And what if a customer wants to sample another cigar before they make their purchase decision?”
It didn’t end there. They then asked me, for the second time, how I “feel” about having a sign-in sheet for our customers? What? Do liquor stores, bars or restaurants have sign-in sheets tracking their customers’ behaviors and consumption? “This is starting to sound a lot like Nazi Germany,” I answered. “My parents came to this country from Cuba to avoid this kind of government oversight and control.”
The health inspector was not completely unsympathetic to my shock and dismay (verging on anger). He admitted that the health department was under a lot of pressure from an anti-smoking nonprofit organization (which I shall not mention in this article). This nonprofit’s mission is to reduce peoples’ exposure to secondhand smoke and reduce tobacco use, and they are clearly incensed by the fact that a business like ours, a pre-eminent retail tobacconist, is thriving and growing. They have been contesting our existence and rights at every health board meeting since before we announced our expansion.
While the mission of this anti-smoking group says nothing about running tobacconists out of town and putting them out of business, they are clearly guided by anti-tobacco zealotry that extends far beyond their explicit goals. In our case, we are lucky to have a health department that understands the difference between mass-produced cigarette consumption and luxury cigars and pipe tobaccos. We are lucky that we are protected by state law. We are fortunate that we have 20 years of history as a reputable business with strong ties to the community.
But all that misses the point. We shouldn’t have to be “lucky” to exercise our rights and operate within the law. We shouldn’t have to be afraid of anti-tobacco crusaders who hate us, and exploit and put pressure on our local government. Our local government exists to protect us, all of us, and not just to serve the political, prohibitionist and nanny state interests.