A tobacco shop and clubhouse in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
By Stephen A. Ross
In her wildest imagination, Sarah McCauley never dreamed of owning a premium tobacco store, but sometimes opportunities that might seem out of reach are actually within our grasp—all we need is a little bit of encouragement and help from our friends. And that’s exactly what Sarah and her husband Mike received when their favorite cigar store seemed destined to close forever.
A massage therapist interested in cigars, Sarah began hanging out at Bayou Humidor, a shop that could trace its history to 1968 when it opened as House of Briar. Though Bayou Humidor was a male-dominated environment at the time, the regulars soon discovered that Sarah, whose personality mixes feistiness, Southern charm, determination, feminine grace and conservative political views, fit in well, and she became an integral part of the crowd.
In 2001, Bayou Humidor’s owner, Phillip Eversburg, passed away and the store closed. The regulars needed a place to smoke and continue to gather, so they turned to Sarah and Mike to find a solution. Mike had been in the retail tobacco trade for more than 20 years at that point and had been the longtime manager of House of Briar/Bayou Humidor since the 1980s. He and Sarah had struck up a growing friendship (which turned to marriage in 2008), and the regulars urged them to open a new store.
“After the funeral, we went to lunch with a bunch of guys from the shop,” Sarah recalls. “They looked at us and asked, ‘What are y’all going to do?’ I wondered what they meant by ‘y’all.’ A year ago I had been just a girl that they didn’t want hanging out here, and now they wanted me to save the place. They pretty much browbeat Mike and I to look into it.”
The more they thought about the idea of replacing the store, the more they liked it, especially Sarah. After all, Bayou Humidor had become something of a home away from home for her. And it reminded her of her childhood, when her great-grandfather had owned a general store that had become a community gathering place for neighbors to exchange hellos, gossip and solve all the world’s problems. She felt it would be a shame to let the friendships and camaraderie that developed at Bayou Humidor disappear forever.
“I had worked briefly with a competitor, so I knew that I could work in the industry,” says Sarah. “It all just sort of fell into our laps. We started talking and we realized that we could do it. We got a loan and six weeks later we owned a tobacco store, and I wasn’t quite sure how it happened. I had been a massage therapist working two days a week, and now I’m a partner in a tobacco store working six days a week. It happened so fast.”
Buying the store, of course, was just the beginning. They were still looking at a lot of work to update it. Money was tight, but that solid group of regulars, who like to call themselves “The Committee,” pitched in once again to save their smoking clubhouse.
“They helped us rebuild it,” she says. “We opened a new shop. All the regulars took what belonged to them out of Bayou Humidor, and then the day that we opened Bayou Tobacco they brought it all back into the store. In the middle of all that, we had to demolish the interior. One of our longtime customers and my father built the walk-in humidor. We installed new cypress paneling and painted the floors. It was really a community effort to reopen the store.”
The community atmosphere at Bayou Tobacco remains strong. Almost all of the furnishings inside the store were donated by regulars. The same is true of the eclectic wall art ranging from photos of nearby Louisiana State University’s sports teams to pictures of cigar celebrities, ads for various cigar and pipe brands, and other local paraphernalia, such as Mardi Gras beads. The result is a charming mishmash of decor that adds more character to the already rich atmosphere. Bayou Tobacco has such a comfy, down-home feel to it that it’s mighty tempting to act as if you’re in your own home. And that’s the way the McCauleys like it.
“We’re the place to come and be comfortable and smoke in peace,” Sarah says. “We’re a family-owned business, and when you add our regulars to the mix it’s like a big family here.”
With the focus on family at Bayou Tobacco, it should come as no surprise that the McCauleys have a natural affinity for family-owned cigar companies. Brands like Los Blancos, Rocky Patel, Arturo Fuente, Oliva, Gran Habano, Perdomo and La Aurora are prominent inside the humidor.
“We concentrate more on family companies because we want to support those people who support the industry,” Sarah says. “That sort of separates us from the other retailers in the area. We’re different enough, and it works out well for us. We attract a different kind of clientele too. We get college kids, blue-collar guys and millionaires. They all feel at home here because we do our best to make them feel special when they come inside the store.”
While Bayou Tobacco’s cigar offerings may set it apart from other stores in the area, its pipe and pipe tobacco inventory is another area that separates the store from local competitors. Mike is the pipe guy. He enjoyed his first pipe in 1973, and he still almost always has a pipe with him. He’s likely forgotten more about the pipe and pipe tobacco world than most people will ever know.
“I will smoke an occasional cigar, but I love pipes,” Mike says. “I can tell what the tobacco is just by tasting it. There is always a variety of tastes. Some guys want me to blog about it, but I don’t want to do that. There are a few aromatics that I still smoke, but for the most part I don’t. I ask customers if they want a natural sweet or if they want a flavored tobacco and then go on from there.”
Because of Mike’s interest and deep knowledge of pipes and pipe tobaccos, the categories make up approximately 40 percent of Bayou Tobacco’s annual sales. The store stocks new pipes by Ser Jacopo, Nording, Savinelli, Dunhill, Neerup, Mastro de Paja, Gepetto, Rossi, Paykoc, Tim West, Jobey, Brebbia, La Rocca, Eric Stokkebye’s 4th Generation and Missouri Meerschaum. It also has dozens of estate pipes available for sale.
“I try to start everyone off at about $35 for their first pipe,” Mike says. “They don’t want to spend a lot of money, and if that’s too much for them then I suggest a corncob pipe. Our most popular price range is $150. That seems to be the sweet spot for our pipe buyers.”
Pipe tobaccos include bulk and tins of Mac Baren, Newminster, Lane, Altadis, McClelland and Stokkebye, as well as Bayou Tobacco’s own blends, which could be rendered unsalable if the lawsuit asking for an injunction against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s regulation of the premium tobacco industry is unsuccessful.
“We make our own blends using a lot of the bulk,” Mike explains. “For the most part that’s what sells. We sell more black Cavendish as part of our own blends than any other tobacco. We have until Dec. 31 to register with the FDA as a manufacturer. We’re trying to find a way to prove that these blends existed before the Feb. 15, 2007, predicate date. If we can’t, we might consider going through the substantial equivalency process with our best-selling blends. It’s really important for the industry that the lawsuit asking for the injunction against the FDA succeed. Our future depends on it.”
If the lawsuit fails and FDA plans remain unchanged, it would be a huge expense to pay the money necessary to undergo that process to continue blending those tobaccos and legally selling them. Growing government regulation and higher taxes are just a reality for tobacconists these days. Sarah, who is president of the Louisiana Independent Tobacconists Association, sometimes tires of the fight but knows it must continue if her business is to survive.
“I would love to spend all day selling tobacco and talking to people who come into the store, but we have to fight in politics today,” she says. “I try not to look a few years down the road. I know it’s probably not good business, but I like to go with the flow and be where I feel like I’m supposed to be. I get cocky and plan ahead and God changes those plans. We do what needs to be done to keep the business that has lasted 47 years going. I have the personality to say what I think and do the things that I need to do to get things to happen the way I think they should, so I think it will work out in the end.”
The Committee wouldn’t have it any other way.