Cigar retailers seek to light up the D.C. market

October 2, 2011

In Naples, Fla., Rocky Patel has established for cigar smokers a sanctum called Burn Lounge where they can light up to their hearts’ content, imbibe spirits, and enjoy their guilty pleasure without worrying about being banished to the great outdoors.

Now he wants to open such a lounge on Capitol Hill next year, a space between 3,500 and 4,500 square feet that would accommodate up to 350 people, the capacity of his Florida lounge. Patel and a growing number of retailers say they see great potential in the Washington cigar market, and they are making moves to better cater to the region’s power brokers.

“It would be great to have a venue [on Capitol Hill] where congressmen and senators or aides could appreciate the art form called cigar smoking,” Patel said of his prospective lounge.

Veronica Jeon and Tony Marshall are chief executive and managing partner, respectively, of JIVI Management and Consulting, a Washington-based firm that advises clients on human resources. Based on what they heard from several clients who were interested in a business-focused cigar establishment, Jeon and Marshall recently announced plans to build Puff Restaurant and Lounge, a 6,000-square-feet members-only lounge at 1831 M St. NW.

The enterprise will be fronted by a smoke-free, publicly accessible Cajun restaurant, with the lounge above, Jeon said. Membership costs are to range from $1,000 to $10,000, and include amenities such as access to humidor lockers, retail discounts and a complimentary smoking jacket. The basic bronze membership will offer unlimited access and one guest per visit.


Matt Krimm, co-owner of W.Curtis Draper Tobacconist, which has moved to 699 15th St. NW. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)

Jeon said the lounge is expected to open in late winter.

“The idea is to offer Washington’s players, lawyers, politicians, lobbyists and business executives a place to relax or work,” she said.

The possible D.C. expansion comes amid an upturn in the national cigar market. Over the past five years, cigar sales have risen while cigarettes have declined, said Mary Gotaas, a tobacco industry analyst with IBISWorld.

“Overall, alternative products to cigarettes are growing,” Gotaas said. Those products include cigars, chewing tobacco, hookahs and smokeless tobacco products.

Indoor cigar lounges and stores have long been popular in Washington, with outlets in Georgetown, DuPont Circle, Trinidad and downtown. Washington cigar stores are exempt from indoor smoking bans if they get 10 percent or more of annual revenue from non-cigarette tobacco sales.

On Sept. 1, W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist moved from 14th Street NW to a larger lounge at 699 15th St. NW, its windows overlooking the ionian columns of the Treasury Department.

The new lounge is 50 percent larger, said Matt Krimm, who co-owns the store with John Anderson. Business, they said, has picked up considerably, getting foot traffic from around the White House from tourists.

Inside, dark wooden cabinets blend with steel gray columns. The cabinets are arranged as they would be in a jewelry store, with cigars displayed under glass. One side room contains the pipe collection and tobacco.

On a recent Tuesday, all but one of the 10 seats were filled with men puffing. Some old customers entering the new shop for the first time rendered their verdict. “I like this one a lot better,” said a man in a tropical-patterned guayabera shirt.

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