visitors notice about The Outlaw Cigar Company is not the cigars, the accessories, the staff, or any of the other typical aspects of a prosperous cigar store — although all of these are plentiful and certainly cool at The Outlaw. The first thing one really notices is that the store is like Disney World for cigar smokers: The Outlaw is a destination. With its imposing facade and busily trafficked location you won’t miss it in northern Kansas City. Customers aren’t missing it either. Outlaw is a terrific story pulled from the history of Americana guts, gamble, and know-how: an underdog tale of a computer company c.e.o. with a dream to own a kick-ass cigar store where men could be men and feel like they lived — even for a few moments—like an Outlaw: smoking fat cigars, drinking, telling stories, and demonstrating to the rest of the world what they were missing.
The story begins in 1995. The Outlaw’s owner, Kendall Culbertson, wasn’t exactly working in the mold of a rebel when the dream came calling. “I owned and operated another business, Midwest Technology Connection, which managed customer computer networks, and I was bored out of my skull and looking for somewhere different to apply my talents. I wanted to do something that I was passionate about and I definitely wasn’t passionate about the computer business. I loved cigars, and I felt like there was a real market opportunity to develop what I thought the cigar industry needed: not a place just to buy cigars, but a place where people could go to hang out with each other…a club, if you will, where guys could go and talk with other guys about common interests. That’s where I felt like I could successfully focus and develop a market.”
After Culbertson plunged into the retail cigar business, he spent a great deal of time creating his cigar marketing model. “If you think about the cigar business, there are the growers, the manufacturers, the distributors, and the retailers. I didn’t fully understand who was actually contributing to creating demand for cigars when I got into the business, but I knew that’s where we needed to be to succeed—in a position to create demand. So we went to work doing that.” His efforts became the stuff of legend as Culbertson decided to enter the business during the ‘90s boom with no cigar contracts, no facility, and no staff. Talk about a rebel.
“Well,” Culbertson says with just a touch of sheepishness and humility, “you couldn’t really get cigars during the boom so I collected them for two years before opening the store.”
You’re kidding, right?
“No, I actually stockpiled the sticks until the day we opened and to say that the manufacturers were shocked at our inventory on that opening day would be a gross understatement. They were flabbergasted! There were, of course, both polite and impolite inquiries as to how I had amassed such a huge inventory of the biggest brands without manufacturer relationships. ‘Good question. I’m glad you asked. Now, how ‘bout those Chiefs?,’” recounts Culbertson with a laugh. “I collected around $350,000 of cigars for inventory because part of creating demand is creating the sizzle right out of the gate. Then you have to keep it going, and we didn’t want to run out of inventory once we got the store open. Pretty soon, people began to observe the phenomena that has become The Outlaw Cigar Company and we were able to establish long-term relationships with virtually all of the players in the industry that are with us today.”
Next came the all-important issue of branding the store and for Outlaw it was never going to be run-of-the-mill.
“I felt like we needed to develop a marketing machine with a brand that had the ability to appeal to non cigar smokers as well as cigar smokers,” Culbertson says, “and we wanted to reach the rebellious side of men like Harley-Davidson and Las Vegas does. I wanted to play off of those rebel themes and that’s why I chose the name The Outlaw Cigar Company, with the motto ‘The Biggest and Baddest.’” With that vision in mind, Outlaw began to seek the right customers for the store.
“From the very beginning we had to figure out who our core demographic was,” Culbertson says, “and I think we did that better than anyone. To capture their attention, we brought them to the store for huge events. I believed then and now that if we couldn’t live our slogan—The Biggest and Baddest—then we needed to get into another business. We were going big from the beginning and we weren’t going to be shy about it.”
Event marketing drove that strategy and is today a major part of the store’s success. Outlaw events and parties are major productions and usually feature some combination of cigar royalty, live music, special events, great food, and adult beverages. Yet, somehow that doesn’t describe these parties accurately. They are more of a happening where one time you might see hundreds of good looking women trying out for the Outlaw’s annual glossy calendar, combined with a collection of hot steeds from the local Porsche club, combined with an Apache helicopter that the military friends of Outlaw’s have flown in just for the party….you get the idea. They are loud and wild. Kegs float. Choppers roar. And men are men. Outlaw veterans fly in from across the country and won’t miss the parties for their own anniversaries. But it’s the statistics that truly define the scope of the Outlaw parties.
There are somewhere between 800–1,200 people at each event, and between 80–100 new customers buy cigars on the day of the event. In addition, Outlaw specifically tracks cigar and accessory sales in the two weeks after the event to further quantify the impact of the party.
“Typically we hook new customers at their first event even if they’re not cigar smokers because the events are so cool,” says Culbertson. “At their second event they often try a cigar, which results in creating 50 to 80 new cigar smokers a month.” In addition to creating visibility and fulfilling ambitious marketing goals, The Outlaw parties have tremendous impact where it truly matters—by driving the bottom line to high double-digit growth since 2002 with no signs of stopping.
“All of the time and effort that our vendors put into these events is very well spent,” Culbertson offers. “The demand for their cigar brands increases significantly.”
To publicize the roster of parties and the cigar celebrities who travel to Kansas City to host them, Culbertson publishes an annual glossy wall calendar featuring scantily-clad models and confirmed dates blocked out for all of the year’s parties and associated events, which include golf tournaments or dinners with manufacturers. There is a major party scheduled every month, as well a Texas Hold ‘em tournaments each Tuesday evening, football Sunday and Monday night events, fight nights, and blind tastings.
“This calendar represents one method we use to create excitement for our cigar events and the industry giants who attend them,” says Culbertson. The list of cigar celebrities is indeed extensive, from Christian Eiroa of Camacho Cigars and Tim Ozgener of C.A.O. to Avo Uvezian, Jorge Padrón, Litto Gómez, Rocky Patel, and Manuel Quesada.
The “Bad to the Bone Tour” calendar, perhaps more appropriately called the “party guide,” also cross-promotes other marketing and merchandise tie-ins, such as the “Bad to the Bone Tour 2007 Collection”—a nine-cigar boxed set, and the “Bad to the Bone Pack,” a limited-availability three-cigar set featuring rare, aged, and unique cigars that changes monthly.
Customers can join the “Outlaw Cigar Gang” which provides access to special discounts, exclusives, and other extras, and a first chance to purchase the limited Bad to the Bone Packs.
Events and branding, of course, would mean little if the store wasn’t built on a solid footing, and despite the “bad ass” and “tough guy” approach, the merchandise selection and store build-out rival those of any high-end store. In addition to the leading premium cigars, humidors, lighters, cases, briar and meerschaum pipes, and other smoking accessories, The Outlaw taps regional interest in pocket knives with an extensive selection that includes models from Benchmade, Chris Reeve, Elishewitz, Kelly Carlson, Kershaw, Micro-Tech, Pro-Tech, SOG, Spyderco William Henry, and Xikar.
The store is easily Kansas City’s largest full-service cigar company, notes Culbertson, and features a 600-square foot walk-in humidor as well as 40 individual cigar lockers. Retail sales area totals 1,000 square feet and there is a well-appointed 800-square-foot “host room” lounge equipped with big-screen televisions and other amenities. The store is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m (11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays).
Culbertson sees further growth for The Outlaw and believes a significant part of that growth is now being assisted by the efforts of the manufacturers. “The manufacturers are working harder than ever to help retailers grow their business and they are also working harder than ever to make great cigars. The bad cigars don’t last,” Culbertson says. But rebels do, and they can be found at an outpost in Kansas City called The Outlaw Cigar Company.