we sent Aaron Sigmond, founding editor of Smokeshop's sister magazine, Smoke, to Las Vegas to visit the now Vegas ubiquitous Brothers Frey. He came away with a clear vision of what just might be the ultimate unabashed cigar refuge remaining in America. Now as the Freys enter their tenth year of operations, they do so auspiciously with the recent grand opening of their latest endeavor, Casa Fuente, a joint venture between Robert & Michael Frey and Robert Levin of Holt's Cigar Company. We sent Sigmond back to Vegas in June to sit down with all the partners to discuss the opening of the world's first licensed Arturo Fuente boutique and cigar bar, how the Las Vegas cigar landscape has evolved, and what the future holds for the city's cigar scene.
"Where do you go to smoke a good cigar in Los Angeles? [pause] Las Vegas!" To many, that joke is far from funny. It is, however, a testament to what Las Vegas - 'Sin City, The Big Town' - has come to mean for cigar devotees: an everyman Xanadu where you can still enjoy a good old martini and puff on a Churchill between sips... all without commentary or ire.
In 1999, I arrived at the Caesars Forum Shops on behalf of Smokeshop to tour the seven cigar stores that made up the Frey Brothers' Las Vegas cigar domain at that time. I rendezvoused with Michael Frey, who arrived with his sibling Robert in tow to nosh at the Vegas edition of the eternally voguish gourmet pizzeria Spago, before continuing on to our first destination, the Freys' Colosseum Cigars, inside the gilded and heavily plastered Caesars Palace Hotel.
At the conclusion of my 1999 article, I not-so-boldly foretold, "The Freys [and Las Vegas] epitomize the future of cigar retailing. With [their company-wide strategy of] maximizing sales floor and display areas; elegant and interesting, but non-imposing décor; knowledge and lean staffs; and well-maintained stock [the Freys have devised a formula for success.]" As an addendum, Michael added, "The great thing about Las Vegas is that you never know what the day will bring," while Robert chimed in, "I just couldn't imagine a better market." As it turns out, Robert was right on the money, and in a town like Vegas, that's all that counts.
Fast-forward to 2005 and the grand opening of the world's first licensed Arturo Fuente boutique and cigar bar, Casa Fuente - the latest cigar divan located directly on the fabled Las Vegas Strip. While it is sure to be considered by many the jewel in the crown of the Frey Brothers' Las Vegas cigar world, ironically this "jewel" is a complete departure from the Frey Boy formula, the antithesis of all their other properties. It's spacious, with high ceilings, and while the highly researched décor is pronounced, compared to the Frey's other stores, it is quite austere.
Located a hop, skip, and a jump from the Freys' Colosseum Cigar store, Casa Fuente is located inside the Forum Shops' recently-completed three-story, $139-million expansion. This new wing includes 60 upscale stores such as Dolce & Gabanna, Chrome Hearts, Nambé, and Valentino; a grand entrance from "The Strip;" as well as inlaid marble floors, a three-story spiral escalator, and 57 classical statues. The last cigar-oriented retailer found inside the Forum Shops was the shuttered Alfred Dunhill resort boutique, which had a well-heeled humidor equipped with a few prerequisite club chairs. To say that Casa Fuente is a stark contrast to the fallen Alfred Dunhill store is simply an understatement.
The 1,500-square-foot Casa Fuente space is divided into four sections: the patio, which offers seating for 35 and full cocktail service; the bar, which has seating for about 10; the humidor; and the cash-wrap/accessories area. The store's overall design evokes the sensation of lounging about Habana viejo. As Michael Frey explains, "We wanted the store to hearken back to the Fuente Family's Cuban roots, while presenting the pride of their adopted country, the Dominican Republic." To achieve the desired aesthetic Frey worked with noted interior designer Kimberly Harris of Studio K and architect George Bergman, of Bergman Walls & Assocs., to form a three-person design team.
To perpetuate the tropical state of mind, Cuban jazz continuously wafts through the store. The red-and-black-pillared bar is almost an exact replica of Havana's famed Bar Floridita - the only significant departure being the mirror behind the Casa Fuente version, where a mural resides in the original. While the floor tiles also have an old Cuban feel, they were handmade in the Dominican Republic, and a sepia-toned photo mural above the humidor entrance comprised of Fuente family photos was created by avant garde Brooklyn artist Lucas Irwin.
The store's humidor, neatly tucked away in the back, is separated into two distinct parts. First is the paradise (a gated area akin to those found in Cognac distilleries where the rarest of the rare Cognacs of various vintage are archived). Here one can peak in on the coveted Fuente Fuente Opus X, Forbidden X, the previously unreleased $125 Don Arturo 13 (a Lonsdale originally created for the Arturo Fuente 90th Anniversary), and the exclusive house cigar, Casa Fuente, from which a portion of all of the sales are donated to Fuente's altruistic effort, The Cigar Family Charitable Foundation. The remainder of the humidor is an open area where anyone can readily access the merchandise.
Unlike Davidoff of Geneva and Alfred Dunhill stores the world over that stock their shelves with brands other than their own White Label and red-banded Signed Range cigars, respectively, the well-stocked humidor at Casa Fuente is completely Fuente-centric. In addition to the new Casa Fuente cigar and the Arturo Fuente line itself, the cigar selection includes brands owned or produced by the Fuente factory including Bauza, the various Ashton series, Fuente Fuente Opus X, Diamond Crown, and Montesino. Other products sold in the store include Ashton humidors, Prometheus limited-edition Fuente humidors, cigar cases, cutters, ST DuPont lighters, accessories including the limited-edition Fuente Fuente Opus X lighter and ashtray sets, and other Fuente-branded accessories and apparel.
Entrusting the Fuente Name
The creation of Casa Fuente spanned a period of three years. During a visit to the Dominican Republic, Michael Frey had the chance to speak privately with Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr., president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia, and pitched him the idea. "Carlito listened politely to what I had to say," recalls Frey, who along with his brother had formed a strong relationship with the entire Fuente family since entering the cigar business. "I explained to him that the store would really be a showcase for Fuente family projects and the traditions they represent, as well as their passion for quality," Frey says. Citing Alfred Dunhill and Davidoff of Geneva stores as examples, Frey summed up by saying that the next logical step in the Fuente evolution was to open a store. But Fuente Jr. was not immediately convinced.
"I was honored, but, in the back of my mind, even though it would be a wonderful thing for my family, it was ultimately something I would have to refuse to do," Fuente Jr. recalls. For over three generations, he reasoned, his family had been cigar manufacturers, never involved in retail or any other business, for that matter. "I really thought about it, but I knew it was something that was going to be almost impossible to see develop. I didn't see ourselves in the retail business. I really believe in protecting our retailers."
Months after Frey's initial conversation with Fuente Jr., he began chatting up the idea with mutual colleague Robert Levin, who has a life-long relationship with the Fuente family. In 1989 Levin and Fuente Jr. recreated the original Ashton cigar line after Levin left the Tabadom factory. Even while Tabadom was producing the original Ashton, Levin and Fuente Jr. created and released the Ashton Cabinet in 1987 and then, as a follow-up, the Ashton Aged Maduro. By 1989 all Ashton production was housed within Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.
"The Freys were a very good account of ours," says Levin of his role as supplier of his Fuente-made Ashton cigars. "They were good customers, and I got to know them very well." Joining forces for a potential Fuente showcase seemed "a natural," says Levin.
In the summer of 2004, after a presentation by both Frey and Levin, Carlos Sr. and Jr. finally agreed to move forward. The final piece fell into place when Robert Frey learned there was still space available in the third phase of the luxury Caesars Forum Shops - allowing the project to charge ahead. "When the Freys said they had a chance to get a spot in the Forum, that gave us the impetus to really do it," says Levin. "I knew Carlito really wanted to do the project." As the resident leasing guru, Frey immediately secured the space where the bar and store reside today.
Later in the year, Fuente Jr. signed off on the final design and architectural plans presented to him by the design team. With plans approved, construction commenced and the store finally opened its doors to a soft opening this past April 15th. A grand opening celebration was held the first week of June.
"It's one of those things that developed over years," says Levin. "It wasn't like we suddenly said, 'We're going to open a Casa Fuente.' It just sort of evolved into being without any grand master plan." For Fuente Jr., one of the defining moments came when he saw the project as a tribute to his family, his grandfather especially, and the unique opportunity Vegas presented.
"This is something that not only would showcase our family heritage - pay tribute to my grandfather, his name, our family, and our products - but also it would help the cigar industry all over the world because it's a first-class store. The image is incredible."
Everyone involved in this project views it first and foremost as a major branding and marketing tool to expose the Fuente name to more people than ever before. On an average weekday, 50,000 people walk through the Caesars Forum shops and weekend crowds swell to between 85,000-100,000. "The Casa Fuente store will in no way cut into other retailers' allocations of the limited release Fuente cigars," assures Michael Frey, a semtiment shared by all of the partners in the project. Fuente, Jr. confirms, "It's going to help sell Fuente cigars. It's going to help every other retailer. There's no place like this location."
To further emphasize the Fuentes' position on the store's purpose, the Fuente family opted not to be financial partners in the venture. The store is a straightforward licensing deal, structured as a partnership between the Freys and Levin, who pay an annual royalty fee directly to The Cigar Family Charitable Foundation. The Fuentes gain nothing more out of this venture than donations towards their philanthropic pursuits, a tribute to their family's heritage, and a presence to increase brand awareness - which they are confident will directly translate into sales for all Fuente retailers.
"It's there to build the brand," Levin stresses. "It's a great showplace, and it will help other retailers."
Frey's Evolving Vegas Empire
Beyond the excitement of Casa Fuente, much has remained the same in the Freys' cigar ventures over the past six years, although one would hardly call it stagnant. Simply put, business has been good. They still have the aforementioned Colosseum Cigars in Caesars Palace, as well as Empire Cigars in the New York New York Hotel and Casino, Mardi Gras Cigars inside the Rio, and Medici Cigar Club in the Monte Carlo Hotel. Gone is the Bombay Club in Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, as is the once highly visible store and lounge in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. "With the Hard Rock it was a mutual parting," Frey emphasizes.
In 2001 the Freys opened The Partagas Cigar Factory at the Smith & Wollensky Steak House right on the Las Vegas strip and, just recently, a new corporate store, Cigar Box, located off the beaten path from the main hotels and casinos. It caters mostly to local customers.
For the last five years the Freys have had to contend with something previously unfamiliar to them - stiff competition - in the form of the Arcella family's franchised Davidoff of Geneva Las Vegas outposts at the Venetian Hotel & Casino, MGM Grand Casino, and Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. Michael Frey is quick to point out that "Matt [Arcella] is a friendly competitor," proudly adding, "he is also a wholesale customer of ours."
In addition to the stores, the Freys have embarked upon what has become a thriving wholesale business. Their own portfolio of cigars includes a premium souvenir tubo, named simply The Las Vegas Cigar, and Sweet Daddies, an aromatic cigar line in "smoke-a-licious" flavors including cherry, grape, rum vanilla, and Amaretto.
But perhaps the biggest news to come out of the Frey camp is that while the company is still the "Frey Boys," Robert Frey has phased himself out of the day-to-day operations of the family's cigar interests and turned his full-time attention to a number of night clubs that dot the Vegas clubbing landscape. As a nightclub impresario, the younger Frey operates four very high-profile nightclubs in the city. Older brother Michael focuses all of his efforts on the cigar operations and Montecristo Rum.
With Casa Fuente, the Freys have reasserted themselves as the undisputed kings of the Las Vegas cigar world. Never ones to rest on their laurels, the Freys anticipate growth even as the smoking environment grows more tenacious throughout the U.S., including Atlantic City, the East Coast gaming hub, where a proposed indoor smoking ban for all of New Jersey does not exempt casinos. With a certain reserve Michael Frey comments on the future by stating,"I am reluctant to discuss specifics, given the anti-smoking environment in other states, especially neighboring California. Let's just say that Las Vegas hoteliers and casino operators have taken note of the situation at hand and are ready to leverage the very cigar-friendly environment here. There is simply a plethora of opportunities to open stores in other hotels, as well as expand our wholesale operations. I expect to announce big things in the very near future."
Viva Las Vegas!
SMOKESHOP - August, 2005