Retail Issues:

Olde Punta Gorda Cigar & Tobacco Emporium:
The Eye of the Storm

When one of this season's devastating hurricanes roared through its historic Florida town, the Olde Punta Gorda Cigar & Tobacco Emporium quickly picked up the pieces and marched on.

By Bob Ashley

With 125-mph winds, Hurricane Charley, which abruptly visited Punta Gorda, Fla., Aug. 13 - Friday the 13th - was kinder to the Olde Punta Gorda Cigar & Tobacco Emporium than it was to the community of 16,120 residents itself.

"With most of Punta Gorda being literally destroyed, I was amazed at the minimal damage that my store suffered," says Ron Andrews, a retired Massachusetts state trooper who is Olde Punta Gorda's managing partner.

"The parking lot was strewn with aluminum and litter. I lost one storefront window, which, of course, caused a mess in our gift room. And the sales area was trashed. And because we were expecting a storm surge, I had cleared the bottom four feet of shelf space, and put the cigars on top of counters. They were sitting out there when the wind blew out the window, so I lost some product that way."

But much of the $15,000 in damage - Andrews said he lost 40% of his inventory - came during the aftermath. "We were without electricity for 11 days, which meant no temperature control devices in the store for almost two weeks with temperatures in the high 90s. We lost of a lot of inventory to beetle infestation."

Even with all that, Andrews made a point of re-opening the shop quickly, both for his benefit, but also for the benefit of his customers, some of whom he delivered cigars to during the two weeks the store was shuttered. "There is a core of 15 solid guys who are in here every day - sometimes two or three times a day," he says. "Some of them are service repairman, and they sort of use it as their office. Between calls or after lunch, you'll find them here.

"With the storms and everything else that was going on around here, I saw that I needed to get the place open. They wanted a little normalcy in their lives."

Storm damage inside the store has since been cleaned up, but normalcy in the town of Punta Gorda could take years.
"This is like a sanctuary," says customer Larry Casciello, a retired telephone company worker originally from Narlton Lake, N.J. Fellow customer Jack Blair, formerly a captain in the Merchant Marines from upstate New York, believes Olde Punta Gorda's reopening helped morale following the storm. "We needed something that was familiar that wasn't wrecked," Blair says. "Everybody here was in the same boat. We needed some sense of normalcy. Ron was able to give us a little of that."

"If ever there was a place that was like 'Cheers,' this is it," says Glynn Smith, a Tennessee native whose home four blocks away from Olde Punta Gorda was 50 percent destroyed by Hurricane Charley. "I found the smoke shop about 30 days after I came down here. Everybody knows everybody else, and we can all sit down, have a cigar and a drink - and talk about cigars and women."

That is precisely the type of store Andrews intended to open when he decided to indulge his affection for cigars that he acquired from the "Old Salt" state troopers in Massachusetts before he retired.

After moving to Florida in 1990, Andrews became a private investigator for a while, and later drove a local tour bus. That piqued his interest in Punta Gorda history and the city's involvement in cigar manufacturing. "Between 1900 and 1935, there were four cigar factories here," he says. "They were American companies, but the cigar rollers were all from Cuba. There was some labor trouble in Tampa, and Port Charlotte was a deep-water port at the time so they could bring Cuban tobacco in here. It all disappeared after several fires."

Some of the regular patrons of Olde Punta Gorda smoke shop enjoying a typical pastime inside the shop.
"Living down here is not like living in Massachusetts. There's 400 years of history up there," Andrews says. "Here we are living history. There was nothing here a hundred years ago, and there are people walking around town that founded this community."

Andrews says pleasant childhood memories guided him when he opened Olde Punta Gorda in June 1999. "My grandfather was a cigar smoker," Andrews says. "He always had cigars in his pocket. And I remember him taking me into a cigar store and I saw all the colors and there were all these smells. It was a place where everybody hung out. That's what I wanted to do here. This is a neighborhood smoke shop - a little social club."

In 2002, with customers pitching in with labor, Andrews added a coffee bar and smoking parlor with tile floors, two leather couches, and four overstuffed chairs to an adjacent empty store that previously housed a beauty shop. "That helped me open the store a little more," Andrews says. "I was able to make it a little more roomy."

With the help of fellow Massachusetts native Mike Chiusano, president of cigar manufacturer DomRey Inc., Andrews created a private blend cigar - Olde Punta Gorda Private Reserve, introduced in 2001 - that he sells word-of-mouth throughout the United States. "Snowbirds, visitors, tourists - whoever they may be - once they try this cigar, they go home and call me up and order a box. It's all by word of mouth and I send them everywhere. I've got a picture of a guy in Iraq holding a box of Punta Gorda cigars."

Members of the 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division serving in Kirkuk, Iraq, pictured on a destroyed BRDM-2 Armored Personnel Carrier with Olde Punta Gorda Private Reserve cigars.
Andrews wonders if the business would have survived without it. "Mike pushed me into making a private label cigar," Andrews says. "It was one of the best things I've ever done. It became the most popular cigar in my store. I was selling 25 or 30 boxes a month at first, and it was paying the rent for awhile while I was having to do other things. If I didn't have that cigar to sell, I don't know that I would be in the business today."

Olde Punta Gorda Private Reserve is made in the Dominican Republic by Hendrik Kelner for Chiusano's DomRey Cigar Ltd., in Sarasota, Fla. Kelner's factories produce Davidoff, Avo, and The Griffin's, among other brands. "It's a quality cigar, no doubt about it," Andrews says. With two Cuban-seed Dominican tobaccos as filler, a Dominican binder and Connecticut shade-grown wrapper, OPG Private Reserve features five sizes ranging from a 5 x 50 robusto to a 7 x 50 Churchill. Everything retails for $2.95, with the exception of a 6 x 52 torpedo that sells for $3.25.

"Because this is a community of retired people, a lot of guys on a fixed income are looking for something less expensive," Andrews said. "I don't think anybody comes into the store without taking some of those cigars with them. It's always been that way."

Andrews says he would like to extend the Private Reserve line with a maduro offering, but hasn't found a maduro tobacco that matches the quality of the Connecticut shade on the original Private Reserve. "We are waiting for the right maduro tobacco," he said. "We want the perfect wrapper."

Hurricane Charley has caused Andrews to rethink the way he markets Olde Punta Gorda, given that much around Punta Gorda has changed.

Locally, Andrews promotes Olde Punta Gorda in local newspapers and with specialty ads in local restaurant menus. Every third Thursday - at least before Hurricane Charley struck - local businesses stayed open for Punta Gorda's Gallery Walk, and Andrews would bring in a Cuban roller to demonstrate cigar making. In addition, Olde Punta Gorda stages cigar events in the store featuring specific cigar brands, light appetizers, and free cocktails.

Because of local anti-smoking regulations, cigar dinners in Punta Gorda are a thing of the past, Andrews noted. "You have to be in a bar that sells no food, but there are no restrictions on retail smoke shops," he said.

Although Andrews carries pipes, a pipe tobacco blend and accessories, 90% of his business is in boutique cigar brands that include Cusano, Fuente Fuente Opus X, Diamond Crown Maximus, Oliva, Bucanero, Perdomo, and Puros Indios.

"I have 12 different flavors of Buccaneer Blend pipe tobacco from FGT in Tampa - that's all that I carry," Andrew says. "And we still sell a few humidors, but people don't have a need for the upper-end humidor anymore, and we try to stay away from low-end product. We do well with upper-end cutters and moderately priced butane lighters."

Andrews and his family weathered Hurricane Charley in his fourth-floor condominium across the Peace River from Punta Gorda. "It was not a very pleasant experience, but we rode it out," he recalls. "I was sitting on the walkway outside smoking a cigar and watching the wind blow the trees around - and I remember thinking, 'This is nothing.' Then all of a sudden it sounded like a fright train was coming at me. I got back inside, and it was over in 20 minutes.

"When we went outside, it looked like a bomb had gone off. In Charlotte County, there was billions of dollars in damage. They are saying it's going to be five years of rebuilding."

SMOKESHOP - December, 2004