Local Flavor #2: Serious Cigars Houston, Texas
Monday May 11th, 2009
Many cigar smokers, even those outside of the Greater Houston area, are acquainted with Serious Cigars. Serious Cigars offers smokes in its retail stores and over the Internet, and hosts one of the biggest cigar blow-outs of the year each January during its annual Holiday – Customer Appreciation Party. As S.C. happens to represent my local B&M, I was certainly pleased to have the opportunity to sit down with the owner, Ron Lesseraux, light up a cigar and interview him on behalf of Cigar Weekly.
|Roadhawg & Ron Lesseraux|
CW: Ron, thanks for taking the time for some questions and for sharing your thoughts on the current status of the cigar industry.
Ron: You’re welcome. Fire away.
CW: What is your personal history with cigar smoking and how did that lead to the opening of Serious Cigars?
Ron: The story goes something like this... I was living in Washington, DC back in 1994. I was a former cigarette smoker who had broken the habit, but occasionally enjoyed a good cigar. A friend of mine introduced me to some really nice cigars, which were hand-rolled in Union City, New Jersey. I took the time to visit the folks in Union City, and began to buy a lot of product from them, which I resold to friends, bars and restaurants. This was during the real cigar boom in the mid-90s, and there was a huge demand for really good cigars. I moved back to Houston in 1996, and continued to sell cigars. There was a real shortage of the higher end products, so I marketed these cigars to the upscale restaurants and bars in the Houston area. We began Internet sales in 1997, again focusing on premium lines such as Fuente and Padron. That success eventually led to the opening of our retail shop here in late 2003.
CW: You have also opened a store in the Houston Galleria area. How is that going?
Ron: Both of our stores are doing exceptionally well. The newer store was the former Croft’s Pipe and Tobacco Shoppe on Richmond, and we have been in that location for about a year now. We increased the shelf space and expanded the inventory to something like 650 different cigars, and we are very pleased with the results. The business there is up substantially from when we first opened.
|Serious Cigars, Houston|
CW: What sets Serious Cigars apart from other cigar shops and retailers?
Ron: The short answer to that is the selection we offer. We have a 1400-square foot walk-in humidor, but it’s more than just that. Although there may be some exceptions, we do our best to offer virtually all of the popular sizes and varieties of each brand that we sell. We have been fortunate to forge strong partnerships with our suppliers, and have had good success at maintaining an inventory, even of the 'hot' brands that are difficult to find. The other aspect that we pioneered on our website was that we allowed single stick purchases over the Internet. A few years ago, almost no one did this; it was only box purchases, or maybe samplers or 5-packs. But we have always allowed single stick purchases and feel that a lot of customers appreciate this option.
CW: What special features or upcoming programs at Serious do you want our readers to know about?
Ron: We have a good number of special events at our two stores, where we bring in manufacturers, offer special purchase prices and give customers the opportunity to meet with notables in the cigar world as they enjoy food and beverage. We have our Big Smoke VIP program, which is explained on our website. And in May, we have a dinner at the Petroleum Club in Houston with Kinky Freidman. We try to put together events that are fun for our customers; the dinner with Kinky will be a lot of fun.
|Serious Cigar Lounge|
CW: Your shop here was hammered by Hurricane Ike last September. How has the recovery been?
Ron: Ike hit us in mid-September, but we were open and up and running by October. By November, our business was growing again. We have some very loyal customers who volunteered to help with the clean-up and getting us back to business. We even had some internet customers who basically said, “I’m placing this order to give you some business. Even if you don’t have stock now, just ship them when you can.” That was really amazing, and we appreciate it.
CW: What type of clientele frequent your shop?
Ron: There is definitely not a 'typical' customer. We have people in here regularly from a wide spectrum. We have police officers, EMS and firemen, truck drivers, retired folks, corporate CEOs, salespeople and many others. We have a good cross-section of customers.
CW: What are your customers’ favorite brands these days, and what trends do you see in size, taste, etc? What is your current favorite?
Ron: I really enjoy the Pepin line. In fact, I smoke the same cigar almost every day. It seems like tastes have come back to earth somewhat from what was an insatiable desire for strength. For a while, it seemed like smokers wanted stronger and stronger smokes, with no end in sight. This has backed off a bit, and now I see more demand for what I would classify as full flavor cigars. As far as sizes go, there was also a trend to bigger and bigger ring gauges, even 60 and larger. This seems to have settled in now to around the 52-54 ring selections.
|Serious Cigars Humidor|
|Still more of the Serious Cigars Humidor|
CW: With the current status of the economy, are your customers looking for more economic smokes?
Ron: Not at all. We have seen no downturn from the premium lines, and there is still strong demand for premium offerings. For example, just in the shop here this morning, one fellow came in and bought $300 worth of singles and another customer picked up a box of Padron 1926 40th Anniversary. There is a steady market for quality smokes.
CW: What do you see as the major changes in the cigar industry in the past year or so?
Ron: A lot of manufacturers have decided to offer 'Limited Edition', 'Anniversary Edition', 'Special Reserve' or other one-offs from their standard line to pique interest. This is good for the customer, but presents real challenges to retailers who want to offer a comprehensive selection from each manufacturer. For example, there are something like 18 different selections from Macanudo right now. We have also seen an increase in offerings by various manufacturers for Nicaraguan-reserve tobaccos.
CW: What specific obstacles do you face in light of new and proposed anti-smoking legislation?
Ron: I will get involved and voice my opinion to our legislators, but kicking and screaming and whining is just not my nature. Frankly, I don’t let it keep me up at night. We will adapt to legislation if and when it is enacted, and do our best to continue to grow our business. I really feel that regardless of the government’s actions to save us from ourselves, people will continue to enjoy quality cigars, and we will make those cigars available to them.
CW: Where do you see your business in the future?
Ron: I don’t want to provide any specifics at this time, but I can tell you that we are looking at various programs which would provide customers the opportunity for exposure with notables in the cigar industry at very selective, intimate events. We are always attempting to increase the value that we provide our customers. We are also looking at what I would describe as additional diversification of our Internet business, but again I don’t want to be specific. I keep a notebook of all my ideas; the challenge is to take care of day to day activities and then find the time to implement the new ideas. I do want to make sure my customers have a good time, recognize us as providing superior value and make us there destination. Serious Cigars may be a fun and cute name, but it is also very true.
CW: You have opened Cellar 17, the wine bar next door. Tell us about that and how it relates to your cigar business.
Ron: Serious Cigars only has an indirect tie to Cellar 17. The fact was that we needed additional room and had to take over the entire space next door, which exceeded what we actually required. We evaluated several options and decided to open Cellar 17. It features premium and boutique wines by the bottle and by the glass, has high-end beers and has a nice tasting menu, comfortable lounges and tables for seating. There are wine tastings and live music on selected evenings, and it is a non-smoking venue. We do have some customer cross-over, primarily cigar customers who go next door and make a beverage purchase and then come to the shop for a cigar to go with their drink.
CW: Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Cigar Weekly readers?
Ron: No, I don’t think so. It’s been nice chatting with you.
CW: Thank you for your time, and I wish you continued success with Serious Cigars.
Ron was a good sport to take the time out of his busy day to answer my questions, and I hope you find his comments and views interesting. Summarized below are the details on his operations:
6608 FM-1960 West
Houston, Texas 77069
Tel: 1-866-37CIGAR, or 281-397-9800
6608 FM-1960 West
Houston, Texas 77069
Serious Cigars Galleria
4722 Richmond Avenue
Houston, Texas 77027