Jeff Borysiewicz, founder of Corona Cigar, got his first real lesson in premium cigar sales from one of his early customers. The year was 2002 and Borysiewicz had just gone upscale, launching a beautifully appointed cigar lounge and bar in Ocoee, Florida.
Before taking the luxury lounge plunge, Borysiewicz had been selling cigars in a small way for about six years, first as a sideline to his automotive services businesses and then via mail order and the Internet, operating out of a small, bare-bones shop he had rented. “I was selling cigars out of my house and the auto center, but the business was getting too big for that so I moved it into a retail strip center that used to be a karate studio,” he recounts. “I put in cheap shelving and humidified the whole store because I had a lot of inventory, but it was nothing fancy. The heavy bag chain from the karate place was still hanging from the ceiling.”
Located in southwest Orlando, Florida, the new store was palatial by contrast. Inspired by his cigar-themed travels, Borysiewicz chose a large, well-trafficked space and sought to recreate the cigar club culture he had experienced while visiting Central America with the addition of handmade furniture, Latin music, a bar and a huge inventory. “In terms of risk, things got real for me at that point,” he says, noting that he put up the title to his car and board as collateral. “I had three investors: myself, Visa and Mastercard.”
For Borysiewicz, who had grown accustomed to the price-trumps-all mail order and Internet sales mentality, emphasizing experience rather than value pricing was a huge shift—but one that he ultimately embraced. That first location, on Sand Lake Road, was a 5,000-square-foot cigar lounge that would become a mecca for cigar lovers, boasting a huge assortment of cigars and a Drew Estate-branded cigar lounge where patrons in the mood to splurge can indulge in $6,000 pre-embargo Cuban rum.
Since that early experience, his philosophy has been to give each and every customer who walks into a Corona Cigar location a great shopping and cigar experience. Customers come into an upscale cigar store to treat themselves, not to be treated like cheapskates.
“‛The ultimate cigar experience,’ is our motto, and that is why we’re successful,” he says. “If you want to be high-end, a lot goes into that. You can’t do it from a dingy store located next door to a dry cleaner. There’s a whole long chain of things, and getting every link right is critical.”
For Borysiewicz, each new store raised the stakes. “I made each one bigger and better,” he says. “We opened our third one in downtown Orlando with absolutely everything I wanted—it’s a big, airy location with a huge bar. We have more money invested in [our] inventory of liquor than it costs most people to open one store soup to nuts.”
For its fourth location, Corona Cigar ventured to Tampa, Florida, and teamed up with Davidoff on a more European-style, themed location. “Tampa has a strong Latin culture, so we wanted to do something different that would stand out,” says Borysiewicz, who says the store was a “grand slam” and attributes its reception to the business model he has diligently perfected over time. “It’s like the kid who prepares weeks and weeks and weeks for the test. We don’t guess—we get it right.”
Luxury for the Masses
Despite the luxury feel that is a prerequisite for every location, Borysiewicz doesn’t see his stores as catering to an elite clientele. Rather, the concept is to treat every customer like a star—and to make sure that every customer feels good about his or her Corona Cigar experience. “One of the things we talk about with our employees is that not everyone can afford a $28 Davidoff,” he explains. “While we are about luxury, we are not snobs, and we have a huge range of cigars in every price range.”
That said, the stores do attract their share of celebrity patrons. It’s not unusual to spot a Lamborghini or a Bentley in the parking lot, which is why staffers are carefully schooled to treat every customer like a king.
Employees are encouraged not to prejudge a patron’s spending ability. Rather than determine what products a customer is able to afford based on their appearance, Corona Cigar employees are taught to “work down the ladder,” says Borysiewicz, who notes that he has a blue-collar background.
Ultimately, that careful attention to what, exactly, a customer is looking for is what a cigar lounge should be all about, says Borysiewicz. “People don’t come into a store like this to feel like a cheapskate—they come to treat themselves. I thank that guy who came into my store when I was first starting out every day. That was a real come-to-Jesus moment for me in this business.”
– Story by Jennifer Gelfand
This story first appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.