Angela Yue decided to take her passion for cigars to a new level in 2018 when she opened Lord Puffer Tobacconist, a 6,000-square-foot retail cigar lounge. Located in Escondido, California, Lord Puffer Tobacconist must overcome many obstacles in order to achieve success. Southern California is known for its expensive—and limited—real estate. High taxes typically make cigars expensive, and the state’s tobacco legislation makes it challenging for many retailers to grow their businesses.
Despite these challenges, Yue knew that she wanted to create what she describes as an East Coast-style cigar lounge experience in Southern California. Lord Puffer Tobacconist is home to a large 3,000-square-foot walk-in humidor that houses more than 1,000 cigar facings. There’s also a 900-square-foot private aging room. The store is also home to the largest collection of Arturo Fuente cigar products on the West Coast. That’s not all: Lord Puffer Tobacconist has two lounges, including a general admission lounge with over 15 televisions, a large projector screen and movie theater-style seating. There’s a 24-hour VIP lounge with private lockers, a kitchen area and private patio entrance. Yue is proud of what she has created, revealing that many of her store’s patrons refer to her lounge simply as “Disney World.”
Yue, who considers 2 Guys Smoke Shop’s David Garofalo and Corona Cigar Company’s Jeff Borysiewicz as her tobacco retail heroes, explains how she and her partner have managed to find success in a state that’s not very tobacco-friendly, including how her business is able to deal with high taxes and compete with the growing presence of online retailers.
Tobacco Business: In your opinion, what does it take to be a great tobacconist?
Angela Yue: It is a combination of things. First is passion for the industry. This is absolutely essential. It is reflected by how you interact with your customers and vendors. Second would be a good palate. Third, which often goes overlooked, is good buying experience. People think it is all about selling the cigar; however, in reality, it starts with the buying power. Lastly, and most importantly, customer service is key! With technology at our fingertips, anyone can go online to purchase pretty much any cigar they would like. In a high-tax state like California, what drives our customers coming in every single day is the environment and customer service we provide. We emphasize treating each customer as if they were at our home. We have all the amenities of home at our lounge, even a shower!
How do you go about making everyone feel welcome in your store?
If you make everyone your friend and you genuinely care about your customers, everything will come naturally. I always say I am so blessed to have so many big brothers! I look after them, and they look after me.
California doesn’t make it easy for tobacconists to thrive. How does your business handle the high taxes imposed on tobacconists? We specialize in volume buying and exercise smaller markup margins so we can bring the maximum discount to the end consumer. Because of this strategy, we are able to come close to online pricing. On average, we are around 30 percent more cost-effective than your average California retailer.
How do you manage your inventory and decide what products to carry or even to discontinue? Do you use any sort of point-of-sale (POS) system?
Before any product is introduced to our store, the cigar gets smoked by our staff. For a brand to be carried in our store it has to hold two key traits: quality and value. If these two traits meet our expectations, the brand will then be considered as an addition to our inventory. For a POS system, we have always used Clover for its flexibility and easy user interface.
Your store has a very unique aesthetic. How do you approach merchandising and optimizing your store’s layout and features to best serve your customers?
My partner and I are both very hands-on sort of people. We both love carpentry and are always trying to build new things by expanding and touching up our lounge. With that being said, the conventional style seems to be an enclosed humidor attached to a bar and/or lounge. On the contrary, we wanted to give our clients a unique experience and the “shock and awe” effect when they walk into the humidor. Blessed to have 6,000 square feet of freestanding building, we built a 3,000-square-foot humidor with an additional 900-square-foot aging room where we store our “unicorn” cigars. We want our customers to enjoy walking into the humidor! Merchandising is key—proper merchandising sells a product itself.
How do you leverage in-store events to draw in customers and promote certain brands?
Because of our freestanding building in our own parking lot, we are fortunate enough to be able to put on quite an impressive show during events. For brand-specific events, we always try to have the cigar-maker join us for the day. We take advantage of the beautiful Southern California weather. From smoked tri-tip to pulled pork, we turn on the BBQ and smoker during every event. Live bands and local musicians often perform at our in-store events. Often retailers make the mistake of pressuring customers to buy only boxes. We try not to put an emphasis on just “selling” the product but to provide an enjoyable and relaxing environment.
One of those events is the Fuente Fever 33°, a cigar charity event that’s also billed as being one of the largest West Coast Arturo Fuente events. How did you develop this special relationship with the Fuentes?
Since I was younger, I have always had a passion for helping out various charities specializing in children from poverty-stricken regions of the world. After finding out about [the Fuente family’s] Cigar Family Charitable Foundation (CFCF), I decided to become involved with their foundation. Seeing firsthand the impact the Fuente family has contributed and given back to the Dominican Republic, we decided to stand behind their brand and give all of our support to a family that cherishes integrity, tradition and preserves the skilled artisans’ craftsmanship of cigars. Today, our relationship with the Fuente family is beyond the bounds of cigars and business. It is about the people, the memories and the relationships. They are my family. Liana is the Cuban twin sister I never had, and Carlito is a mentor and a father figure.
What role does technology play in how you promote and manage your business?
Ironically, I was reluctant to use social media. By utilizing technology, which is literally accessible at your fingertips, tobacconists are now able to obtain immense exposure at little to no cost. We are able to reach masses in a mere second. It is truly incredible.
What do you think cigar and tobacco manufacturers are getting right about marketing their products to women? What are they getting wrong? To me, cigars are gender-neutral. There is no such thing as a female or male cigar, nor should it be marketed that way. If it is a quality product, the product speaks for itself. Women like bourbon, scotch, golf and cars too!
Do you feel women are well-represented in the premium tobacco industry?
Absolutely, and it continues to increase every passing day. Women are in every aspect of the premium tobacco industry. Starting at the factory, you see a dominant female workforce, from sewing, stripping and sorting the tobacco. Stateside, you see women on the forefront, from sales representatives to national sales directors and even to the industry legends and pioneers—women who I look up to, like Cynthia [Fuente] and Liana Fuente. These women are leaders!
What advice do you have for other women working in the cigar and tobacco industry?
Do not be intimidated! Walk into your local cigar lounge, convention, festival or the like, and be proud and own it. Be persistent. Learn as much as you can to earn your respect. Respect is earned not given. Like any other job, hard work pays off. Be good at what you do, be determined and persistent, and rewards shall follow.
What are your aspirations and hopes for your future in this industry?
Being a female store owner, the assumption is that Lord Puffer’s success and relationships with various manufacturers is solely due to myself being a female. I hope to break this stereotype one day. My end goal, and what drives me to improve and expand, is the thought that one day our store will be respected among other end consumers, retailers and manufacturers as a successful store—not because of me being a female but because we are aggressive, and we are excellent retailers.
This story first appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Story by Antoine Reid, senior editor and digital content director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid.