“Brian takes time to research and talk to the people that might not get a meeting with the big players,” states Kevin. While not everything is the best fit, when one brand hits, it really hits.
“Fortunately, when we find something good, everybody wants in,” says Kevin.
When selling customers on boutique cigars, it’s not about the price; it’s about the quality.
“A part of me likes to chip away the stigma that the big brands are the best,” says Brian. When a customer who only smokes the most expensive cigars has doubts, the CCC saying is, “This is the craft beer of the industry.”
In addition to specializing in boutiques, CCC has had a run of successful shop-exclusive cigars. In addition to Fair Warning, CCC has collaborated with Protocol Cigars on several notable labels, including Paddy Wagon, Johnny Smokes and Battleborn. The latter was a charity-based cigar, complete with a camouflage-style wrapper.
COVID-19: A Time of Trial and Triumph
While the journey so far seems like smooth sailing, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be one of the toughest hurdles the trio had to overcome. With many small businesses closing for good around the nation, it took true grit to keep the shutters from going down on the determined Lewis family.
“We had just launched our e-commerce website a month or two prior to COVID hitting,” says Kevin. “If we hadn’t, we might not be sitting here still.”
Pops adds, “Fortunately, we had a following, so people were able to order online. We were able to ship to them and do curbside pickup. We fortunately received a grant from the state that really helped.”
Before COVID-19, the shop operated by selling singles or boxes like most brick-and-mortar retailers, but when the pandemic hit, the e-commerce demands shifted the shopping trends of the average cigar smoker.
“Everyone was shopping online, and they all expected prices almost lower than cost,” says Kevin, “But we provided cigars they can’t get or five-packs of cigars that bigger corporations don’t bother to put together.”
With their boutique selections keeping customers on the hook, the only remaining piece of the puzzle was their community. Social media was a huge tool the team used to stay connected to their following. As COVID-19 restrictions began to lift, “We focused on Facebook, growing our following, posting more and putting on specials we have running,” Kevin says.
Communication is King
From pop-up tents to pandemics, one consistent thread across CCC’s timespan has been communication—communicating with each other and testing new ideas. “It’s not one owner who has final say; we all throw out ideas to each other,” says Kevin.
While not everyone’s business partners are family, communicating in business can be a powerful factor in creativity and productivity. Communicating and collaborating within the tobacco industry has also been a crucial driver of success. “We love doing collaborations,” Brian proclaims. “We love people coming here and making it an experience. A lot of the (cigar) companies have the younger sons like us and the old dad ….”
“… Old man,” Pops growls, with a sly smirk.
The next level of communication extends to the customers. Of course, social media is heavily leveraged when driving interactions and creating buzz around events to draw a new customer in. When finding new customers, CCC is no stranger to being active at pop-up events where they can hand out coupons to drive customers into the store and interact with potential new customers in places they would otherwise never meet.
“Once brought into the store, we try to make them feel right at home from the get-go. It’s not just, ‘Here’s an event. Show up and have a good time.’ We’re a part of it,” Pops explains.
“It’s like smoking in Grandma’s living room: cookies, bourbon and cigars,” Kevin quips.
While attracting new customers is something most cigar shops struggle with, keeping them coming back is a whole other game. Enter the CCC crew, a group for the most dedicated customers but accessible to all.
“We started a locker club, which gives [customers] a discount,” says Pops. “We’ll give them a couple cigars every month, prereleases or new inventory, and the ones they like we’ll keep.”
Going deeper than promotions, Brian elaborates: “We get to know them. They feel comfortable here knowing our prices are MSRP. We don’t jack the prices up for no reason. They just come here to hang out. It’s an escape for them.”
Brian quickly adds that CCC’s Thursday Night Therapy events take a normally slow business day and turn them into a popular and busy event night where regulars come in to discuss the world’s problems.
While everyone’s journey is different, the Lewis family shared their advice for aspiring brick-and-mortars: “It’s never easy. You’ve got to stay the course. Be open, be patient, and be persistent.”
This story first appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Photography and story by Fred Lunt