For Orion Armstrong, founder and CEO of Cigar Company & Gentlemen’s Barbershop, cigar smoking isn’t a hobby or occasional pastime—it’s a lifestyle. That’s why the entrepreneur and self-described “lover of the leaf” decided to start writing about cigars, specifically vintage cigars, for a luxury lifestyle magazine in his homeland of Canada.
“I was talking to the publishers about the fact that people just aren’t describing and reviewing fine cigars in the same way that they do with other luxury items like wine,” explains Armstrong, a commercial real estate developer and business owner who started chronicling his cigar experiences in Preferred magazine just for fun. “I began writing about my experiences as a vintage cigar collector and connoisseur, just reviewing cigars and sharing what I’ve learned.”
Six years into writing about cigars as a pastime rather than a vocation, Armstrong saw a piece of property that inspired him to translate his passion for cigars into a new business.
“I kept looking at this place, a property encompassing a 130-year heritage landmark in the heart of Toronto’s Markham Village, and thinking, this would be an extraordinary venue for cigar events,” he recounts. “I went to one of my partners and said, ‘In Canada, we have the benefit of access to Cuban and non-Cuban cigars, but we don’t have the kind of destination place for cigar smokers that you see in the U.S. and in Europe. I told him that I couldn’t stop thinking about this property, and he said, ‘I’m in.’”
From there, the concept snowballed, with the duo deciding that the end goal would actually be much larger—five locations in five years. “We pulled together a team of four partners with strong business acumen, all cigar lovers, each of whom brought different strengths to the table,” says Armstrong, who has his sights set on opening locations in Montreal, Las Vegas, Chicago and New York. “None of us wanted to compromise. We all believe that this industry, at least in our market, should not be transaction-oriented. It should be about delivering a phenomenal experience.”
The result was an evolution of Armstrong’s original vision for the property that first inspired him into a much more ambitious concept. “It’s really three concepts in one—a traditional barbershop, a highly curated premium tobacconist and a 3,000-square-foot event space,” he explains, noting that the combination suits both the historic location and the luxury experience he and his partners envisioned offering. “There is a surge in demand for this kind of gentleman’s experience. Cigar smoking is a lifestyle indulgence; it is not a necessity like a roof over your head, food or clothes. It’s important to recognize that an experience is what people really crave. We engineered our business model backward from there.”
And Cigar Company & Gentlemen’s Barbershop delivers just that. Incorporating a mix of Edwardian and modern aesthetics, the venue encompasses a custom walk-in Spanish cedar humidor, a vintage cigar room and an upscale barbershop outfitted with Belmont barber chairs in which patrons can enjoy a hot towel, straight-edge razor shave and grooming services.
The experience harkens back to 100 years ago, when cigars were purchased and smoked in barbershops, which served as a gathering spot and social forum for men, says Armstrong. “Cigars have a way of pulling people together,” he says. “The walls between people come down in a way that no other experience quite offers.”
Developing a Destination
While both cigar sales and barbershop services will bring in revenue, Armstrong and his partners see events as a big part of the company’s business model. “I think momentum is building on the wedding/groomsmen and special events side,” he says. “Not everyone wants to go to a strip club; they like the idea of coming to a place where they can all have a hot towel shave, pick a cigar and enjoy it out on the patio together—it’s the male equivalent of a group of women going to a spa.
“We’re also really excited about several cigar events we’ll be hosting, including an upcoming event with Rocky Patel,” adds Armstrong, who ultimately envisions gala events akin to the VIP night the company hosted for its grand opening—which featured a scotch tasting, cigar-rolling demonstrations, a DJ and Latin dance performers—becoming a regular affair.
“We did not open this place to be a tobacconist; we opened to be a destination,” he explains. “We want cigar smokers to be telling each other, ‘When you go to Toronto, you have to check this place out.’”
– Story by Jennifer Gelfand
This story first appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.