Charlotte-area cigar merchants hope door is wedged open for Cuban cigar sales

Small business owners must always be looking for new products to sell and new consumers looking to buy. Sometimes, opportunity arrives unexpectedly.

Consider President Barack Obama’s surprise move to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. Here in Charlotte, that news was greeted with cautious optimism by those who buy and sell premium cigars.

For more than 50 years, a U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has kept cigar smokers in the United States from legally buying a product many craved. But now with relations thawing, local business owners who sell premium cigars are dreaming of increased sales.

Before that can happen, however, the U.S. embargo must fall – no small matter with Republican lawmakers in control of the U.S. House and Senate. At least two years was the guess I heard most often from local cigar merchants.

Craig Cass, owner of the Charlotte-based Tinder Box and federal legislative chair for the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association, was quoted as predicting that cigar sales in the United States could jump by double digits if the embargo is ever lifted.

Cigar smokers can be passionate about the products they buy, and that’s good news for entrepreneurs like Greg Hemsley, who owns Outland Cigars, a private cigar lounge with locations in Ballantyne and SouthPark.

He said his mostly male clientele is nothing like the “pack-a-day cigarette smoker.” Those who buy private memberships in his lounges can relax, network or socialize in leather chairs in front of big-screen televisions.

“People are willing to pay for a quality cigar,” he said.

Hemsley labeled the U.S. trade embargo “a complete failure” and said he would definitely sell Cuban cigars when and if the embargo falls.

“I’ll put them in my store because I’m sure they’re going to sell, whether they sell to the guy who smokes every day or they sell to the college kid who thinks it’s going to be cool smoking a Cuban cigar and showing off,” he said.

Even with the embargo, Americans have found ways to get the Cuban cigars they covet, both through legal and clandestine channels.

At Cutters Cigar Bar at the Charlotte Marriott Center City Hotel, cigar aficionados until recently could legally buy Cuban cigars (1962 Romeo Romeo y Julietas) for $250 each. Gary Oikemus, director of hotel operations, said the rare cigars were purchased legally at a New York auction and date to the pre-embargo days.

“It’s for those certain guests who decide that they have the means to enjoy something that’s really special,” he said. “It’s a part of history.”

But Oikemus said his supply of Cubans is now sold out, so he’s hoping that better U.S.-Cuban relations will soon lead to new imports.

“Actually, we’re very excited about the thought,” he said. “It will be nice to hopefully get that under control to where (more) Cuban cigars can get into the country.”