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Sit back, light up, just talk

Smoke billows from the back room at SouthPark's Tinder Box, where cigar lovers lounge in leather chairs, discussing politics, sports and life stories. This is a place, they say, where strangers quickly become friends.

It's early on a Saturday morning, and the Tinder Box isn't officially open for business for another hour, but the tobacco emporium is packed with members of Club Puros, a south Charlotte cigar club.

The room is filled with men puffing on their favorites. The conversation swirls from topic to topic – a recap of the NBA playoffs; a discussion about old cars; and a review of the most recent Rambo movie. Others swap business and personal stories.

“When we get together, we solve all the problems in the world,” said John Rockas, president of Club Puros. “… Cigars bring us together.”

Club Puros, which gets its name from a type of cigar in which all of its components come from the same country, started almost six years ago.

Rockas, 61, remembers sitting in the cigar store talking about how great it would be to start a club. A few men sitting next to him agreed, and the club was quickly born. It's grown from a core group of five to more than 50.

Club Puros is more structured than most cigar clubs, with a board of directors, bylaws and $50 annual dues.

Nathan Saab, a sales manager for Oliva cigars, is always searching for groups such as Club Puros to push his products. He said he has never seen a cigar club as formal.

On this particular day, Saab was invited to join the club to talk about Oliva cigars. He also gave one to each member to smoke. Craig Cass, owner of the Tinder Box, often invites cigar sales reps such as Saab to come to meetings to showcase their brands. Cass relies on feedback from members to determine whether he should sell a particular cigar.

Club Puros includes physicians, bankers, Web developers and IT specialists, landscapers and insurance agents. Members range in age from 20 and to 60. Many are cigar aficionados who may smoke more than 10 cigars a week; others are rookies. The only common bond: they all enjoy a good cigar. There are no women.

“It's a way for these guys to get together and network with one another,” Cass said. “It also offers a relaxed education – a way for them to learn more about cigars.”

Darryl Parker, 37, the owner of a Web development company in Matthews, has been a member of Club Puros for more than four years. He learned about the club during a business meeting with a client, who is also a member.

“I always tell people I want to write a book about how this cigar club made my business grow,” Parker said. “It's a great social network, and a great place to grow relationships.”

Others have also made business connections. For example, Randy Morris, an insurance agent and longtime club member, sold a policy to Parker's wife, Kristin. But the club is more about the cigars and good conversation.

“It doesn't matter if you make millions or minimum wage, if you like cigars, this is a great way to meet people,” said Charlie Ruffalo, one of the group's founding members.

The bond is so tight that in January 2004, 18 members traveled to Honduras to learn more about cigars.

“It was a great education for us,” said Ruffalo, 52. “We smoked 50 cigars in three days. More than 200 hands touch it from seed to cigar, and to see that process was really something special.”

While the group doesn't have any other trips planned, members throw an annual holiday party at the end of each year. Membership dues help to pay for the party and some of the other minor expenses for monthly meetings.

“Smokers,” as the group calls them, are typically held 9 a.m. the last Saturday of the month at the Tinder Box at SouthPark, or at its other location in the Arboretum. Typically about 25 to 40 people attend.

While it may sound unusual for a cigar club to meet at such an early hour, Cass said, it's really the best time of day to enjoy a cigar.

“Your taste buds are alive in the morning,” he said. “You have a clean palate, and you can really taste the cigar.”

Meetings are a special time for Ruffalo, who commutes from his home in Rock Hill.

“This is an incredible group of guys,” Ruffalo said, “and it's always fun to smoke a cigar and strike up an interesting conversation.”

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