Field Notes: Where People Go to Smoke
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: cigar lounges.
Photos: Odeelo Dayondon
What they are
In an age of ever-expanding smoking bans, avid smokers are starting to run out of friendly places to light up a stogey. Luckily, there are still refuges for cigar buffs in Honolulu, places where wafting clouds of fragrant smoke are not just tolerated, but embraced. Welcome to the cigar lounge. You won’t find food or beverages on sale, but what you will find is a large selection of cigars, knowledgeable staff and a place to kick up your feet, relax and talk story with other like-minded tobacco aficionados.
“It’s the old barber shop atmosphere,” says cigar sales rep Jon Fia, explaining the draw. You can expect shop talk, but a lounge is also a space to just be. As Joe Hilton, owner of Cigar Cigar, puts it, “A cigarette is a hurried act. A cigar is a pause.”
Where they are
Christopher Maxwell is the owner of Tobaccos of Hawai‘i on Atkinson Drive. Since purchasing the shop a few years ago, he’s expanded the store and installed a lounge complete with leather armchairs, a television and an exhaust fan that puts up a valiant effort against the billows of cigar smoke.
Hilton doesn’t really market his store, Cigar Cigar on King Street, as a lounge—the place is small, with limited parking—but he does have a table, a chair and a television for anyone who cares to hang out a while.
Maxwell doesn’t recommend the cigar lounge as a business model. While he charges a token fee to use the lounge, he says “It’s a money loser.” His chain of retail shops keep him in business, but the lounge is a labor of love. He does it simply because, “There’s no place left for the guys to go.”
And they are mostly men, though Fia insists more women are getting into it. There are tastings and events that he says are starting to draw more interest from women.
Hilton estimates 75 percent of his customers are men. “The other 25 percent,” he says, “are buying for the 75 percent.”
To Cuban or not to Cuban?
Those Cuban cigars that people are salivating over after Obama’s overtures? The unanimous conclusion is they’re overrated, valued mostly because they’re out of reach. “It’s the forbidden fruit,” says Fia. At an industry function in New Orleans, Maxwell asked a colleague what was going to happen if the embargo was ever lifted, and was told, “Your shop is going to have a line out the door … for about a week.”
Hilton puts it bluntly: “Cuba can’t hold a candle to what I have in my humidor.”
Christopher Maxwell used to smoke cigars socially on Mondays. “I hated it,” he says. It wasn’t until a friend taught him not to inhale that he appreciated the flavor. He bought Tobaccos of Hawai‘i a few years ago after the previous owner quit smoking. He’s looking to phase out e-cigarettes, he says, because those customers “are generally people trying to quit, and those people aren’t happy.” But, he adds, “That’s good.”
Jon Fia’s first time smoking a fine cigar was in San Diego at a lounge owned by childhood friend Junior Seau. Yes, that Junior Seau, the late NFL great. “He didn’t have to push that hard,” Fia says. Seau told him to grab a cigar from a giant humidor. Fia didn’t know what to pick, so Seau gave him the band off his cigar and told him to get the same. Fia found a new hobby, and now is a part-time sales representative for numerous cigar brands. It could never be a full-time job, though. “The market’s just too small here.”
Sam Jones is a 27-year-old employee at Tobaccos of Hawai‘i. Originally from Chicago, he came to Hawai‘i to study at UH Mānoa. He took up cigars while in college, and needed to find work when he graduated into the recession. Smoking, he says, “doesn’t work with being jobless.” Now he’s in the process of becoming a certified tobacconist, a voluntary designation that aims to raise the standards of service in the tobacco industry. He’s traveled across Central America to learn about tobacco farming and cigar manufacturing, and hopes to make his own cigars someday.