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Fad burns out, but Jackson business is still smokin

Habana: Sweet smell of success for premier tobacconist

JACKSON — Knowing how to capitalize on a fad in the market place is a terrific way to make money in business, but it’s often short-lived success. And if the business caters exclusively to that trend, then it is usually short-lived, as well.

Habana Smoke Shoppe, purveyor of cigars and smoking accouterments, is the proverbial exception to the rule. The business opened in Jackson in 1998 in an obscure, unpretentious location that lacked even running water and a bathroom. That was when the fat, brown stick reigned as top choice for style-setters and trendoids, and customers sought out such retail establishments.

Ultimately, Habana not only survived the fad’s burn-out, but when the smoke cleared, it had emerged as Mississippi’s premier tobacconist.

Last week, Habana moved into new digs — a brand-new, highly visible site on Jackson’s I-55 North frontage road that is twice the size of the old place and has an enviable traffic count. And yes, it has a bathroom and running water, too.

“The new store has hardwood parquet floors, leather furniture and a Hemingway look,” said managing owner Brett Baxter. “We also have a big entertainment center with a large screen TV, a couple of large, flat-screen monitors and digital surround sound, and the whole store will be humidified — a totally new concept.”

So how did the little smoke shop defy the odds?

Baxter makes the reason sound simple.

“Having a marketing background, I was asked to come in and create a business plan, and it is pretty simple,” he said. “Number one, sell cigars; number two, treat your customers like guests, and number three, go back to numbers one and two. It is still the business plan we use today.”

It is the manner in which Baxter sells his primary product, though, that sets his business apart from competitors.

“I didn’t know how a cigar store was supposed to act, so I came in with no pre-conceived notions,” said Baxter, who had previously worked 11 years in consumer electronics. “I asked myself, ‘How should a business sell products like cigars, pipes and pipe tobacco, and how do I make that excel?’ What we have done is attach ourselves to fun.”

Habana apparently excels at that. The store hosts in-house cigar rolling exhibitions and other special events, associates itself with edgy radio shows and has attracted a loyal following to its Friday evening “happy hour”-style parties, where customer-guests enjoy complimentary hors d’oeuvres, beverages and special cigar prices.

Nothing, however, has been as popular as Habana’s “Cigars Under the Stars.” The brain child of Baxter, the program partners Habana with top restaurants, nightclubs, resorts, golf courses and country clubs. Not only do the establishments sell Habana’s products year- round, but each month a different one serves as the Thursday night setting for “Cigars Under the Stars.” It’s a little like the store’s Friday gatherings, but on a larger scale and in a premier setting. Sponsored by Heineken, Amstel and Arrow 94, the event features free food, cigar specials and a live radio remote.

“Our association with Habana is win-win all the way around,” said Lisa Bochicchio, sommelier and bar manager of Habana’s long-time retail partner, The Parker House restaurant. “We absolutely love his products — he keeps everything stocked, fresh and beautifully displayed. We love cigars and the type of clientele they attract — those who enjoy wine, those who enjoy scotch, those who enjoy fine dining.”

“On the business end, we make our profit, he makes his and everybody’s happy,” she said.

Particularly, the customers. Habana has a loyal following, most of whom credit the store’s staff.

“There are other, smaller shops here in town, but I gravitated toward Habana because their staff and their knowledge sets them apart from everybody else in town,” said Kenny Perkins, a stogie smoker since the late ‘90s. “They are the aficionados.”

Perkins says he smokes cigars for the relaxation aspect, the flavor and, mostly, the camaraderie. That makes him the “typical” Habana customer, if there is such an animal.

“We don’t have an average customer and that’s what is so unique about us,” said Baxter. “We have young, old, black, white, rich and poor, everyone from the politician to the police officer to the preacher. The one thing they have in common is they enjoy the product, the camaraderie we offer on an on-going basis and our customer service.”

While Baxter draws Habana’s customers from all walks of life, he does it with a tight, aggressive and slick advertising campaign, a concept package pulled together by Jackson-based Mindbender. Baxter credits that campaign, and word-of-mouth, with bringing him an average of five to 10 new customers daily at his former business, which for a long time lacked even a sign.

“It is Brett’s brain child, but we put a face on it and brought consistency to the artwork, signage and the themes of the events,” said Gary Hilton, Mindbender’s chief executive officer. “We’ve also helped with the new store, which is more of an old-timey hangout. Our concept is to make it like the old barber shop of the new millennium.”

“Brett has promoted and marketed a lifestyle concept,” Hilton continued. “When he began ‘Cigars Under the Stars,’ he begged venues to host the event. Now, he has a waiting list a year long and has even been approached about taking the concept nationally. He’s in the driver’s seat.”

And Baxter is just revving up. Always looking to expand his customer base, he’s got a new concept brewing.

“We’re going to sell coffee,” he said. “Only about 5% of the public is interested in premium cigars and pipe tobacco, but when you add coffee to the advertising scheme, you multiply that percentage by about 10. We are looking forward to that.”

Habana won’t be a sit-and-sip, but a cash-and-carry.

“We’ll grind it for you, though, and have some of the better accessories and the top coffees — like Jamaica Blue Mountain, Kona Hawaiian blends and our own private brand,” Baxter said. “We’ll also have a coffee service to supply the accounts that sell our cigars.”

If Baxter can do for coffee in this market what he has done for cigars, don’t look for his business to stop smoking anytime soon.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Mara Hartmann at at mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

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