Habana Smoke Shoppe blowing smoke rings over success

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Published: April 30,2007

Over the last four years or so, the Habana Smoke Shoppe has grown from a tiny cigar store in Jackson to one offering more than $200,000 in inventory housed in a state-of-the-art facility as well as a private members-only club. And, that growth is continuing as Habana is adding on to the club, preparing to open an upscale restaurant and looking at other markets to establish stores.

“Attention to product and customer service,” said general manager Ralph Foster when asked the key to Habana’s success. “We have exceeded what I expected.”

Bigger is better

When Foster came on board at Habana approximately four years ago, the store was housed in a 400-square-foot space. Foster saw potential for the store, and volunteered his services to boost outside sales and restructure the store’s management. He was offered an ownership share, and Habana was off and running.

Under his guidance, the store moved from Leila Drive to its current locale on the I-55 North Frontage Road, more than tripling the store’s space to 1,400 square feet. Humidifiers were installed throughout the store, and a $20,000 air purification system was purchased that totally replaces all the store’s air every six minutes.

Not satisfied there, Foster opened a private club located on the other end of the small strip mall that houses Habana. Encompassing approximately 2,500 square feet, it provides a “television room” with wall-mounted flat-screen TVs, a locker room where members can store there favorite drinks and other things, a game room with pool table and gaming tables, a private boardroom offering computer, large-screen monitor and other technology for business meetings as well as a small private office. Wireless Internet connectivity is offered throughout.

The club is open 24 hours a day with entry gained through a lock that reads members’ fingerprints. To ensure privacy, no membership list is kept. Foster said the club’s membership currently stands at approximately 85, with about 10 of those female cigar lovers.

Habana currently employs four workers. Assisting Foster, Jimmy Dean serves as operations manager. And, all are guided by Habana’s real “owner,” the ever-present CiCi the Dog, which Foster picked up as a stray and who now is petted and feted beyond description.

In with the new

Habana will soon begin construction of a 35-foot deck on the back of the private club. The deck will offer seating along the covered deck’s rails, tables and chairs in the center, TV and a barbecue grill. Foster said he hoped the deck would be finished in late April or early May.

The bigger news is Habana’s new restaurant called Posh, a project Habana has been working on for approximately a year and a half. Located between the store and the club, Posh will offer salads, pastas, seafood dishes and such entrees as breast of pheasant and grilled elk loin.

Posh, which will seat approximately 70 patrons, will include a small private dining area for members, perfect for an intimate business meeting, and will also feature a full-service bar.

The restaurant’s construction is completed, and Foster said Habana is currently waiting for its alcohol license to gain approval. The target date for opening the restaurant, which is expected to employ six to eight workers, is May.

Surveying horizons

Like so many businesses, Hurricane Katrina’s sweep through Mississippi August 29, 2005, presented serious challenges. First, the store lost electricity, knocking out Habana’s humidifiers. For days, Habana employees stayed at the store around the clock, humidifying the air with squirt bottles. The low-tech approach worked — Foster said Habana did not lose a single cigar.

Longer term, the storm wiped out Habana’s healthy Coast business. It was a serious hit to revenues, and Foster said he was obviously thrilled to see the casinos and other businesses come back on line as quickly as they did on the Coast.

Now, Habana is taking a hard look at the Coast for a second store. Foster said the expansion is currently in its planning stages, but a store is envisioned in either Biloxi or Ocean Springs, and that Habana was also looking at Memphis for a store. Foster could not offer a tentative date for either stores’ opening.

In the meantime, Habana is focusing on its ever-growing customer base. The store routinely pulls customers from all over Mississippi and beyond. Casinos, golf clubs, attorneys, doctors and other professionals make up an important segment of its base, and a recent cover story in Smoke Shop magazine has drawn customers from as far away as Germany.

According to Foster, there are 135 Davidoff/Zino-approved merchants nationwide. Habana is second in Davidoff/Zino sales in the nation.

“We’re very customer-oriented here,” Foster said. “We know everyone’s first name, their birthday and anniversary, what they smoke. If someone is going to buy a cigar for, say, $40 or $45, they deserve the best.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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