Jungle Jim's International Market has more than doubled cigar sales since it began hosting cigar tastings
Even when its 20 degrees in Fairfield, Ohio, cigar enthusiasts can be found puffing away on the heated terrace at Jungle Jim's International Market's Oscar Event Center.
For folks there, Thursday night means cigar-tasting night — a chance to catch up with friends, enjoy a drink from the cash bar and try brands like Cohiba, CAO, Arturo Fuente and others.
Admission is free, but it costs to “taste” featured varieties from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic or Honduras.
Regulars have come to know that the best discounts can be had on tasting nights, when featured varieties usually sold three for $18 are offered for three, and sometimes even four for $15. An additional $5 buys a strip of raffle tickets and the chance to win humidors, ashtrays and boxes of cigars.
“Tasting is a way to get people out of the house to try different cigars, sometimes at a different price point,” Chris Carver, who manages tobacco and liquor operations for Jungle Jim's, told SN.
Drawing crowds as large as 200 people, Carver's events have become so popular that their frequency has increased from every other week to 52 times per year. Also to accommodate demand, owner “Jungle” Jim Bonamino has invested in a portable point-of-sale system, additional tables and chairs, and heaters since Ohio law requires that smoking be done outside. The events draw a mixed bag.
“There are rookies, well-experienced smokers and people who won't miss it,” said Carver. “I have a customer who was robbed, broke his arm and had a couple of staples in his head, and he still came.”
Part of the draw is Carver, the events' founder and charismatic host. He's sensitive to the fact that newcomers may be apprehensive going the experience alone, so he makes attendance free to encourage beginners to bring a friend. He recognizes that cigars are like wine in that novices are easily intimidated.
When a cigar roller or sales rep from a brand of Carver's choosing is available for an event, their brand is featured exclusively. If not, Carver will select a variety of three, or even let the attendees pick what they'd like.
Smokers at last Thursday's event were invited to choose three cigars for $15 from a vast selection of boutique smokes.
At events like these, Carver takes center stage, describing the flavor nuances of featured varieties and hosting raffles that often end with a chanting crowd imploring him to give away “one more box! one more box!” he said.
New friendships are easily formed amongst attendees, many of whom bring cigars from home to trade and compare, he added. Smokers are free to smoke cigars they've purchased elsewhere, but the only alcohol that can be consumed is drinks that come from the cash bar.
A frat-house atmosphere is facilitated by Carver and his microphone.
“I get in people's face, I get down and dirty, I get crazy, I got people taking pot shots at me. I'm 5'5” and every bit of three-quarters and I got people telling me, ‘Stand up,’ and I'm already standing on a table!” said Carver.
Oftentimes, smokers return just to see what Carver — who's known for tossing free cigars, hats and T-shirts into the crowd — will do next.
“I can't be a stick in the mud and walk around saying, ‘I need your money, I need your money,’ or else they're not going to come back,” he said.
Although the tobacconist has fun during the three-hour events, in the back of his mind are calculations related to how much he can afford to give away.
His level of generosity depends on the number of raffle tickets sold.
Each Thursday he starts out $350 in the hole since that's what it costs to rent Jungle Jim's Oscar Event Center. Even departments within the store are required to pay for use of the space since it might otherwise be rented by outsiders. Included in the price are the cost of vegetable, meat and cheese trays provided by Jungle Jim's deli for guests.
Carver offsets that expense with money made on raffle tickets sold for $1 each or six for $5. Generally, $400 to $500 worth of tickets are sold per event.
Since vendors donate raffle prizes, ticket sales beyond $350 are considered profits that can be spent on the consumer.
The bag of three cigars is regularly sold for $18 in Jungle Jim's 270-square-foot walk-in humidor, but Carver uses raffle proceeds to fund a $1 per cigar discount. Sometimes cigar companies will donate an extra cigar so that they can be offered at four for $15.
“I'm losing $3 of my margin but it's OK because I'm investing in my customer,” Carver said.
He also uses profits to fund discounts on boxes of cigars.
“If I'm $200 ahead, I might take $10 off the price of 20 boxes,” he said.
The investments are proving to be money well spent.
Since Carver joined Jungle Jim's in February 2008, weekly cigar sales have more than doubled and they continue to grow, he said.
Although all of that cannot be attributed directly to the tastings, Carver credits much of it to improved face time with customers.
In addition to time spent during the tastings, he interacts with shoppers in Jungle Jim's climate-control humidor. The section includes 75 different brands of world-class cigars and is staffed Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The interactions not only give Carver a chance to share new brands with shoppers, but also to find out what they like so that he can stock shelves accordingly. Romeo and Juliet, CAO, Arturo Fuente and Rocky Patel are among the best-selling brands.
“I don't want to make this my humidor, I've made it the people's humidor,” he said.
The average price point from which cigar smokers shop is in the $4.50 to $5.95 range, but Jungle Jim's sells cigars for as much as $25. Despite their high cost, the retailer recently sold its inventory of $25 Padron 1926 Series 80th Anniversary cigars in two days since sales associates were there to share their story with shoppers.
“There was a limited number of the cigars and they were very rare,” noted Carver.
Jungle Jim's approach to forging bonds with consumers is clever, especially as the Food and Drug Administration moves to further regulate the ways in which tobacco marketers can advertise their products, according to Frank Davoli, director of purchasing for Richmond-Master Distributors, a grocery wholesaler that operates 38 tobacco outlets under the Low Bob's Discount Tobacco banner. Franchisees operate more than 90 Low Bob's and Low Bob's Express stores.
“Cigar tastings may be one of the last ways to get the product out there in the marketplace, with the advertising restrictions that we face today and the restrictions we'll face in the future,” Davoli told SN. “Now is the time to start reaching out and touching people.”
A focus on cigars in particular is also practical since they're growing in popularity.
Consumers are turning to cigars and other types of tobacco to help curb cravings between smoking cost-prohibitive cigarettes, Davoli said.
In April, the single-largest tobacco tax increase ever was levied on cigarettes, bringing the combined federal and average state excise tax for cigarettes to $2.21 per pack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Proceeds will help fund a measure expected to reduce by half the number of children in the U.S. without health insurance.
Faced with paying upward of $10 per pack, some smokers have kicked the habit, while others have sought new ways to get their fix.
“What we're seeing from a wholesaler standpoint is cigarette customers transitioning to alternative tobacco products,” said Davoli. “People are looking for different ways to get their pleasure that they used to get [exclusively] from cigarettes.”
Among the items they're trying are little cigars and full-size machine-made and handmade cigars, said Davoli. Consumers are also experimenting with smoke-free, spit-free tobacco called snus sold by brands like Marlboro and Camel.
“You can put a pinch in your mouth and it delivers nicotine without the spitting associated with chewing tobacco or American snuff products,” Davoli said.