I’ve been in my fair share of cigar lounges of all shapes and sizes. Brand new or centuries old, only seating a handful of people or catering to a massive crowd, each has their benefits and drawbacks. As someone who has helped design a cigar smoking lounge before I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to figure out what key features make for that “perfect” cigar space, and I think I’ve got it narrowed down to a handful of things that you need to hit to be successful. Or, at least, to keep me coming back.
Comfortable and Inviting
To me, smoking a cigar is about enjoying the process and the experience. When I’m looking to spark up a good stick I’m looking forward to knowing that I’ve got a good 45 minutes to an hour of being in one location and getting some time to relax. Cigars are interesting in that they reinforce that notion — smoke your cigar too fast and it will overheat, killing the flavor and ruining the cigar. They want you to slow down and take your time.
A good cigar lounge should encourage the customer to slow down and take their time. Muted colors on the walls, some squishy leather furniture, and a little lower level of lighting than a typical storefront goes a long way towards making the guest feel like he’s walked into somewhere they can sit and rest for a while instead of a location where they need to make a purchase and immediately leave.
A prime example of a cigar lounge that did the “lounge” part very wrong was a recently opened in my hometown back in New York. They did well investing in proper humidor cabinets and a good selection of product, but the decor in the shop was as inviting as a doctor’s office. They left the standard fluorescent lighting in the ceiling, which combined with the stark white newly painted walls is just a great formula for eye strain. In the back was a small seating area, but no matter how nice the couch looked, the assorted folding chairs around it just didn’t work.
That’s not to say that it takes a great deal of money to make the correct ambiance. Changing a couple light bulbs and slapping some paint on the wall that’s closer to a caramel or taupe color would have gone a long way towards making that particular shop seem less like an office and more like a place where people can relax. You don’t need wood paneling, although it doesn’t hurt.
Comfort also doesn’t mean huge. Spaces large and small, as long as the furniture is properly selected and arranged, can feel just as comfortable. One lounge here in Austin had a massive seating area, but placing display cabinets haphazardly around the area made it feel disjointed and cluttered. Another lounge was less than half their size, but felt much more spacious because they kept the display cabinets in the front where they belonged.
#1 – Keep it Clean
There are two lounges I want to contrast to explain why having a clean lounge is important. Both of these lounges were in historical buildings, featured comfortable leather seating, appropriately dim lighting, and wood paneling on the walls. They were essentially the same lounge, but the cleanliness of one of these lounges made a massive difference.
The dirty version of the lounge had a foul smell from the start, years of stagnant smoke collecting in the furniture and other items. The ashtrays had seemingly never been cleaned and were overflowing despite the fact that I walked in five minutes after they opened, no doubt adding to the acidic aroma and making me very weary of laying my cigar down to rest on the edge lest I catch something from a previous customer. The floors hadn’t been swept, and there was an unkempt pile of magazines strewn on the table. Every puff I took hovered in front of my face, never moving and eventually choking me as I tried to breathe. I tried to make it work but I lasted a grand total of ten minutes before wandering outside into the heat of the Texas air instead.
The clean version was smaller, more crowded, and generally more expensive — but I would go back there in a heartbeat and happily hand over my cash for the opportunity to spend time there again. The room was properly ventilated, smoke wafting ever upwards and into the exhaust system that was barely noticeable above a whisper of sound. That ventilation kept the air clear enough to breathe, and made sure that the gentleman puffing out steam engine sized clouds next to me wasn’t bothering my wife sitting across the table. The only smell in the room was the pleasant smoke from that day’s cigars, no hint of staleness to be found.
The first cigar lounge described here is located about an hour south of Austin, Texas, and probably remains open solely because it’s the only place in that town. The other location is in a five star hotel in the center of Zurich, Switzerland, a city lousy with cigar lounges and fighting for every customer.
Having a clean environment is critical, as the lounge in Zurich understands. Like I said at the beginning, smoking a cigar is about relaxing and taking time to enjoy life. If you’re in a dirty room that smalls awful you (A) won’t be spending much time there and (B) won’t be enjoying it while you are. Creating an environment where you would feel comfortable living is the key, and cleanliness is a critical factor.
#2 – Appropriately Attentive Staff
My ideal model for what service at a cigar lounge should be like doesn’t actually come from a cigar lounge — it comes from a street side bistro in Paris called the Cafe Centrale.
Too often service businesses focus on “turning over tables,” getting customers through their location as quickly as possible so that other customers can follow behind and replace them. Certainly, rushing customers out the door of a cigar lounge is a good recipe to drive away any hope of repeat business.
At my favorite French bistro in Paris, they take a different approach. The initial contact is both friendly and prompt and the immediate needs are serviced (appetizer, some wine, and a bit of baguette) but then the waiter disappears. Where in an American restaurant they would re-appear the moment your plate appears empty and hustle you on to the next course, they merely hover in the distance waiting for you to indicate that you’d like something. And when you’re done with the mains and dessert there is not even a suggestion of a check, feeling like you can stay and keep drinking for as long as you’d like.
A good lounge will take the same approach. A friendly staff member to accompany me into the humidor if needed to make a suggestion, a quick sale of the cigar and maybe one more for later, then leaving me to my own devices. They might come back and see how the game is going if there’s something on the TV while taking a few puffs of their own cigar and chatting with clients, but there’s never any rush and never any hard sale. They are there to facilitate anything that might be needed and remain in the background when they are unnecessary.
But What About Breadth of Selection? Price? Alcohol?
Yeah yeah, those are all great. And an otherwise poor lounge that has bar service will get me to stick around much longer. But unless you have the first three items it doesn’t matter how big your humidor is. A cigar lounge in Austin recently folded (the one I mentioned before that placed display cabinets throughout their seating area) because it failed to deliver on the main product. They had undoubtedly one of the biggest humidors in town with multiple rows of product and easy access from the highway, but that simply wasn’t enough. On the other hand, my (current) favorite cigar lounge of all time in the Storchen Hotel in Zurich has only around a dozen choices available and a seating area the size of a standard American hotel room, but they nailed the basics. A comfortable and inviting seating area. Clean and well ventilated surroundings. And friendly staff that don’t bother you.
Follow their model and no matter where you set up your location you have a good chance of success. Ignore the lessons of failure at your own peril.