What started as a reinvention of the JR Cigar retail concept has evolved into the Casa de Montecristo blueprint for acquisitions and new location where lounges and amenities are front and center. >By Frank Seltzer
Tabacalera U.S.A., which was formed in 2015 by Imperial Brands PLC’s to manage all of its premium cigar operations in the United States, including Altadis U.S.A. and JR Cigar, has added a new division and a new focus. This past November, the company announced the formation of a new business unit—Casa de Montecristo, Inc. The new subsidiary is charged with overseeing all of the company- owned retail stores as well as the license-based retail partnerships that use the Casa de Montecristo name. It will be run by Rob Maneson who had been the vice president of retail operations for MC Management (another Tabacalera USA affiliate) and ran JR Cigar’s online and retail stores for Tabacalera USA.
It’s the latest move in the company’s ongoing efforts to leverage the famous Cuban heritage brand, one that has instant consumer recognition and has become synonymous with premium cigars.
The first Casa de Montecristo opened outside of Chicago in 2008 under a licensing deal. Two more followed in Florida—Casa de Montecristo by Smoke Inn and Prime Cigar by Casa de Montecristo. When JR Cigar bought the two Cigar Inn stores in New York City, the company remodeled them and re-branded them as Casa de Montecristos. In September of this year, the company opened its sixth Casa de Montecristo store. Located in the Turtle Creek Village section of Dallas, considered the epicenter of the most affluent Zip Codes in the Dallas-Fort Work Metroplex, it marked the first “new build” company-owned store, and one in a new market.
Casa de Montecristo in Dallas is the prototype for what will follow: the store primarily emphasizes lounge amenities, spanning 4,300 square feet overall, but the humidor is only about 800 square feet of that space. Yet, it stocks some 200 brands, ranging from heritage brands to value cigars and growing boutique brands such as Caldwell Cigar Company and Roma Craft, and more established ones like Crowned Heads and Illusione.
Several exclusive Montecristo selections are also featured, and there is a separate Fine & Rare section showcasing some hard-to-find cigars that the company has spent the last year collecting. Outside the humidor, the store is equipped with six flat screen TVs, a communal working table, sitting areas, and even a bar, which collective can seat more the 75 people.
Maneson says the concept for the Casa came out of the JR Cigar store in Mooresville, N.C., which opened in 2015 as the replacement for the venerable JR Cigar store in Statesville, N.C., having lost its lease a year earlier after 20 years. That landmark, located along Interstate 77, had been a whopping 55,000 square feet in size, stocking both general and tobacco merchandise, whereas the Mooresville location is about 6,000 square feet. While the Statesville operation had sold tobacco, it also stocked books and numerous other sundries including Christmas trees, the company decided to focus simply on tobacco at Mooresville.
Having narrowed its focus, JR Cigar then decided to make the new operation a true destination. Adds Maneson, “For the old JR stores it was a ‘buy-fast-and-cheap,’ with a lot of transient business. People would come in and buy and leave. We think the future for us is giving the consumer the chance to come in and sit down and enjoy a smoke. We saw that in Mooresville once it opened February 15 last year and it has been a great success. “To that end, the company has now remodeled six of its seven JR Cigar stores over the past couple of years to reflect the updated design. With the exception of the Detroit location— which was not remodeled into the new concept because of space limitations—all of the JR Cigar stores will now be named Casa de Montecristo by JR Cigar. The company does not want to abandon the familiar JR name because it will continue as the online store while the physical stores reflect the new vision. In addition, Tabacalera U.S.A. has rolled out a central website at casademontecristo.com that serves each of the stores, providing information on events, in-store deals and promotions (no online sales), an educational blog, and an “A to Z” brand directory of the premium cigars that each location carries.
“Everything we do going forward will be Casa de Montecristo,” Maneson explains. “JR will remain the online [brand], and the stores will be Casas. That is why we are making changes, because this is a longer-term strategy. JR was price driven and our aim is to be a premium cigar retailer in the future.”
Maneson says he chose Dallas as the first new build because Texas is a fairly smoker friendly state with low state taxes. Tabacalera USA is increasing its bet on Texas with the purchase of retailer Serious Cigars in Houston in November. Ron and Jeanne Marie Lesseraux began as an online cigar retailer in 1996. By 2003, the couple opened their first brick and mortar location, that grew into four stores in and around Houston. The new stores most likely will be branded Casa de Montecristo by Serious Cigars. And if that was not enough, the company plans another new build in Austin, Texas and will also be building in Nashville, Tenn.
Maneson says the Casas are not trying to put anyone out of business, but believes the new stores can help expand the markets. “We think we can bring new smokers to the market. The best thing I saw at the Dallas opening was three women who came in to sit and talk in comfort. They came in by themselves. One of them smoked a cigar while the others sat back and had a glass of wine. That is the exact thing we wanted in Mooresville, where people came in as new smokers. People who didn’t shop with us before come in because it is not overly smoky. We have great ventilation; they feel comfortable to come in here and sit. That to me was a very good sign. Not just women but men can come and experience it.” Whenever possible, locations feature craft beers and full bars.
To that end Maneson adds, “We will not build a store if you cannot have an opportunity to smoke. This is the wave of the future across the U.S. Smoking regulations are becoming more challenging and the opportunities to smoke are becoming less and less. We want to make sure there is a comfortable place where you can come and enjoy your cigar.”
Ryan Leeds, who along with partner Jason Reznik opened Casa de Montecristo by Prime Cigar & Whiskey Bar in Brickell-Miami in 2015, shares the same vision, which is why he was excited to partner with Montecristo when the team decided to open its second Prime Cigar location. “Our goal with Prime Cigar was to create an atmosphere where patrons could slow down. We wanted an environment where friends and colleagues could spend quality time.”
As for the ongoing expansion of retail and lounge locations, Maneson noted that when Rob Norris took over JR Cigar in 2014, the company had seven stores. Back then, Norris said he wanted to double that footprint. With the addition of Serious Cigars and the new builds in Dallas, Austin, and Nashville, the company will achieve that goal, reaching 16 locations in all. But Maneson says the growth is not over. “We are looking to continue to expand our company-owned and license- based stores to more locations in the future.”