Chicago’s Biggs Mansion is no ordinary building, and its newest occupant, Biggs Cigar Emporium & Lounge, is no ordinary cigar destination. Embracing a democratically wide range of customer demographics in a one-of-a-kind “super destination,” the project is a vindication of owner Fred Latsko’s labor of love. >By Seth Schwartz
Chicago Gold Coast real estate mogul Fred Latsko has been involved with numerous innovative projects. But even for this seasoned developer, converting the former Il Mulino restaurant into a cigar lounge was no small undertaking. Housed in the circa 1874 John DeKoven House—better known locally as the Biggs Mansion in the city’s National Register-listed Gold Coast Historic District—the project required two years of restoration and $4 million to complete.
Since the city’s smoking ban took effect January 1, 2008, many Chicago and business travelers have struggled finding a cigar respite away from home, Latsko explained of his vision in embarking on the project.
“I know a lot of people who want to smoke a cigar, but there were really no [cigar] facilities in the city [of Chicago], and I don’t like to smoke in my house,” said Latsko. “I figured I’d open it up and see how it was received.”
The first floor retail area, Biggs Cigar Emporium, opened on Labor Day, 2014, while the members-only second and third floors, comprising Biggs Lounge, became accessible in the spring of 2015.
Arriving at the corner of Elm and Dearborn Streets, visitors to Biggs feel the grandeur of the stately four-story, 15,000 square foot Victorian structure. Adding to the ambiance is the original cast iron fence that encloses a spacious patio area in front of the building. A series of small tables with wicker chairs and umbrellas allow patrons to recline and converse in comfort. Dual staircases from the courtyard connect to the ground level retail entrance. Inside, plush brown leather chairs and couches surround the tables on the second and third floors and go well with the mahogany woodwork, used throughout the mansion.
Overseeing the cigar operations as director of retail is Rhoda Bogardus. With more than 35 years in the cigar business, she has built relationships with dozens of manufacturers. Spanning several different walk-in humidors, Biggs stocks more than 80 premium and super-premium cigar brands, from established manufacturers to boutiques, that can satisfy casual smokers and discriminating cigar connoisseurs alike. A state-of-the-art Havana Controls humidification and monitoring system ensures that all cigar inventory maintains its optimal moisture level and freshness.
“We have people who come in from major cities and places from all around the country frequently,” said Bogardus. “They said they read about us on Yelp or heard about us from the concierge at their hotel. We’ve been in all the cigar publications, we had Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Harvey here [taping part of their Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee]; so people know about us.” Beyond the well-known commercially available cigar brands (and lesser-known gems in the making), Biggs has also set out to build a unique inventory of rare and vintage cigars. Through a unique partnership with Darren Cioffi, president of Tennessee-based Principle Cigars and an avid cigar collector, Biggs stocks several boxes of vintage cigars which retail from $90 to $315 for a single stick.
“We’ve tracked down and curated a variety of rare cigars over the years with examples dating back to the 1870s through the 1930s,” said Cioffi, who has been involved in antiques for 25 years. “We have cigars from Cuba, Europe, America, and the Caribbean. Some examples with minor issues we’ve brought to the Dominican and had Hendrik Kelner Jr. put an aged, relaxed wrapper over the existing one.” Cioffi partnered with Kelner and his Santiago-based Kelner Boutique Factory in 2013 to develop and produce his own line of premium cigars, Principle Cigars Aviator Series, one of the unique boutique offerings carried by Biggs. Cioffi and Kelner also produce two well-regarded house blends for Biggs.
“I’ve been an antique dealer since high school, specializing in old paper and advertising artwork. I discovered vintage cigar label art, old cigar boxes, and vintage packages of the actual cigars. Treasure hunting is still my passion. While preservation is more important to me, smoking a 100-year-old cigar can allow you to taste interesting and bizarre flavor profiles.
“Having the cigars at Biggs allows smokers to share the experience, whether it’s lighting up or just having a look. The staff there is extremely knowledgeable and the regulars are the sort with whom you’d enjoy sharing a cigar.”
Members of Biggs Lounge enjoy the location and amenities. A six-block walk from home is convenient for neighborhood resident Dustin Dressel.
“Biggs has a classic architectural feel,” said Dressel. “When I signed up, everyone knew my name; the service is high end. Anything I’ve ever asked for it was done without a problem.
“I’ve had friends get together to watch a game, a celebration, or for dinner. I’ve met clients there and used the business boardroom, which has been ideal. The members make you feel well received and are always giving.
“Biggs is a step back in time; there’s a sense of tradition. The history of the area and the detail of the house is something you always feel. You’re in the boardroom and you think, ‘This was someone’s dining room 125 years ago.’
“The patio feels private. It’s an ideal spot to sit and enjoy a cigar.” To date, more than 100 people have paid the annual $2,000 fee for humidor rental. This allows for a private humidified locker to store cigars and also grants full access to the property. Currently, there’s room enough for 350 lessees.
With 14-foot ceilings, seven Italian marble fireplaces, a spiral staircase, and chandeliers, the building’s elegance is a reflection of its original architect’s self-taught architecture mastery. Nothing structurally has been changed; the crown moldings are all original.
Two pool tables and matching flat screens are located in the back of the second floor. There’s a spot designated for business meetings or entertaining that has a wooden bar. All three large connecting rooms can be closed with beautiful pocket sliding wooden doors. The third floor has three rooms and a card table in the back area. Lessees are allowed to bring in food from any of the area restaurants.
Drew Estate co-founder Jonathan Drew has had a few events at Biggs and appreciates his time there.
“I’ve been blessed to travel the globe and meet good people who understand our vision and are loyal to it,” said Drew. “Biggs is one of those super fresh spots that is uniquely Chicago. We are planning another event. The bar at Biggs is one of the distinguishing elements of the place and my favorite spot to snag a [BYOB] drink.”