New cigar shop opens and another changes hands

February 20, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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A new cigar shop joined that retail sector in Greater Grand Rapids recently, while another cigar shop that has been in business for almost 18 years has new ownership.

In early February, Tuttle’s Select Cigars announced that a new owner was behind the counter. Former broadcast executive Mark Renzenbrink bought the business from the shop’s founder, Gary Tuttle. Located on 28th Street near Centerpointe Mall, the shop opened in 1994 and claims to have had the first cigar-smoking lounge in Grand Rapids after enactment of the Michigan ban on workplace smoking, which took effect May 1, 2010.

Much closer to the downtown nightlife, a trio of entrepreneurs has opened the Grand River Cigar shop on South Division in the Heartside District.

Husband-and-wife Robin and Tina Day and their partner, Charles J. Rossi, leased 1,000 square feet of space at 131 S. Division Ave. that had been vacant for about four years, according to Robin Day.

“We’re looking to cater more to the people who come to the downtown area and are going shopping or out to dinner, and are just looking for another place to go,” said Day.

Grand River Cigar also has a smoking lounge where only cigars may be smoked — a special stipulation for cigar shops that was contained in the text of the workplace smoking ban signed into law in December 2009 by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Day said their business is now the fourth stand-alone cigar shop in the Greater Grand Rapids area of which he is aware. However, he noted that there is also a cigar counter and lounge in La Dolce Vita beneath The Chop House restaurant on Monroe Avenue near Pearl Street.

“There is plenty of room in the sandbox for everybody,” said Day, adding that each of the four shops has its own geographic market, serving the cigar smokers who live or work in those areas.

Day had worked in retail management for about 25 years until he lost his job at Jo-Ann Fabric & Crafts in 2010. Prior to that, he worked for Lowe’s and Michael’s Arts & Crafts.

“I decided it would be a great idea to go into business for myself. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about working for somebody else,” he said.

For about a year and a half, he did research on opening a cigar business while lining up backers with the help of his wife and the third partner, Rossi. “We were able to obtain a cigar bar exemption, which allows our customers to smoke on the premises,” he said.

Day and Rossi have been friends for more than 20 years, according to Day, and often enjoyed cigars together when out on the town.

“When Granholm signed the law banning smoking inside restaurants and bars, we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?’ That kind of spurred us into opening our own business,” said Day.

Grand River Cigar had a “great turnout” in December, its first full month in business. In January, there was a major project underway at the shop, adding an energy recovery ventilation system to fully eliminate the smoke from the lounge and replace it with fresh air. The system employs a heat exchanger between the indoor and outdoor air flow to save energy.

In addition to lounges for cigar smokers, both shops have large walk-in humidors where the cigars are stored in a controlled atmosphere.

Renzenbrink had been a patron of Tuttle’s for 16 years prior to buying the business. He stressed that the shop was not going out of business when he bought it. Rather, Tuttle had told him he was thinking it was time for a change, so Renzenbrink offered to buy the business.

“I bought it because I had been a customer here almost since day one,” said Renzenbrink, who is now sole proprietor.

He said he had early retail experience as manager of a high-volume car audio system business; then he went into broadcasting, starting on-air before moving into sales. When he finished his broadcasting career, he was director of sales for five stations owned by Regent Broadcasting (now owned by Townsquare Media).

Tuttle’s has “a nice, large, comfortable smoking lounge, which is perfect for the winter months,” said Renzenbrink. He is referring to the fact that cigarette smokers who want to smoke must do so outside bars, restaurants and places of employment.

“The smoking ban changed the way the public was consuming the product, there’s no doubt about that, which makes having a smoking lounge and a smoking exemption (on premises) very valuable,” Renzenbrink said.

“This time of year it gets a little cool to be smoking outside, when it’s 19 degrees.”

Day said the big buzz in the cigar business today is the perceived threat posed by the Food & Drug Administration.

On June 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Tobacco Control Act, which the FDA says grants it the authority to regulate tobacco products, including marketing and promotion and “performance standards for tobacco products to protect the public health.” However, the act does not allow the FDA to ban all cigarettes and other tobacco products, and it does not apply to cigars.

“FDA must issue a regulation deeming cigars to be subject to the law,” states the FDA website.

In August, according to Cigar Aficionado magazine, Florida senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio introduced Senate Bill 1461, otherwise known as the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act. The proposed law would remove the FDA’s jurisdiction over the cigar industry.

In Michigan, said Day, the Department of Health regulates cigars, and the cigar shops want it to stay that way, “because if the FDA gets control, then it’s going to be like the cigarette industry.” The FDA will “regulate it to death — pretty much put all of us small business cigar stores out of business, if they try to control it.”

Day added that the cigar industry believes one of the steps FDA might take would be to ban sales of a single cigar to consumers; they would have to be purchased by the box, which for premium cigars would entail significant cost.

Cigar Rights of America and International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association are cooperating in lobbying efforts on behalf of SB 1461 and a similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 1639.

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