Andrew Lee laughs at the reaction passersby gave as he renovated a former pizza shop at the intersection of East and Suismon streets on Pittsburgh’s North Side, because it’s always the same.
He said they look around the retail space in front, ask about the humidors, cutters or lighters on display, scan the café tables and say, “Cigars, just cigars?” Then walk out.
|SMOKING—Executive Cigars LLC owner Andrew Lee shows off the cedar-lined, walk-in humidor containing an array of fine cigars that will be offered to members and guests.
“People assume if you’re young and African-American, you’re opening a chicken place or a bar,” said Lee. “This is a touch of class they can’t quite get their heads around. It’s breaking new ground for Pittsburgh. And when they know a Black guy owns it—that really blows their minds. It’s funny.”
Lee could have become another dismal statistic, growing up in Beltzhoover, running with the wrong crowd, going to reform schools. But, he said, a teacher at George Junior Republic in Grove City got through to him. He went on to Pitt and earned a business degree from Robert Morris University.
After working as a counselor for Mercy Behavioral Health, and entrepreneurial ventures in men’s wear and flipping real estate, Lee was selling advertising for Yellowbook when a client, the owner of Old Allegheny Smoke Shop in Pleasant Hills, invited him to an event where he met a salesman for Oliva Cigars named Sam Lacia.
“We talked and he asked me to join the company,” said Lee. “When I told him I didn’t think he could afford me, he laughed and told me how much he made that year. So, I went with them and they paid very, very well. I was surprised to learn how much money you could make selling cigars.”
Everything Lee learned visiting clients and upscale cigar shops in New York City, Miami, Fla., and Dublin, Ohio, has gone into the planning of Executive Cigars, LLC. Non-members can enjoy the large-screen TV, coffee and sandwiches in the café-style retail-entry space, which is also adorned with art and photos of Lee and one of the Oliva brothers at the company’s plantation in Nicaragua.
Members can pass through the walk-in humidor, which holds roughly $100,000 in inventory, to their private lounge. In there they can enjoy multiple wide screen televisions, while relaxing in overstuffed leather armchairs and sipping whatever they care to keep in their lockers. The second floor, which will house an additional lounge, fireplace card table and private meeting room, is scheduled to open in January.
Memberships range from the $30 per month “Connecticut” package to the $50 per month “Cameroon” and the $75 per month “Maduro” package, the higher levels include discounts on purchases and free cigars. Lee said he is aiming for between 300 and 600 members.
As for his inventory, Lee has everything from “your grandfather’s cigar” like a Macanudo, Hemingway or Hauptmann, to Padron Maduro 1926. The best cigars, these days, come from Cuban seeds grown in Honduras or the Dominican Republic. The Hondurans, which Lee prefers, have a sweeter, less earthy flavor.
“You can smoke a $2 cigar, like a Flor De Oliva, that is very good or you can buy the Padrons, which are $30 each,” he said. “We also deliver. There’s a minimum purchase depending on distance.”
“I’ve met some of the greatest people through this business,” Lee said. “Cigar smokers are a different breed. And they understand that they can come here to the North Side and relax with like-minded people. This is long overdue for Pittsburgh.”
(Executive Cigars, located at 630 Suismon St., opened Nov. 7. For more information, call 412-277-5530.)
(Send comments to cmorrow @newpittsburghcourier.com.)