Tobaccionst Article-Outlaw Cigar
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5/8/2008, in category "Outlaw Press"
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With all guns blazin’Kendall Culbertson makes The Outlaw Cigar Co. home to Kansas City’s cigar-smoking hombres, desperadoes and renegades.
With all guns blazin' Kendall Culbertson makes The Outlaw Cigar Co. home to Kansas City’s cigar-smoking hombres, desperadoes and renegades.
By Stephen A. Ross
It’s almost impossible to imagine a full-service tobacconist experiencing 42 percent yearly growth in this age of smoking bans and higher tobacco taxes. And many people would think you were mad to say that you have more than 1,000 people regularly attend you events. Kendall Culbertson, owner of Kansas City, Mo.’s The Outlaw Cigar Co. can claim both, thanks to an imaginative vision that attracts people to his store in droves with monthly parties that include cigar celebrities, free food and beer, beautiful women and great cigar deals. Culbertson does it all with one goal in mind – to create new cigar smokers.
At 42, Culbertson has owned that Outlaw Cigar Co. for 10 years, opening his first store at the tail end of the boom in 1997. Also the owner of Midwest Technology Connection, a computer networking company, Culbertson knew that he wanted to be in the cigar business after trying his first cigar, a Macanudo, because he wanted to be involved in a business that he could be passionate about. After spending a day with Culbertson at his shop, it’s evident he’s found a business he’s certainly passionate about, engendering an excitement that infects the staff working at the store and customers alike. Like the outlaws that have inspired the name of his store, Culbertson is after new cigar smokers with all guns blazing.
Located on the corner of a strip mall in an affluent shopping area on Kansas City’s north side, The Outlaw Cigar Co. offers 2,500 square feet of space. A 600-square-foot humidor with two entrances is located on the back wall. Large glass windows allow customers to marvel at the humidor’s selection from the first moment they step into the store. Inside the humidor, cigars are displayed on shelves arranged on the walls, and a 22-foot-long island display sits in the middle, showcasing all of the cigars that will be featured at the next party. The humidor is also home to 40 private cigar lockers, each one adorned with a brass plaque engraved with the outlaw nickname given to the locker’s owner upon its purchase. An Outlaw Cigar Co. poster titles “Bad to the Bone Tour” that proudly lists the party schedule for 2007 in concert-tour style hangs from one of the humidor’s exterior walls.
In front on the humidor is a central display island on which two registers sit, with the cases showing off collectors’ knives and smoking accessories. A large pipe display case with numerous pipes sits along the north wall, next to roughly 30 pipe tobacco jars sporting outlaw-themed names, such as Hanging Judge, Bat Masterson, Cole Younger, Wild Bill Longley, The Eastwood and The Dalton Gang.
A 900-square-foot smoking lounge, complete with comfortable leather furniture, a wireless Internet connection and three plasma high-definition televisions with satellite receivers and surround sound are located through an archway to the left of the store’s entrance. A steer’s skull hangs above the archway. Dozens of photos of American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and a framed Iraqi flag hang from the lounge’s walls, sent to the store by soldiers in appreciation for care packages of cigars they’ve received from The Outlaw Cigar Co.
Culbertson settles into a chair, joining approximately a dozen customers in the lounge. He lights a private-label Outlaw Bad to the Bone Tour cigar and explains the reasoning behind his vision, which includes taking care of cigar smokers as well as attracting people who might become cigar smokers.
“You have a target audience and then you have a strategy to reach that audience,” he says between puffs on the cigar. “You first must decide how you’re going to create an interest in your product for those people who don’t already have an interest in that product.
One of the biggest mistakes many businesses make is that they only go after the people who already have an interest in their products. If you go after only those people who already have an interest in your products, then you have a very limited target market.
You target your audience, you develop a strategy and then you implement your strategy from all sides.”
The lounge, the parties and the other special events, such as the regular Tuesday night poker sessions, are intended to create a community of cigar smokers, which is what Culbertson insists is the real product that he promotes.
“I don’t believe that you can try to talk a guy into smoking a cigar, so instead of trying to talk someone into trying a cigar we create an environment that causes him to want to be part of the action and then, over time, he becomes a cigar smoker. We promote everybody getting together and having a good time, and cigars happen to be a huge part of the activity.”
About 60 people attend the Tuesday poker nights, including on average, five to seven people who aren’t cigar smokers, Culbertson says. The monthly cigar parties bring in as many as 1,250 people on a Saturday, with an average of 80 to 100 non-cigar-smokers attending.
“Usually by the time they leave a poker night or an event, the non-cigar-smokers have tried their first cigar.” Culbertson says.
Each person who buys something at an event fills out a raffle ticket for prizes, and the information that costumer provides on the ticket is entered into a database. The system allows Culbertson and his staff to track consumer trends. One phenomenon they see is people who may have tried their first cigar at an event typically come back for more.
“What we see is a tremendous amount of low-end humidors sold in the weeks following a party. A person smokes a cigar at the party, he likes it, and so he buys a few more before leaving. A week or two later, he comes back in and buys a cheap humidor and some more cigars. That’s a new smoker for the industry and that’s a new customer for me. Remember every new smoker has a bunch of buddies that don’t smoke.”
Those new customers are made because they had fun at an event at The Outlaw Cigar Co.
They keep coming back, Culbertson says, because of the atmosphere in the store.
“A cigar business is not selling cigars, its building the club.” Culbertson says. “When someone walks into the door, how do you get them to change from wanting simply to buy a cigar to wanting to be a part of your store? You become a partner with the customer so that he feels very comfortable coming in, sitting down and enjoying a cigar. Once he does that, then I don’t need sales people any longer because my regular customers who hang out in the lounge become salesmen. They make people feel welcome and they also recommend cigars.”
Creating new cigar smokers by promoting camaraderie within the store is good for the bottom line, of course, but Culbertson vehemently argues that it,s critical to the survival of the industry.
“The cigar store of the future must include a club, especially with smoking bans that are taking place. If you don’t have that club atmosphere going it will be too easy for people to quit smoking cigars. It’s the cigar stores’ responsibility to pick up the slack. You must provide a place to hang out to enjoy a cigar because we’re the guys who’re responsible for creating new cigar smokers.”
Because Culbertson believes so passionately in his responsibility to produce new cigar smokers, The Outlaw Cigar Co. eschews wholesale marketing to the areas restaurants, grocery stores and golf courses, and doesn’t pursue Internet sales.
“If cigar stores are responsible for creating new smokers, why are cigars in convenience stores, liquor stores and grocery stores? They’re not going to create new smokers. When you sell cigars to those types of businesses, haven’t you just sold the cigar industry’s ability to gain cigar smokers? A guy’s not going to get passionate about the cigar he’s smoking by buying it in a grocery store. If he has a bad experience he has nobody to talk to about it. Those are the wrong places for cigars to be. I would rather somebody go into a store other than mine to buy a cigar than to go to the grocery store and buy a cigar that I sold to the grocery store. Even though I may have made money on that transaction, the cigar industry lost on that transaction.”
Health Nazis might be shocked to hear of Culbertson’s campaign to create new cigar smokers but, he rhetorically asks, is it a sin to create smokers?
“No! I believe that I’m in the health business. What’s the number-one killer of men? Stress. What can you do to relieve stress? You can’t just tell someone to relax. A cigar is a great way. When a guy smokes a cigar for an hour and a half or two hours and has fun with the other guys, he’s relaxing. What is unhealthier—the smoke that he gets from the cigar or the stress that he would have if he didn’t take it easy for an hour and a half each day? I think it’s the stress by far. I’m saving your life because I’m relieving your stress. A cigar a day can be a big relief and it paves the way for more downtime. A guy might become accustomed to slowing down a bit more.”
Culbertson also believes that passionate employees are necessary to the success of his cigar business. “You must hire people that are already passionate about cigars. I can teach employees to do the day-to-day stuff, but passion cannot be forced onto your employees, and that is a must to creating passionate customers. The Outlaw has awesome people that work here, and that makes a huge difference in everything.”
Culbertson selected the name for his store with the primary purpose to tie the name in with a theme based marketing plan. “The name of your business can be turned into an image you use to leverage your marketing. It can be a tremendous asset to your marketing scheme. There is a lot I can do with the Outlaw name.”
Most of The Outlaw Cigar Co.’s advertising is done through its 11 parties each year. One party is held every month from January to November, and each party has a buy-three-get-one-free offer on the featured company’s cigar. Culbertson also insists that the leader of the company attend the event. The 2007 event calendar, titled Bad To The Bone Tour, has featured parties with Cusano’s Mike Chisuano, Avo Uvezian, Fonseca’s Manuel Quesada, Christian Eiroa, of Camacho, Jorge Padron, Pepin Garcia, Bobby Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., La Flor Dominicana’s Litto Gomez, Rocky Patel, Erik Nording, CAO’s Tim Ozgener and Manny Ferraro from Ashton. The parties have proved so popular among industry representatives that the lineup for 2008 is already booked and includes 12 parties, featuring Puros Indios’ Carlos Diez, Nestor Plasencia, David Blanco of Los Blancos, Oliva’s Jose Oliva, Carlos Fuente Jr., Jorge Padron, Eiroa, Patel, Garcia, Gomez, Uvezian, Carlos Torano and Ozgerner. Culbertson regularly has more than 800 people attend his Saturday parties. In June, he hosted a party for Pepin Garcia. More than 1,200 people came to the all day event and enjoyed 250 pounds of barbecue, 450 Italian sausages, 10 kegs of beer, Hooters girls handing out free chicken wings, factory representatives from Benchmade Knives and Colibri, a golf pro with swing-analyzing equipment, the Arena Football League’s Kansas City Brigade cheerleaders, the two June models featured in The Outlaw Cigar Co. calendar and the chance to witness an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter land in the empty field across the street from the store.
“You’ve got to get people interested in your business,” Culbertson says. “Show them that you’re having a good time. At every single party I host I have to try to have several sideshows that are non-cigar related to bring in potential new customers. I align my parties with other businesses that have customers who fit the demographic of a cigar smoker, such as a sports memorabilia shop, custom motorcycle shop, golf courses, micro brews or a steak house. I print fliers and signs for them, expecting them to advertise to their customers to come to our party, and they also must be there to put on a showcase. One of the keys to a successful business is its partnerships with others, and that includes businesses outside your own industry. Once you attract the nonsmoker to your party, there has to be something special to keep them there. They have fun, they enjoy the atmosphere and then maybe they feel obligated to take advantage of the buy-three-get-one free deal. That’s what I want. He’s got four cigars and you’re pretty close to creating a new customer after he’s smoked four cigars and he’s loved the camaraderie. Maybe he doesn’t smoke another cigar until my next party and he again does the buy-three-get-one free promotion. I’m now getting close to what I call the magic number, which is 10 to 12 cigars, where a guy finally says, ‘Wow, I really like this,’ and he becomes a regular cigar smoker. It’s hard to get somebody to smoke 10 to 12 cigars without a system, and my system is the parties, poker tournaments and sporting events that I show in the lounge.”
In addition to the parties, Culbertson attracts new customers with a calender featuring some of Kansas City’s most beautiful models. The calendar girls are selected by the customers at the May party, where they do photo shoots to impress the crowd. Culbertson runs a contest for the calendar girls who attend their respective month’s party, and the girl who gets the most votes wins $1,000. Once again the voting is done by The Outlaw Cigar Co. customers on the store’s Web site, www.outlawcigar.com.
“The calendar is for attracting new customers who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in coming to a cigar shop. I get traffic of non-cigar-smokers because of all these great things and it brings guys to the Web site to vote for the girls.
Culbertson also purchases television commercials, which change every month to promote the upcoming party and feature the cigar celebrity and the calendar girl. He also does some print advertising and donates generously to area charitable organizations.
“Television advertising is a pretty good way to get the message out to cigar smokers, but its not so great for creating new cigar smokers except when you can advertise that an Apache helicopter is going to land at the party. Basically it helps keep the store on peoples minds. I buy a huge batch of humidors for charity donations. We have signs and fliers to accompany it so that our name is out there. Anything you can do for the community is doing the right thing, which is a great form of marketing. It benefits you in the long run. I don’t care what it is –so long as it’s for charity, I give.”
The Outlaw Cigar Co.’s best-selling cigars are the ones that are made by the manufacturers who have interesting stories to tell about the cigars, Culbertson says. Having a good story helps market the cigar to old and new customers alike.
“To build passion, you have to talk about the heritage behind the cigars, the families who make them, the cigars’ composition and the process of making cigars. Once a customer starts to realize that there is a very complex and deep story behind the cigar he is smoking, he gains a very deep appreciation for the product. Then they get excited about trying different cigars and understanding what they’re smoking.”
It also helps to do business with companies that share Culbertson’s goal to promote the cigar industry as a whole.
“I believe in partnerships with my vendors. I have products that I sell that I’m not sure that my goals are in tune with their goals and then I have products that I sell that I know that I’m very in tune with the manufacturer. You must focus on those partnerships that are in tune with you, otherwise you limit your success.”
To maintain the growth The Outlaw Cigar Co. has experienced, Culbertson keeps an open mind and careful ear about bringing new products, and stories, into the store. One of the most successful new manufacturers that Culbertson has brought into the humidor has been Pepin Garcia.
“There are some new companies out there that have the story. Look at Pepin Garcia. Why are his cigars doing so well; is it the story or the cigar? Now the cigar is great but I think the story is awesome. You hear his story and then you’ve got to smoke his cigar. How much better does the cigar taste with the story than without the story?
The Outlaw Cigar Co. also features its own line of cigars as well as a Bad to the Bone Tour Collection with one cigar each made by nine different manufacturers and packaged in one box. Each cigar is banded with the manufacturers’ band near the cigars head and an Outlaw band on the foot. In addition, each manufacturer who’s featured at a party makes a special event cigar available only at that event.
“Again the purpose is to create cigar smokers. We want people to get caught up in collecting cigars. An aged cigar is better and it’s unique. I try to convince people to age cigars themselves because they are so much better.”
Semi retired from running the computer technology business, Culbertson is enjoying his second career as cigar shop owner. There are a lot of opportunities within the industry coming to Culbertson these days, and he occasionally thinks about franchising his business or opening more stores. But with a year old son, he’s reserving his life to spend as much time as he can with his family—for now.
“Passion will lead me into doing what I end up doing. I ultimately want to help the industry and see other cigar stores grow. If you do a good job of creating a cigar smoker, you’re growing your own business as well as others. Grow the pie; don’t worry about ths size of your slice. If the pie grows your slice automatically gets bigger.”
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