The Beachcomber

LBI’s Olde Tyme Smoke Shoppe Withstands Test of Time

Burst Cigar Bubble, Great Recession and Sandy Couldn’t Shut It
By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 14, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Only the strong survive in the world of business.

Pat Barbera is a veritable Hercules, able to survive a major downturn in demand for his product, plus the Great Recession and Superstorm Sandy, which in 2012 flooded his shop along with nearly every other business in Beach Haven.

When he opened his Olde Tyme Smoke Shoppe at 213A North Beach Ave. in Beach Haven back in 1997, he had plenty of competition on Long Beach Island.

After all, it was the height of the ’90s cigar craze. Cigar Aficionado magazine, almost single-handedly responsible for the explosion in popularity, had been published since 1992 and its growing list of readers and its readers’ friends caught in the tide seemed to be in frenzy as they sought out fine smokes, humidors, cutters and other accessories. They snapped up multi-hundred-dollar tickets to the magazine’s “Big Smokes,” cigar parties held in several large cities across the country each year where they had the opportunity to fill a bag with samples from the most famous cigar companies such as Arturo Fuente, Ashton, Macanudo, and Te-Amo while enjoying high-end liquors such as Hennessy, Courvoisier and Absolut and munching on tidbits from each city’s finest restaurants. (New York events featured classics such as the 21 Club, The Four Seasons and Montrachet.) They traded stories of tracking down illegal and elusive Cuban cigars, despite the fact that most had been ripped off and had bought fakes – or were simply making up tales from whole cloth.

The mid-1990s were definitely a boom time for cigars.

“The annual imports of cigars, which had remained at about 100 million units a year through much of the 1980s, finished 1993 with a 9.7 percent increase to 117.8 million units and 1994 with a 12.4 percent increase to about 132 million units,” wrote Gordon Mott in Cigar Aficionado’s 20th Anniversary Issue. “Then the craziness began in earnest. Annual increases of 33.2 percent, 66.7 percent and 42.3 percent in 1995, 1996 and 1997, brought the imports to a total of nearly 418 million cigars.”

That amazing rate of growth caused a new set of problems.

“The increases created distortions at nearly every level of the industry,” wrote Mott.

The bubble attracted new cigar makers who didn’t know the market. High-quality tobacco was scarce. Growers soon attempted to cultivate new acreage to meet the demand, on land not suited for the crop, thus producing an inferior product. The price jumped up for high-end cigars but at the same time the market was flooded with low-quality crud that turned many potential smokers away.

The boom also attracted smoke shop owners hoping to cash in on the craze. At least three other tobacco shops opened on LBI the same year as Barbera’s. One had an impressive walk-in humidor but an absentee business owner who left the day-to-day operation of his shop to teens working summer jobs. Another started with too small of an inventory, meaning disappointed customers wouldn’t come back after not being able to find what they were looking for. They were all gone within a couple of years as the cigar bubble burst.

Barbera is still around. He survived because he and his small staff are knowledgeable, friendly and year-round. The tobacconist knows the market, knows his products, knows his customers. After all, he’s been in the business for 20 years.

Barbera has seen many a change in the cigar industry over those two decades.

One is a big change – literally. People are smoking larger cigars these days as compared to the 1990s.

“Back then the most popular cigars used to be coronas, robustos,” said Barbera “They had a ring (gauge) size of 44 to 48. Now the most popular have ring sizes of 60. They’re called 6X60s (six inches long and 60/64ths of an inch in diameter) or magnums or double magnums.”

Another change is that long-time smokers have become incredibly brand loyal. When Barbera first opened his doors, many new smokers were experimenting, looking for the hottest new thing on the Cigar Aficionado ratings scale – or attempting to find the sweet spot where ratings and wallet could intersect.

“My steady customers, they’ve been through trial and error,” said the tobacconist. “They know what they like. They’re willing to try a good cigar, a better cigar, but they’re not looking for two or three cigars like they used to do. They’re brand conscious. They will stay with their company, but might try a new product from that same company.”

As in the 1990s, Barbera’s customers still come from all age groups. But he did notice a change in his college-aged crowd, saying they’re much more knowledgeable now than they used to be.

Barbera stressed he only sells to college kids of legal age (currently 19) and always checks IDs. But somebody else must have sold to them, or older buddies shared their booty, because, as Barbera said, “they’re not new to it.”

Barbera was able to reduce the biggest change in the cigar business to a mere three letters – FDA.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has regulated cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco products since June 2009. But on May 10, 2016, FDA extended its authority to cover “electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) – such as e-cigarettes and vape pens – all cigars, hookah (waterpipe) tobacco, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels, and certain dissolvables.”

Put simply, “FDA now regulates the manufacture, import, packaging, labeling, advertising, promotion, sale, and distribution of cigars.”

“They’re making it very hard on manufacturers,” said Barbera. “The regulation is costing the manufacturers a lot of money and they’re passing it on to retailers and customers.”

FDA regulations aren’t directly apparent at the retail level yet. But wait until next year, when FDA will mandate that cigars be labeled with warning notices similar to the ones that currently adorn packages of cigarettes.

The cigar industry isn’t the only thing that’s morphed in 20 years. The business atmosphere on Long Beach Island has also changed. It isn’t just Barbera’s competition that has closed up shop on the Island since 1997. Look at the number of landmark businesses that have disappeared or, at best, changed ownership.

The change affecting his business, said Barbera, is the loss of rental properties on LBI. They gave way to larger homes bought by wealthier owners who don’t have to rent. Their families visit on weekends, he said, but more and more houses on the Island remain empty during the week. On the other hand, those large houses are packed with friends and relatives Friday night through Sunday.

“The weeks have gotten slow,” said the tobacconist of his summer business, “and the weekends have now gotten out of control.”

Barbera’s Olde Tyme Smoke Shoppe, though small, sells all sorts of tobacco products including American Spirit cigarettes, some pipe tobacco, accessories and, of course, cigars in just about every price range. His mainstay, though, is high-end cigars.

One thing he doesn’t have is Cubans – they’re still illegal in the United States. Remember, if another merchant tries to sell you one, he’s probably blowing smoke.

The shop’s summer hours are 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week. The phone number is 609-492-1600.

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