If you want to see how dramatically the Canadian retail landscape has changed, try to buy a cigar.
A generation ago, cigar stores were ubiquitous. You could buy smokes in milk stores, pharmacies, hospitals, schools, everywhere. Today, about the only places left in Ottawa where you can buy cigars, pipes and pipe tobacco, exotic cigarettes, and accessories are a clutch of premium cigar and tobacco boutiques in Ottawa.
Elias Ayoub, 62, co-owns three Cigar Man locations in Ottawa South, Westboro and Lansdowne, where he carries thousands of cigars, mostly Cohibas, Coronas, Montecristos, Havans, Panatellas and Presidentes handmade in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and throughout Central and South America, ranging in price from $2.50 to $160 a cigar, a punishing 83 per cent of which are federal Canadian taxes.
“Smoking a cigar takes more than five minutes,” Ayoub explains. “You need a place inside with our winters, unless you're really die-hard smoker. Smoking cigars has become something men like to do in the summer when they play golf or go to barbecues. So, our business goes up in May, and drops off in October because smoking a cigar has become an outdoor activity.”
It isn't an easy business to be in. Since 2000, three levels of government have been working hard to make smoking tobacco in public as difficult, unpleasant and expensive as possible. In 2001, the city of Ottawa banned smoking inside public spaces, restaurants, bars, casinos, condos and apartments. By driving smoking outdoors, the cigar business has been transformed into a seasonal business, quiet in the winter, peaking in the summer.
“It's a tough business,” he adds. “They can be expensive, but most of the cost are Canadian taxes. There's virtually no profit margins, so I can't afford to hire staff. I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, 363 days a year. But I love it, so I don't mind.”
Ayoub's still in the game primarily because he loves cigars, he loves retail and he enjoys the camaraderie of his clients, who are men generally, who enjoy cigars when they're golfing, playing poker, hanging out in the man cave, walking the dog or celebrating a special occasion.
“Cigars are something men like to do when they're celebrating a special event,” Ayoub says. “It used to be you'd have cigars when you got married, had a baby, anytime men want to celebrate, they like to smoke a cigar. People have been smoking for thousands of years. It can be a pleasure.”
A native of Montreal, Ayoub moved to Ottawa in 1993 when he and his brother in law bought a convenience store selling candy, cigarettes, magazines and newspapers mostly on Bank Street south. Business was good until the late 1990s when people stopped buying newspapers and magazines and got their news fix online instead.
“I saw we were losing news stand sales dramatically, but our cigar sales were strong,” Ayoub says. “So I bought a couple humidors, expanded the range of product and found that customers are as unique as the cigars they smoke.”
What had been a convenience store was becoming a hub for cigar lovers.
Despite the turbulence in the Canadian tobacco industry, the Cigar Man market reach is a niche, seasonal market of men aged 18-65, affluent and in the mood for a good time. As niche markets go, it's a pretty sweet slice of the market.
“People have been smoking for thousands of years because they enjoy it,” Ayoub says. “I'm still here because cigars are a part of our culture. Smoking habits are changing, for sure, but there will always be a time and place to enjoy a cigar.”