By John Ruch
On a quiet, early afternoon at Churchill Fine Cigars in Sandy Springs, owner Shafi Hai showed off some of the shop’s luxurious features. The smoking lounge with plush dark-leather couches beneath a mural of Winston Churchill and Cuban scenes. The cedar-paneled, walk-in humidor stocked with hard-to-find premium cigars.
He demonstrated the private lockers where regulars can store their smokes, and pointed out one with a brass nameplate reading, “Dr. Jay’s.”
“You know—Dr. J?” he asked.
Yep, the Dr. J—pro basketball legend Julius Erving, a Sandy Springs resident who frequently visits Churchill and shares a smoke with fellow cigar connoisseurs.
With this old-school social club atmosphere and occasional celebrity glamour, the cigar lounge business is on the rise in the metro north area.
Hai claims to have pioneered the shop-and-smoking-lounge concept in Georgia 20 years ago with his Scottish Tobacco stores in Buckhead and Rockdale County. He opened Churchill in 2013 to pick up Sandy Springs customers. And Davidoff of Geneva—a Swiss luxury brand that recently marketed a $500 cigar—is about to open a store and lounge in the Buckhead Atlanta complex.
Cigars had a renaissance as a luxury item in the economic boom of the early 1990s. The magazine “Cigar Aficionado” launched, highlighting such cigar-loving superstars as Sylvester Stallone and Pierce Brosnan.
At the same time, health laws banning public smoking were on the rise, inspiring specialty cigar bars and cigar lounges that were exempt. (The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to warn that cigar-smoking raises the risk of cancer, gum disease and other illnesses.) Such laws took a while to reach the Atlanta area, but have played a role in the cigar lounge trend.
Dantanna’s, the upscale sports bar and restaurant in Buckhead, opened the adjacent Buckhead Cigar Lounge 10 years ago in response to the smoking restrictions.
“We had many very good regulars who were cigar-smokers, and we were a cigar-friendly bar back in the day,” said Dantanna’s partner David Clapp.
The restaurant turned to a group of those customers, led by Mike Turrentine, to transform the former private dining room into a stand-alone cigar shop and lounge. It now carries a quarter-million-dollars worth of high-end cigars, and offers special dinners and scotch-tastings. The lounge also operates a members’ club.
Scottish Tobacco in Buckhead takes the club concept a step further. Its Sinan Lounge is a private area with country-club-style rates of $500 to $1,000 a year. It includes access to printers, copiers and a fax machine for business meetings.
Cigar-lovers with a more modest budget, or who lean toward more of a neighborhood-hangout atmosphere, have options, too.
Dunwoody Cigars and Lounge in Dunwoody has the laid-back vibe one might expect from a place bought by a former customer. On a recent Friday afternoon, owner Jay Markowitz relaxed on a cream-colored leather sofa, watching golf on a giant TV. A group of lawyers came in to play some poker over cigars and cut Markowitz in.
Markowitz is a Sandy Springs resident whose main work is serving as a partner in a company that manufactures prosthetic breasts for women who have mastectomies. A longtime customer of Dunwoody Cigars, he bought out the owner about 3 1/2 years ago, when it seemed like it might close.
“We were a bunch of buddies who used to come here and hang out,” Markowitz said. “We didn’t want to lose the clubhouse.”
He and wife Mei now operate the lounge, which includes a walk-in humidor, a large back room and private cigar lockers.
At Churchill, Hai is proud that he recently won the hard-to-earn right to carry the Davidoff brand, whose cigars come wrapped in a paper-thin slice of cedar wood for freshness. He boasts of such famous customers as Atlanta-based comedian Steve Harvey and legendary actor Robert De Niro, who once spent four hours with him at Scottish Tobacco.
“You don’t make a lot of money, but you make a lot of connections,” Hai said of the cigar business.
Someone’s making money, however. At Churchill, some cigars had price tags north of $20 each. Asked what a first-timer can expect to spend at a cigar lounge, Hai smiled and politely shook his head. This is the sort of business where if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
“Most people don’t care. It’s a lifestyle,” Hai said.
On the other hand, if a customer can afford the luxury of cigars, there are no picky rules about enjoying them. A lounge is selling not just a cigar, but also the sociability and patience the slow-burning items require.
“It doesn’t matter how you hold [the cigar], how you smoke,” Hai said. “It’s if you enjoy your company—that’s what matters.”
For more information: Buckhead Cigar Lounge, 3400 Around Lenox Drive, Suite 304, Atlanta, dantannas.com; Churchill Fine Cigars, 5841 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, churchillfinecigars.com; Dunwoody Cigars and Lounge, 1404 Dunwoody Village Parkway, Dunwoody, dunwoodycigar.com; Scottish Tobacco and Sinan Lounge, 2625 Piedmont Road NE, Atlanta, scottishtobacco.com.