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Community Highlights: Meet Rahul Gupta of Tobacco Leaf

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rahul Gupta.

Hi Rahul, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
Tobacco Leaf is a family-owned premium cigar retailer. We got our start when Harish Gupta opened his first store in Hunt Valley Mall in 1982. We began as a general tobacco store selling mainly cigarettes, pipes and pipe tobacco and very few cigars. Over the years, the popularity of premium cigars began to grow, and so did our emphasis on this particular category. With indoor smoking bans taking place in the mid 2000’s in public places such as bars and restaurants, it became obvious to us that opening a cigar shop with lounge was the next logical step to grow our business, as these types of establishments were exempt from the smoking ban.

We opened our first lounge store in the Columbia East Marketplace shopping plaza in 2010. Our business flourished from the start and several years into our lease, we began to look for a free-standing building that we could purchase and move our business into. In 2017, we bought Frank’s Diner located just a 1/4 mile from our existing business on Route 1 South in Jessup, MD. We completely transformed the diner and hired reputable local contractors and architectural firms to lead the significant renovation process that took place. We were able to retain some of the charms of the original diner but add in modern finishes and specific elements that are essential to a high-end cigar lounge. Our new location boasts six different smoking lounges including an outdoor patio, a 600 walk-in humidor with some of the most popular and hard to find brands, as well as a state of the art ventilation system. Our aim is provide our guests with a very unique, modern, and up-scale cigar experience unlike any other in the region. We even offer two different types of membership levels in which members receive discounts on their purchases, access to our various smoking lounges, a humidified cigar locker to keep cigars on premises, as well as complimentary refreshments!

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
The transition process from our old store to our new location initially was fairly smooth. There was very little overlap between the two shops, and all of our existing customers were well aware of the move that was taking place as the renovation process took nearly two years to complete.

We opened our doors in late September and our business never lost a beat. Not only did we retain the core of our customer base from our previous location, we were adding new customers regularly as our new location had so much more to offer! Within six months of our opening however, the CO-VID 19 pandemic began and we were forced by the State and our local municipality to close our lounges to the public. This was a very uncertain and worrisome time, especially since we had just opened several months prior and had larger monthly obligations such as loan repayments and a mortgage payment. It became apparent to us that our customers, who now were “locked-in” still needed a source for their cigars. They were working from home, not traveling or commuting, and all of a sudden had more time on their hands which meant more opportunities to smoke. We capitalized on this by emailing/texting our customers on a daily basis with special deals and offers that were valid for the day only and often sold out! We found a way to service them basically any way we could this involved providing curbside, home delivery, and/or shipping.

After businesses opened back up in late May, many of our customers returned but it was still difficult to operate. Typically, cigar lounges operate on the model of having customers gather in fairly large quantities to enjoy their purchases an indoor setting, enjoy casual conversation for extended periods of time, all while blowing hot air (smoke from the cigar) repeatedly. This wasn’t exactly recommended behavior by the CDC or health experts during this time.

The reduced capacity limits have served as an ongoing barrier, as well dealing with public sentiment on their comfort level of visiting high traffic indoor places has been a challenge. We have combatted this and tried to ease the concerns of our patrons by enhancing our focus on cleaning and sanitation, wearing masks (when possible), and having abundant supplies of sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer for all to use.

Finally, there have also been some issues on the supply chain and logistical side of our business. As mentioned earlier, cigar consumption increased on an industry-wide level by approximately 25%. This significant increase wasn’t something that was predicted or forecasted, and with restrictions in Central America where the majority of our products come from, many manufacturers weren’t able to keep up with demand. This made getting some of our more popular and better-selling products a bit more difficult to get.

As you know, we’re big fans of Tobacco Leaf. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
Tobacco Leaf is a unique, modern take on a premium cigar lounge. We underwent a $2mm extensive renovation on an old diner in Jessup, MD and converted it into one of the largest cigar lounges in the tri-state area. We offer several smoking lounges, as well as an outdoor smoking patio for our guests. We also provide one of the largest selection of premium cigars in the area with exclusive brands not found elsewhere such as Padron, Arturo Fuente Opus X, and Davidoff cigars. We also carry many cigar accessories such as cigar lighters, cutters, humidors as well as pipes, pipe tobacco, hookah and hookah tobacco.

We also serve hookah and are a BYOB establishment so guests can bring their spirits of choice to pair with their selections. Finally, we have a rental space that will easily accommodate 15-20 guests that’s perfect for a private event such as corporate meeting, birthday party, bachelor/bachelorette party, or private tasting!

If you had to, what characteristic of yours would you give the most credit to?
Customer Service is by far the most important characteristic that is essential to our success as a cigar lounge. Cigar smokers have many choices on where to purchase their products whether it’s other cigar shops or online retailers. By providing a unique, warm, safe and welcoming atmosphere that fosters inclusivity we can set ourselves apart from our competitors. Of course, having competitive pricing, a robust and diverse product offering, and knowledgeable staff are also important. None of these factors matter as much as customer service because without great service a customer’s experience can be ruined and may not result in any additional visits. We try to instill these values with each of our employees and even have cigar hostesses that pay special attention to our guests in each of our lounges to ensure everyone is well taken care of and has the most enjoyable experience possible.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Logan Mahaffey – SMP Architechts

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