By Al Parker 6/15/09
Joe Barrera, owner of the only cigar shop in Leelanau County, remembers clearly when he fired up his first cigar.
It was at Pauls Cigar Shop in Flint, recalls the 60-year-old Barrera with a smile. I was in my early 20s and the owner, Paul, gave me a Cohiba. He started me off with a quality cigar and Ive enjoyed them ever since.
Now the affable tobacconist is providing quality smokes and good conversation to friends and customers at his business, The Leelanau Cigar Co. in Suttons Bay.
Barrera fell in love with Leelanau County more than 40 years ago when he visited as a youngster. Ive been coming up here since I was a kid, remembers the former Flint resident, who retired from the Delphi Corporation in 2004. I was a cherry picker.
Barreras eclectic shop is tucked along Front Street, which is really more of an alley, snug along the waterfront at the corner of Adams, near the Suttons Bay marina. When he opened in 2006 he was located a few doors away, but in early April he moved to the cozier 600-square-foot location at 310 Front. St.
Its about half the size of the old place, but the move was a way for us to cut costs and downsize a bit, says Barrera. Were a few doors away, but it didnt take long for our regular customers to find us.
Hes filled the place with cigars of all types and ring gauges, humidors, cigar cutters, lighters, elegant cigar ashtrays and other tobacco-related items. Barrera has also added pipes and pipe tobacco to his inventory. Its a comfortable place, complete with a welcoming table, several chairs, coffee, soft drinks, snacks and reading material.
This place is sort of a refuge, he says. We have regular cigar nights usually Thursdays when we get three or four guys in here. We invite folks to stop by for a coffee or soft drink, to play chess, talk and enjoy a smoke.
Since opening in 2006, Barrera has built up a cadre of regulars who stop by every couple of weeks to pick up their favorite smokes. My repeat customers have always encouraged me, he says. They like my products and my prices.
Barreras prices vary from $2 to $25 per stick, with most in the $4 -$6 range. In addition to stocking more than 1,000 cigars, including the most popular labels, such as Davidoff, Montecristo, Rocky Patel and Ashton, Barrera produces his own private Leelanau Cigar brand of sticks, a tasty, mild smoke flavored with Black Star Farms cherry or apple brandy.
In 2006 he visited his daughter who lives in Sacramento. While there, he stopped by the local cigar shop and met two Cubans father Pedro and son Pierre Perales who rolled their own cigars and were looking for distributors.
Barrera and the Perales worked out an agreement for the Cubans to provide hand-rolled smokes under the Leelanau Cigar label. The Black Star Farms brandy is used to flavor each leaf of the cigar as it is rolled, resulting in a flavorful smoking experience.
Like a lot of small business owners, Barrera is dealing with a sluggish economy and, as of April 1, increased federal taxes on his tobacco products. The tax on a premium cigar went up 40 cents per stick, he explains. Thats $10 on a 25-count box. Thats not right.
Barreras custom-brand cigars are stocked in several locations around Leelanau County, including the Leelanau Sands Casino, Barrels & Barrels party store, Black Star Farms, Scotts Filling Station in Northport and the Silvertree Deli.
I assure a quality product and my prices are very reasonable, adds Barrera. Were out to make friends, not gouge anybody.
Leelanau Cigar Co., at 324 Front St. in Suttons Bay, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call (231) 271-1005 or (877) 98-CIGAR or go to www.leelanaucigar.com.