By Rick Coates 10/5/09
For 31 years Mike Nolan has been selling tobacco in downtown Traverse City. Nolans Tobacconists have enjoyed success over the years because Mike understands the business better than most (he is president of the cigar store industry association for 38 stores in Michigan) and he even has been a trendsetter in establishing the first cigar dinner in the country over 20 years ago (documented by Cigar Aficionado, which credits Nolan and restaurateur Jim Milliman for starting the trend).
As Michigan nears a smoking ban in public buildings, Nolan knows he had to do something if he wants to keep his business a success. So he is launching Nolans Cigar Lounge.
Most of the proposed legislation will allow for established tobacco shops to have a lounge for their patrons to smoke, said Nolan. It is something I have talked about doing for a long time anyway, but with legislation looming in Michigan, I figured I better get it down now.
He is still in the same location, 336 East Front Street where he has been for the past 17 years.
The business next door to me moved out so I was able to take their location and convert it into the Ashton Cigar Lounge. We cut a hole in the wall between the two locations, said Nolan. We have WiFi, a big screen, leather chairs, bistro style seating and an expanded humidor.
Smoking at Nolans (as the regulars call it) is nothing new, his patrons have been doing it every day since he opened, but space has been a premium in the past. With tight quarters and three stools, most of his customers would stand and smoke, but the new lounge will create a relax atmosphere.
For most people, smoking a cigar is an event; you have to make time for it and you want to relax and enjoy the cigar, said Nolan. We have created an environment where the person can come in read the paper, watch TV, work on their laptop and relax and enjoy their cigar.
So with the expanded space will there be too much smoke?
No, not at all. One of the things we have done is installed a $25,000 state of the art heating and air conditioning unit that removes the smoke, he says.
In his 30 years Nolan has built a reputation not just in Northern Michigan but around the country.
I was down at a wine show in Florida and there was a tobacco shop owner selling cigars and I mentioned to him that we have a great little shop in Michigan. And he said it has to be Nolans and I was shocked, said Tom Doran, of the Davis Wine Group. This guy responded: Heck, everyone in this business has heard of Nolans. I travel around the country and everyone seems to have heard of Nolans.
The star attraction at Nolans is not the cigars but Mike Nolan himself. A hall of fame high school debate coach, (Nolan put the Traverse City program on the map) Nolan is well versed in the topics of the day, whether it be sports or politics. He is often at the center of the lively conversations that take place at his shop each day.
His liberal positions are often at odds with many of his patrons but civility is rule number one.
There is a lot of back and forth, especially when politics is the topic. But everyone has a great sense of humor, said Nolan. We are respectful of each other; no topics are taboo though prejudicial and provincial comments are not allowed.
So just how many customers does Nolans have?
About 300 regulars, a lot of part-timers, and then there are the tourists, said Nolan. My biggest challenges are not a lack of customers but the taxes I pay and looming smoking ban.
Michigan has one of the highest tobacco taxes in the country and Nolans and his fellow cigar shops in the state have had to work hard to retain customers and keep them from going the mail order route.
It is about offering customer service, he says. I am fortunate that my customers have remained loyal to me.
As for the looming smoking ban in Michigan, Nolan in an interview with the Express last spring felt that a ban would be passed by the end of the year. However, Michigans challenged economy along with its nearly $2 billion budget deficit has legislators focused elsewhere at the moment and a smoking ban may not be passed now until 2010.
It is inevitable, it will happen at some point. I just hope that legislation passes that allows for us cigar shops to have these lounges,said Nolan.
FUNDRAISER UP IN SMOKE?
The popular cigar dinner movement started by Nolan may also be snuffed out with the new legislation. Nolan, along with the Ancient Order of Hibernians started the Father Fred Foundation Annual Cigar Dinner 15 years ago. The dinner accounts for raising 22 percent of the Foundations annual operating budget and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to date, and it may be in jeopardy when a smoking ban is passed.
We hold this event in the spring outside under a tent. We have 350 business people, so we are hoping that whatever legislation is passed this event will be able to continue,said Nolan. What wont be able to continue are these dinners that take place at restaurants.
On Tuesday, October 6, Nolan will host his annual fall cigar dinner at Hanna restaurant in Traverse City. He fears it might be his last one. He also has been hosting a fall and spring cigar dinner at the Rowe Inn for the past 19 years.
Cigar dinners of the future may be happening at his cigar lounge, where patrons simply order take-out from their favorite local eatery (actually that goes on almost daily at lunch currently).
To learn more about Nolans Cigar Lounge go to www.nolanstobacco.com or better yet, stop in and check it out. There are rules for using the cigar lounge posted on the website: here is the most important one: Bill Clinton was a great President & George Bush sucked. This is as uncontestable as the theory of gravity.
No wonder conversations at Nolans are so lively, for hours of operation call