Ask Aemon Baeyat what the last year has meant for businesses along Fort Street and he’ll point to the retail space for lease across the street. The chef’s academy that had been there for 11 years was forced to shut down as a result of the pandemic, he explained.
Baeyat’s establishment, Cuban Cigar Shop, avoided the same fate. “We were very lucky because we have many loyal customers, (and) we had them during the pandemic,” he said.
Luigi Stilletta, the owner of Goodfellas Cigar Shop on the corner of Wharf and Pandora streets, added “it’s been a pretty good year. We were definitely up (in sales) over 2019.”
The collision of typical industry practices and worldwide pandemic measures resulted in a unique demand on Victoria cigar shops. But local shops’ success wasn’t a pandemic-induced climb in smoking rates. Rather, both Stilletta and Baeyat said travel restrictions forced cigar buffs and others to keep their shopping local.
Stilletta said a large portion of his clientele has the means to travel, and when they do, by purchasing the maximum duty-free amount of 50 cigars while in the U.S., South America, the Caribbean or certain parts of Europe, they can avoid Canadian tobacco taxes of up to 75 per cent. Victoria’s travelling cigar enthusiasts would never have to make a domestic purchase, he added.
“We always say in the Canadian premium tobacco industry that our biggest competition isn’t the store down the street, but US online retailers,” said Goodfellas Cigar Shop manager Phil Turcotte.
That foreign competition on cigar purchases was almost completely eliminated when travel restrictions were implemented earlier in the pandemic, Turcotte said.
The result was an increase in demand for local cigar shops.
However, tobacconists were hampered by the shortage of global buying opportunities just as much of their clientele.
Baeyat explained the pandemic strangled the Cuban cigar industry. If one manufacturer becomes ill, the entire factory is shut down for two to three weeks. “If you’re working for an insurance company or a bank, the work can be done from home. When you roll the cigar, it has to be done in the factory,” he noted.
Much of Canada’s imported Caribbean cigars arrive on passenger flights, as well. “It’s a pretty small, lightweight product,” Stilletta said. “So if there’s a flight coming in from Cuba, they’ll typically put a couple of pallets fulls of cigars in the hold and bring them up that way.”
As a result of closures, rarer Cubans such as Montecristos or Cohibas have become almost impossible to get, Stilletta said. The workaround for Goodfellas Cigar Shop was expanding offerings of Dominion cigars and cigars manufactured in Nicaragua and Honduras.
Fort Street’s Cuban Cigar Shop remains reliably stocked with vintages from the Dominican Arturo Fuente to Cuba’s Hoyo de Monterrey. However, Baeyat said he’s heard of other shops closing because of product scarcity.
A solution, he said, exists in changing Canada’s plain packaging laws. One introduced in March 2020 requires decorative cigar box branding to be removed by manufacturers before being exported to Canada, which can limit the number of cigars allowed to enter Canada.
“This is hurting a lot of tobacconists,” Baeyat said. “Hopefully, if we can get back to normal, we should see a lot more supply.”
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