When America began its stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic, Greg Willis found comfort by retreating to the deck of his Atlanta home to indulge in a cigar.
He said enjoying an Emperors Cut, a brand he and five friends founded three years ago, provided a sense of calm during trying days. What Willis quickly discovered was that he was among thousands of other cigar lovers of color across the country who called on their passion to create a sense of normalcy during anything but normal times.
While many say they had long been shut out of the industry, the owners of Emperors Cut and many of the dozens of other Black-owned cigar brands in the U.S. found that their emergence into a $9.4 billion cigar market has sustained as smokers cope with a confined way of life.
And their viability as part of the greater cigar industry and community has come in a most rewarding way: Black cigar smokers supporting Black-owned cigar lines.
"At the start of the pandemic, no one understood that cigars would play a role in helping people maintain a sense of normalcy," Willis said. "As a company, we didn't panic. We upped our online and social media presence and ended up doing some of our best business over the last several months — partly because we produce high-quality cigars, but also because cigar lovers turned to their passion while unable to venture out like pre-Covid-19."
Across the industry, according to Cigar Aficionado, brick-and-mortar businesses like retailers and lounges were hit hard due to the pandemic. Online shops, however, are working to keep up with demand, and social media is providing a space to commune under a common adoration for tobacco. For many Black brands and communities, the pivot may not be as stark.
Black cigar brands forge a new path
Emperors Cut, based in Houston, is among dozens of brands produced by Black men and women that contribute to an industry that has been generally dominated by white- and Latino-owned enterprises.
"We did our market analysis before starting our company," said Willis, whose team traveled to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic to consult with experts. "We want all cigar smokers to enjoy EC. But we'd be lying if we said we understood the breadth of investment Black folk make enjoying this simple pleasure."
Across the country are Black-owned cigar lines that give the seeming growing number of smokers plenty of options to buy Black. Cigar influencer Octavia "HERficianado" Tolliver, started tracking the number of known Black cigar brands this year and cites at least 70. Among them: Don Abram Harris Cigars, considered the first Black-owned brand for premium hand-rolled cigars in America; Trilogy Cigars, founded by Henry Stokes in Atlanta; Konscious Cigars out of Florida; Tres Lindas Cubanas, created by a pair of Cuban American sisters; Carolina Blue, anchored in North Carolina by Chris Moore, who worked in the tobacco fields of the state; Black Star Line Cigars in Chicago, owned by Adetola "Aric" Wimberly-Bey; Mike Edwards' Aireyys Cigars in Florida; Dignity Cigars, which is offered exclusively at boutique hotels; and Rson, a new line creating a buzz, by Araia Tesfamariam.
"There has been a massive turnaround," said Tobacco Kennedy, also known as T.K., who created Black Smoke Miami, an annual cigar smokers event. When he started the event in 2017, Kennedy said it attracted about 500 people. In 2019, more than 6,200 cigar enthusiasts attended. "I'm an old head in the industry. I have seen the growth, and it's about the culture. I never endorse tobacco. I endorse the networking, the camaraderie and the lifestyle."
That growth has not come without challenges. White men have dominated the industry and have not exactly been welcoming of the influx of Black cigar brands or establishments, smokers said, and at times they have presented roadblocks in areas around the business.
Many said they have had to endure obstacles like white-run cigar lounges and retailers that limit or purposefully exclude Black-owned brands.
"It's still a good ol' boy network," Robert "Doc" Gooden, owner of the lounge Cigars 210 in Fort Washington, Maryland. "We don't have access to the same products. We overcome the issue about raising capital, and then they don't want us to have this cigar or that cigar. We've been frozen out of some accounts. It's not stopping us, but it can be frustrating."
The barriers seem to have inspired innovation. T.K. plays several roles in the cigar world. His website, Cigar Educated, informs about the history of the industry and other elements. On his YouTube channel, StogieTV, he interviewed Jose Orlando Padrón, founder of the eponymous cigar brand, shortly before his death in 2017.
"We aren't novelty smokers”
Black adults made up 35.7 percent of cigarillo smokers, 24.2 percent of non-premium cigar smokers and 5.3 percent to 15.7 percent, respectively, of smokers of premium and filtered cigars, according to a 2017 report by the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.
Considering that the African American population is 13 percent, those figures represent a large stake in the cigar industry. Cigar smoking is not safe, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that regular cigar smoking is associated with an increased risk of cancers of the lung, the esophagus, the larynx and the oral cavity, and increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and lung diseases, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, as well as other impacts.
Sean Williams created a cigar line, El Primer Mundo, 14 years ago. Now he's one of the few Black brand ambassadors for a luxury cigar line, Cohiba. He said that the evolution is sustainable and that the number of African American cigar smokers is likely to be higher than reported.
"We have not been able to get great data on specifics of the Black cigar market," Williams said. "Certainly, there is the somewhat quantifiable culture, but there are a lot of Black men and women who smoke in the privacy of their homes or with intimate friends. This number may be substantially larger than anyone knows. ... When does this explosive growth stop? We can't predict."
But Williams added: "I've seen vibrant participation from Black cigar lovers [from] the Sundance Film Festival to the Kentucky Derby. There has been an encouraging uptick in the number of Black-owned brands to enter the marketplace over the last few years. This is a relatively new and exciting dynamic for the industry [that] widens the community of cigar lovers."
The community extends across the country, to Oakland, California, where Ron Ford created the Bay Royal Cigar Network podcasts and events that, pre-pandemic, brought out more than 800 attendees. "These events represent the Black community coming together," said Ford, 44. "Not parties. The cigar events are more social, more conversation, more rich and more substance."
Ford added, "It's like golf in that way. You find that those who enjoy cigars want to network. The lifestyle unites people."
For sure, Black-owned cigar lounges have become a social rage, fueled by some younger adults joining the culture. Kennedy estimated that Black millennials are a significant consumer of cigar smokers, particularly because of "the networking aspect of the culture." He added: "They embrace it. It has kind of shocked everyone and dropped the jaws of sponsors to see the number increase so much."
Atlanta has more than a dozen Black-owned stogie properties. Gooden, creator of DILLIGAF Cigar Co., said the business relies almost exclusively on the support of people of color.
"The Black-owned cigar lounge has become a place of escape," Gooden said. "It's grown so much, and I am glad to see it. The Black spending dollars are huge. It can't be ignored. And it will continue to grow."
Gooden and others said the increased interest is also a result of Black women's gravitation to cigar culture. Monica Cooper of New York, who has enjoyed cigars for 12 years, started a Black women's cigar event called Stixx and Stilettos in 2015.
She said she launched the concept, which hosts events that educate women about cigar culture, to create "a space for women to enjoy cigars without judgment and provide awareness of the enjoyable pastime for professional women who have as much stress and responsibility as many of our male counterparts."
"Initially, I saw little to no Black women who appreciated cigars," Cooper said, but she said she has seen an "amazing surge" in the number of women who are "unwinding and socializing around cigars."
In three years, Octavia "HERficianado" Tolliver, one of the founders of Cigar Week in Atlanta, grew her She Smokes Too events into must-attend occasions for Black women. "Now, the ratio of men to women can be very close to even" at cigar establishments in Atlanta, "which was unheard of but quite welcomed," she said. "The emergence of social media and female cigar 'influencers' and ambassadors has certainly assisted in the growth."
Figures in the community have become influential in connecting cigar enthusiasts and spotlighting brands. "Cigar" Mike Bennett of the Atlanta area, who is considered a leading authority on Black cigar culture, and Susie Mooney of Maryland, a former soldier, created Lit Torch, an app that helps smokers identify Black-owned lounges and shops across America. It also features news and videos from cigar lounges and other information about the lifestyle.
"Cigars are not just a man's thing anymore," Mooney said. "During Covid-19, I have been smoking practically every day. I grab a cigar and it's like sitting on a therapist's couch. Women are more comfortable smoking a cigar in public. More confident. They are boss ladies."
Gooden said he is forming an organization to ensure that the Black cigar community continues to flourish and to address concerns of Black owners and patrons in the industry.
"We want to create a collective voice to retailers and show our buying power on a national level," Gooden said. "We aren't novelty smokers. We have to get the industry to see us as serious consumers. We have to realize that we have power."
CORRECTION (Oct. 7, 2020, 11:30 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the last name of Black Smoke Miami's creator. He is Tobacco Kennedy, not Tobacco Kendrick. A photo caption also misstated the first name of one of the founders of Emperor's Cut. He is Robert Howard, not Ron Howard.