Burning Desire

Burning Desire

Local cigar shops keep personalized service from going up in smoke.

In preparation for an interview, Paul Garmirian lights his cigar. Literally, it’s his cigar: Garmirian’s own P.G. brand stick, Dominican-produced with a reddish-brown Colorado shade Connecticut wrapper.

Looking professorial — naturally, as he’s a Ph.D. cum laude in International Politics from Catholic University — Garmirian sits behind a large desk and takes a drag, as the sweet smoke billows through the air of his 3-year-old McLean Cigars PG Boutique (1429 Center St.). It’s a fog of nostalgia, evoking memories of picnics in the park or weekend golf outings or that relative who’d always light up a Churchill at a family gathering (or, for the easily offended, an inconsiderate patron at a crowded bar).

There’s also something nostalgic about Garmirian’s cigar shop and similar establishments around Northern Virginia. At a time when convenience stores carry name-brand stogies and Costco sells boxes of cigars a few aisles over from bulk tubs of trail mix, local cigar stores strive to provide an environment and educational experience that personalizes the process for the customer.

"The idea of personalizing the service is that it’s good to know when you go to the store that you’re going to find a product that you like; that you won’t be pressured; and that you’re going to be kept informed of the latest developments," said Garmirian.

Sawnsan Mahdi of Cigar Palace in Alexandria (4815-A Eisenhower Ave.) agreed. Although many of her customers prefer brand loyalty, she believes in trying to guide them to new opportunities. "We have the majority of customers who stick with a brand and don’t change. Sometimes I see what kind of cigars they pick and try to match it with something new," she said.

In that regard, the cigar shop proprietor is much like a local butcher or wine connoisseur — someone eager to add personal touches to what has become an impersonal experience, thanks in part to the Internet and a decline in expertise.

"I would say that the majority of the retail shops in the country have pretty good staff. But the Internet has made it very impersonal," Garmirian said. "Even in some of the stores, their staff consists of nice people, but very few people who make a career out of it. It’s a very transient labor force."

GARMIRIAN GAVE an example of that disconnect between cigar professionals and "staff." One day he was in a regional smoke shop and the clerk was speaking to a customer about a P.G. brand cigar, which are sold throughout the area and the country. The clerk began talking about which P.G. cigars would match well with different types of wine; Garmirian had heard enough.

"I just stepped in and said, ‘Stop,’ right in the middle of the deal," he said. "You can make suggestions on what kinds of drinks go with cigars, but wine is a no-no. It’s very high in tannin, very high in acidity, and acidity is the biggest enemy of cigars. They call it ‘pairing,’ and there’s no such thing. But if you are eating with a glass of wine and have a cigar after the meal, it’s OK, because there’s a balance."

Forceful? Perhaps, but Garmirian believes too many cigar smokers take advice as gospel rather than as a consideration. "People say, ‘I don’t know anything about cigars.’ Well, you don’t have to — your palate tells you everything you need to know. To be a food expert, you don’t have to be a chef; you just have to appreciate good food," he said. "In general, this intimidation factor is a cultural problem because most Americans — who have every right to be more confident than anybody in the world — tend to respect experts and not feel like experts [ourselves] if we go into a field. In Europe, every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks they know it all. The majority of the people here are modest, and unnecessarily so. I consider it a great sign of the nobility of the American consumer."

CIGAR PURCHASING can still be an intimidating experience. Walking into the humidor at Cigar Palace — roughly the size of a child’s bedroom — one is confronted by rows of brown sticks of varying sizes, colors and, above all, prices. To the untrained eye, the only difference between them is the brightly colored bands wrapped around each cigar.

Mo Fakhro wants to know what you're smoking. "Cigars are not like cigarettes. You can change brands. There are a lot of different flavors," said Fakhro, who manages the Cigar Connection shops in Arlington and Ashburn. "You need to find out if the customer is into full-bodied or medium-bodied cigars. What kind of flavors they are looking for. Will they smoke before dinner? After dinner? A lot of people like to smoke cigars in the morning on the golf course, so they might want something more medium-bodied."

It wasn’t always such an overwhelming process. According to Garmirian’s book "The Gourmet Guide To Cigars," there was a cigar boom around 1996 that saw the number of non-Cuban brands explode from 35 in 1990 to 1,400 by 1998. This boom caused consumer confusion, as brands came and went; it caused "artificially scarcity," as cigar-makers held back supply to fuel demand; and it raised prices of previously budget cigars to premium prices.

For Mahdi, whose Cigar Palace has operated in McLean for 10 years, many brands that thrived during the boom continued to: Partagas, Ashton, Padron. Garmirian’s son Kevork, who also works at the P.G. store, said he uses those more familiar brands as a comparison when introducing new consumers to the P.G. brand cigars.

Paul Garmirian said cigar manufacturers will continue to use gimmicks and boasts to cut through a still-flooded market. But, in the end, it’s the individual that determines the success of the smoke.

"There’s no such thing as ‘the best,’" he said. "The consumer is the ultimate judge."