Part two in a three-part series.  Click to read part one and part three.

A niche market turns out profits

Andrew Lee was a man on a mission. Having worked in the cigar industry for more than four years, he filled a void in the market by opening up Executive Cigars, a high-end shop with a walk-in humidor and lounge, in Deutschtown in November 2009.

The concept of cigar lounges was born out of the state-wide smoking ban laws, Lee said, and smokers needed a place to go where they could make purchases and relax.  

“When you look at what we’re doing in terms of a fully incorporated lounge and cigar shop, I think we were one of the first in the region,” he said.

Lee said the recession was definitely on his mind before he opened his shop.

“It was a concern. You’d be crazy to not be concerned about those things,” Lee said. “The first and biggest challenge was being an African American owned cigar shop and making sure we were diverse. There was no precedent; we had to overcome lot of stereotypes.”

But Lee said he had a good business model and knew the industry. And recession or not, Lee knew for sure that people were still smoking.

Currently, Executive Cigars is getting ready to open up its second floor, which will be an extension of the lounge area and is available for private parties and rentals. Lee said the business has met and exceeded projections, and more importantly, has brought cultures together to share a hobby.

“We have the most diverse clientele. In the past, [blacks] didn’t feel welcome or appreciated or catered to,” he said. “A lot of African Americans have come out of the smoking closet if you will. There has been a lot of interaction, lots of learning and sharing of ideas.”

Sweet and tangy success

With the survival rates of new restaurants typically lower than other businesses, opening an eatery during periods of economic decline can be risky. But Rita Garmany and Francine Gooden opened Smokin’ Memphis BBQ Company in winter 2009 and starting tasting success. The restaurant, in Brighton Heights, serves up barbecue chicken, and a Five Cheese and Mac that is to die for.

Their decision to go into business together was a mixture of past expertise and uncontrollable circumstances. Gooden’s job in finances for a major cable provider was cut, along with the entire department. In the mean time, Rita, who was working 14 hour days as a high-level manager for a large food distributor in the area, was exhausted with her hours.

It was those two things that almost serendipitously led the two sisters to start their own restaurant. Garmany and Gooden were no strangers to cooking, though. Since the early 90’s they did catering jobs with their two-person operation.

“It was a natural flow for the direction to go in,” Garmany said.

Though they knew they could cook, Garmany said they were well aware of the iffy economic climate upon opening. But the sisters ended up getting a better deal on purchasing their building, which Garmany attributed to the poor housing market.

 “I was very concerned about [the recession], but I thought, based on demographic trends, we would do well, and people were still eating,” she said. “I knew that my food was better than the other people in my industry.”    

In order to make their restaurant work, the sisters developed a concept of fast, home-cooked food. Today, they are seeing a flock of customers wanting to try something new and repeat eaters who like their originality. 

Garmany said pushing their product with the internet has been helpful but recommends old fashioned word-of-mouth and footwork to those just getting started in their new venture. 

“Concentrate on the quality of your product,” she said. “Make sure you have something that people need or want, nothing that is too farfetched. Pay attention to demographics and spending trends.”

With their first year of business wrapping up, it seems, Smokin’ Memphis definitely has their niche market.

So which sister makes the best food?

“Well I’m a chef, she’s a cook,” Rita said with a laugh.