and a retired industrialist might seem like an odd couple to lead an in-your-face statement against New Jersey’s fledgling law that bans smoking in public places - bars and restaurants included.
But PI Robert L. Lesniak, retired New Jersey factory owner Dan McCarthy and nearly 100 others from northeast New Jersey did what cigar smokers rarely do when faced with laws that restrict their ability to enjoy their cigars among comrades. They transformed a relatively informal, once-a-month cigar dinner that had been active since 1994 into a full-fledged private club with 24-hour access, secure lockers and, best of all, the ability to smoke cigars unfettered.
“We ran out of places where we could smoke,” laments McCarthy, founder and managing partner of the newly minted Metropolitan Cigar Society LLC, which since June has had an address in the tiny community of Fairfield, N.J., about halfway between Newark and the Lincoln Tunnel. “There was no place in the state of New Jersey that would allow cigar smokers. It was either disband after 12 years or do something drastic. We chose the latter.”
Rich Camy, a wire and cable distributor from Lake Hiawatha, N.J., a member of the society since 1996, said the group was able to pull off converting the once-a-month cigar club into a casual 24/7 club for a couple of reasons. “First of all, we already had a strong membership base, and the proposal to open the club was put together very well. And these laws ticked a lot of people off. Some were motivated to tell the government that it wasn’t going to tell us what to do, but that we’d do what we want.”
Camy said that in the few months the club has been open, it’s already changed the way he does business. “I meet customers there, and it has wireless Internet, so I bring my laptop in from the office and get some work done.”
He doesn’t have a kind word at all for New Jersey’s smoking ban. “They’ve killed the neighborhood bars here,” he contends. “You see guys smoking outside bars, so they can do that. But there’s also a law that says they can’t take their drinks outside. So, what’s a guy going to do? That’s why we had to have this club.”
Metropolitan Cigar Society was founded by 13 friends and friends-of-friends who answered a not that McCarthy put in JR Cigar’s monthly newsletter.
McCarthy’s goal was to gather a group of cigar smokers who wanted to have a place to relax once a month and share a meal with like-minded people. They ended up meeting at the Brownstone, a large catering hall built in the 18th Century on the outskirts of Paterson, N.J., that hosted multiple social events at the same time like wedding receptions, bridal showers and class reunions.
Over the next decade, Metropolitan Cigar Society grew to more than 100 people - the club currently has two women members - who would meet monthly for a full dinner and presentations by local smokeshops and cigar and liquor companies.
“We’d have a golf outing or a trap shoot every once in a while, but for all intents an purposes, it was a once-a-month deal,” says, Lesniak the society’s vice managing director.
New Jersey’s statewide smoking ban in commercial establishments - casinos, smokeshops, cigar lounges and clubs that showed that a minimum of 15% of their sales came from tobacco related sales or cigar humidor rentals - went into effect April 15.
“We were going to find ourselves on the street because the catering facility couldn’t have us in any more,” Lesniak said. “In January (2005) we started to think about what we could do to keep the society alive, and we asked a few of the members if they thought there would be any interest in selling stock in the club and renting a place. “We figured if we could raise $25,000 start up capital, we could rent about 2,500 square feet. We put it to the members during a February meeting, and we raised $50,000. The response was marvelous. Many of our members had been with the club eight to 12 years. They wanted the club to survive, and they were willing to invest in it. If we’d have had to start from scratch, someone would have had to have put up a lot of money.”
|Creative purchasing, such as liquidated furniture, freed up funds for cosltier items.
As it happened, society members invested in stock in the newly formed limited liability corporation, headed by McCarthy and Lesniak and a nine-member board. The cost of share of preferred stock is $1,000, and with it comes voting rights and the benefit of not having to pay annual dues. A share of non-voting common stock costs $500 and requires the additional payment of $75 in annual dues.
Associate memberships are available with limited accessibility to the club for $200 a year. Members are charged $5 per visit with a minimum requirement of four visits a month to a maximum of $50. Non-members who are accompanied by a member pay a $10 fee.
The club is now located in a non-descript commercial mall with a machine shop next door and parking to accommodate a couple of hundred cars. The society has no employees and the club is maintained by members who have 24-hour access via a coded electronic card system.
The neatly appointed but not ostentatious facility features a smoking lounge, of course, but also a small kitchen with refrigerator and microwave oven and a game room with a 42-inch LCD TV, full-size slate pool table and two card tables. Members bring their own snacks and beverages. Delivery service for lunch and dinner is available from several nearby restaurants.
Most of the club’s furniture was purchased through a hotel liquidator for about 10 cents on the dollar. Ten table lamps, for instance, came from the New York Marriott hotel and 24 club chairs from the Mohican Sun, a Connecticut casino/hotel. “We spent less than $5,000 on furniture which was worth about $40,000 new,” Lesniak says.
A walk-in humidor with 200 keyed lockers that rent for $40 a year is accessible through the game room. Lastly, is a large common room equipped with six-foot banquet tables where the society still holds its monthly dinners that are now catered by the Brownstone. “They come here and set up a full buffet for us,” Lesniak says.
In mid-August, Metropolitan Cigar Society had 98 members, and was deciding whether it needed cut off membership. “We expect a surge in membership when it gets cold because people won’t be about to gout on their patios and smoke. We do have some room to expand,” Lesniak said.
Cigar entrepreneur Lew Rothman of 800-JRCIGARS fame has a retail outlet in nearby Whippany and in June he attended the club’s first meeting in its new facility, providing cigar memorabilia to be auctioned to raise money for the society. General Cigar Inc. also donated a three-foot-tall cigar store Indian, a replica of the Excalibur knight and other knickknacks to decorate the club.
And of particularly sweet irony, the club even benefited from the fact that other businesses had to start to prohibit smoking. “We called around and ended up buying three very large, ceiling-hung smoke eaters that had been in a local bar for $500,” Lesniak said. “And after that, we picked up five more electrostatic air filters from a local bingo hall.”
|The club’s amenitiies include a game room.
Gene Gitelson, a strategic business coach from Montclair, N.J., the last person to buy an equity share in the society, said New Jersey’s smoking ban could have spelled the club’s doom. Instead, the threat actually reinvigorated the group. “That was the shot across the bow,” said Gitelson, who joined the society in February after the decision already had been made to open the club.
“The society and the cigar dinners could easily have closed down. It had been a very occasional group. Now it’s a community and a place to gather, share interests, value the cigar culture, hang out to watch ball games and play pool. A lot of it is just a chance to get to know people. When I walk in there, I feel like I’m a part of this place.”
He credits Lesniak and McCarthy with being the driving forces behind the association’s rejuvenation. “The first time I met Bob and Dan, we sat in the midst of the construction site and smoked cigars,” said Gitelson. “Not knowing anything more about it than what they told me, I signed up and put my money down. Since then, It’s been great. I got involved in painting and carrying lumber for people who knew a whole lot more about carpentry than I did.”
Besides buying stock, many members put sweat equity into getting the club ready for it’s opening. Lesniak said the club spent $38,000 to get up and running, which included the first month’s rent and utilities of $3,600 plus security deposit, carpeting, paint and supplies and furnishings that include a 42-inch plasma TV in the game room.
McCarthy agrees with Gitelson that the smoking ban may actually have helped the society. “In retrospect, it hasn’t hurt us one bit,” McCarthy said. “In fact, it helped us because it got us off the dime.”
Gitelson said it’s important that cigar smokers have a place where they can feel comfortable. “As cigar smokers we are shunted aside,” he says. “I could certainly enjoy cigars at home, but that is a solitary experience. sometimes when I’m at the club, there are a dozen of us there, and it doesn’t make any difference who you are. It’s just a great place to meet people.”