A California Cigar Retailer’s Experience During COVID-19

We were caught totally off guard. We had just gotten through an extremely trying 2019 with California’s increased OTP taxes. We already had a survival plan: Get through the slow, cold weather of 2020’s first quarter by reducing inventory and curbing our spending, and then get ready for it to pick up come April. But this virus, the absolute paralysis that took place in trying to prevent it from spreading and the effects of shutting down the economy, was an unthinkable storm.

We (Squire Cigars) continued to operate as usual (although there was definitely fear in the air) for most of the month of March. Business was a little flat, but our plan of watching our spending had us coming out stronger by the end of the first quarter. Then on April 13, 2020, we were told we were considered “nonessential” and that we could only deliver or ship our products for the foreseeable future. 

Mind you, liquor stores, dispensaries and convenience stores were deemed essential. That is when Kim, my daughter and our general manager, decided she would make deliveries locally, free of charge. We opened noon to 4 p.m. daily and delivered all over the county. After returning calls and filling orders, Kim would hit the road for deliveries, returning to the store several times a day to do it all over again. It was exhausting and stressful but it saved our business during this crisis.

She would end the day with any number of heartfelt stories. One very good customer lives in west county, out toward the coast, and he ordered a box for delivery. It takes 30–40 minutes to get out there. Kim was blown away by their gorgeous mountaintop property, and they twisted her arm to enjoy a glass of an exceptional pinot that they produce. They sent her home with several bottles, some that she even shared with her dad. I’d say that was one of her best deliveries!

When we were allowed to implement curbside service on May 8, we still had our customers and our business, which is extremely fortunate. And as I write this, we are eagerly anticipating we’ll be able to open our store soon, which will at least allow our customers to look at, if not touch, our selection. It’s unimaginable in our brick-and-mortar business to sell without taking the time to show our products to our customers. Fortunately, we have a reputation that is built on trust—our recommendations are taken seriously because we’ve established that type of relationship with our customers over the years. That has been key to our survival.

Personally, I’ve stepped back from daily retail sales. I’ve moved my office home, where I can work and communicate with Kim and our staff whenever they need. I miss the people, though. I’ve made some great friends over the years, watched some kids grow up and some grow old. It’s that way in brick and mortar—you get to know your customers. 

We are located in Sonoma County, one of California’s most desirable wine growing regions. We have hundreds of wineries and tasting rooms surrounding us. People come here for the wine experience, as well as the amazing restaurants. This shutdown has taken its toll on every industry we see here.

As we begin to hear talk of fewer restrictions and more businesses being allowed to open, what a strange a statement coming from an independent businesswoman in the democratic USA. This entire situation has gotten so out of control—some people in power are relishing their positions of power. Obviously, they don’t have to worry about the effects that their decisions have on local businesses. And we are seeing the devastation, high unemployment and homelessness as a result. I can only believe crippling inflation will follow. 

So, we do the best that we can. We try to “keep it between the lines.” We take care not to put ourselves or others at risk. Let’s hope we come out of this intact. Let’s hope that getting back to normal is something that happens sooner rather than later. Let’s hope that scientists get a handle on this virus. And let’s hope we become less dependent on other countries for medicine and medical supplies.

Of course, I am positive about the future. I just wish it would get here!