Rocky Mountain Refuge

Veronica Fenner, owner of Stag Tobacconist
Stag Tobacconist offers a welcome respite for premium tobacco smokers.

In an era of seemingly ubiquitous cigar lounges, Stag Tobacconist of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is something of a throwback. As its name implies, Stag is a full-service tobacco shop, offering a wide selection of pipes and pipe tobacco, as well as an extensive array of fine cigars, lighters, cigar cutters and humidors.

Like many cigar shops, Stag holds frequent cigar events, but it also caters to pipe smokers with a pipe club, which meets in the store after hours. The monthly meeting frequently features a representative from a pipe or tobacco company, allowing pipe enthusiasts the opportunity to keep up with the latest products, and to socialize with like-minded smokers. Further, Stag features, in addition to their cigar humidor, a separate walk-in tobacco humidor, where pipe smokers can peruse the tobacco selection, and even sit and puff on their favorite briars. 

“Our pipe tobacco humidor is a walk-in, just like our cigar humidor, but they’re separate,” says Stag’s owner, Veronica Fenner. “We’re able to stock a couple hundred types of tobacco in there. It’s a great environment to be able to spend time with the pipe smokers. They’re a different type of consumer than cigar smokers. So we were able to create an environment that they were comfortable with. It’s a quiet space in the shop, a really great place for the pipe consumers to do what they do, as they contemplate.”

Stag was founded in the mid-1970s as a branch of the original Phoenix chain, and was purchased from the owner in 1979 by Lou Winterfield, who had just retired from the Air Force. Located in the Citadel Mall, the small store displayed their cigars in a cramped humidor, where, as their website states, “Two customers in at the same time was maximum capacity!” 

As the business grew, and additional products were introduced to accommodate the growing clientele, the need to relocate became increasingly obvious. Two moves later, once in 1998 and more recently in 2005, the store’s 1,200-square-foot walk-in humidor is larger than the entire original store. 

When Stag was in the original mall location, a young woman who was managing a women’s apparel shop began frequenting the tobacconist. It was during this time that Fenner discovered her love of cigars, and met her lifelong mentor, Winterfield. “Louie just was a wonderful mentor, and he is still a friend of mine to this day. We talk all the time, and when he comes to the Springs we get together.” Fenner became Stag’s managing partner when the store moved in 2005, and while Winterfield, who has since moved out of state, remains a trusted advisor, Fenner is the owner of Stag Tobacconist. 

Fenner oversees a staff of about 10 people, which may seem like a lot for a single-location store. But Fenner points out, “When you have two walk-in humidors, you need to have people in the humidors to help the folks.” She explains that while the entire staff is trained to be able to wait on customers in all the departments, “where your passion lies is where you tend to gravitate. For example, Stephen Amacher, our Pipe Evangelist, is incredibly passionate about pipe tobacco and pipes. He does a great job of mentoring me and the staff, and knows how to pick the right products.”  

Colorado Springs is a military town with five bases in the area. Stag Tobacconist has made sure to cater to the military market.

She also relies on the store’s Cigar God, Tom Brown, who advises her on which lines of cigars to add to their humidor. Fenner herself is an avid cigar smoker and her 18 years as a tobacconist have earned her the well-deserved moniker of Cigar Goddess. She’s also very knowledgeable about pipes and tobacco.

“I like to be true to myself. There’s no way I can know everything,” she says. “So I surround myself with people who can help me with whatever it is that I need. Don’t be ashamed to not know something. To me, that’s the path to success.” 

That formula appears to be working. Stag is thriving, in part due to the large military community in Colorado Springs. It’s home to the Air Force Academy and several other military installations. Fenner notes that Colorado Springs is very much a military town. “We have five bases here, and all of the service men and women, and the contractors that go into those bases. It’s the military that helped to drive our business.”

To support that customer base, the store features a well-stocked and, to some extent, traditional mix of products. Among the top sellers are cigars by Arturo Fuente, Padron and Rocky Patel. Stag also does very well with boutique lines such as Leaf by Oscar, and popular brands like La Flor Dominicana and Perdomo. Pipe sales are driven by Peterson, as well as by Savinelli and Nording. And while the store offers a comfortable lounge, with seating for 10, Fenner says the bulk of the sales are attributable to what she refers to as cash and carry. “We’re not a lounge. Our lounge is an added benefit to our clientele. We are a traditional tobacconist.”

Colorado’s state tax on tobacco is one of Fenner’s big challenges.

Of the many obstacles facing retail tobacconists, a tobacco excise tax can be among the most vexing. Right around the time that Fenner purchased Stag, the state tax doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. Presented with this challenge, she realized she had to adapt. 

“For me, it was: We’re going to go all-in on multiple facings. Because if we’re going to be a tasting house, we’re going to be the best tasting house. But of course as a businessperson, our goal is not to be just a tasting house. So when they’re coming in to do that, I have a great opportunity to win them over, so that they want to buy from me. I create a phenomenal experience, a welcoming experience. And a lot of the people we lost to the internet have come back.”

Events are promoted by email notification, signage in the store and a marquee out front. Most importantly, Fenner says: “We talk it up, that’s part of what we do. And one of the things I encourage my staff to do is, the week leading up to an event, try to get that product into the consumer’s hand ahead of time. Have them get accustomed to it, and then they can come in during the event and buy the box.” Additionally, Stag has a rewards program, and members receive event notices via text to their cell phone.

For Stag Tobacconist, the secret to success, as Fenner puts it, is “having the great selection for them, and then giving them the great service. If they had an issue with a cigar, they come in to talk to me, and I take care of them.” 

The other aspect is to make it fun. “When we designed this place we went for it being almost like walking into your den. It’s very homey and comfortable, in a very Western sense. After all, this is Colorado.”