Looking around the landscape of the cigar industry, one thing notably missing is the presence of African-American brick & mortar owners, especially females. This void is one of many reasons that Shirley McClellan, owner of Fire & Smoke Cigar Parlor in Baltimore, MD decided to not only open a premium cigar lounge but to burn down cultural and industrial barriers.
McClellan’s love of tobacco started at an early age, as a young woman sitting on her grandfather’s front porch. “Growing up in Darlington, South Carolina, my grandfather and relatives before him worked in tobacco fields. My grandmother always made me come inside while the men were enjoying their cigars and talking, but I’d sneak back out to the bottom of the steps to enjoy the aroma.”
She states that she couldn’t wait to get older and try cigars, as partaking was a “rite of passage” for family members upon graduating from high school. This family passion, combined with an early desire to be an entrepreneur (motivated by a 4th grade teacher that told her she couldn’t own her own business), and encouragement from family and friends, lead her to cigar lounges around the world to build a model for the perfect lounge.
“I didn’t even know until far into my adult life that cigar ‘lounges’ existed,” said McClellan, who had always just enjoyed them on her porch like her family before her. “But when I moved to Baltimore, I was introduced to the lounge experience and I immediately fell in love!”
McClellan’s vision became clear: open a premium cigar lounge where she could create the ultimate inclusive experience. Her plans didn’t include a member’s only, business attire-only type of atmosphere, but research, a developed business plan, authentic connections, and community support.
The next step, determine a location. One of her associates informed her of the current location in a shopping center in Towson, a growing city in Baltimore County with a very diverse community. Having to completely renovate this space, contractors, friends, and family came to her aid offering the manpower (in exchange for cigars from her personal collection) needed to transform what was once a tax preparation office to what Fire and Smoke Cigar Parlor is today. “It was a sight to see,” says McClellan, “as we were patching holes in the walls, hanging pictures and painting, while all enjoying cigars together!”
December 19th, 2017, the last free cigar had been smoked and it was time to open up shop! Support started flowing in and the lounge was packed daily; days before the official January 2018 grand opening.
McClellan’s mission is to ensure her customers feel as if they are a part of the cigar community, because there are still times when she as a woman and as an Africa-American doesn’t receive the same reception and respect in shops as her male counterparts do. “I’d walk into a shop and one race of people would be on one side, another race on the other and both would give me looks and comments as if I didn’t belong because I was a woman.” McClellan remembers entering lounges and being immediately told, “We don’t sell those sweeten, candy cigars’, assuming that she wasn’t familiar with premium, non-infused tobacco because of her gender.
“A lot of things have changed the ‘good ol boy network’ that exists in the cigar industry. The cigar enthusiast demographic is changing, along with the way new products are introduced and marketed. It’s all contributing to the evolution of the cigar industry,” says McClellan. She also credits the opening of shops and lounges in more diverse neighborhoods with changing the way cigars are enjoyed.
“I take pride in promoting the cigar industry among the African-American community and bringing all cultures together. We’re all trying to enjoy the same thing, so there’s no reason we can’t all do it all as one.”