“We’re a bit like a marriage guidance bureau,” says Paresh Patel.
“We find out all we can about the person – what they like and don’t like, their styles and preferences – and then we make their dream match!”
He’s not talking about couples, though. He’s talking about cigars.
The owner of six shops under the umbrella business Havana House in exclusive locations in the South of England – places like Oxford, Bath, Hove, and Windsor – Paresh has painstakingly built his business brick by brick. He fell in love with the humble cigar on a trip to Cuba in 2000. And ever since, he’s made it his life’s work.
“You know what it’s like,” he tells me as we sip coffee from the shop he owns just a few steps across the courtyard from his store in Windsor. “Once the bug gets hold of you, there’s no looking back.”
I think it’s safe to say we all know what it’s like.
Starting out as a partner in a Cheltenham tobacconist, he struck out on his own and is now juggling multiple locations, and holds the lofty position of chairman of the Association of Independent Tobacco Specialists (AITS). He’s proud of the journey. “One shop was never enough. I was always on the lookout for new premises. I wanted to be in great places, places where people had some expendable income and where there was plenty of footfall. And I have always looked to take over estab- lished businesses.”
Cardiff was a prime target, and an established tobacco shop, in the Welsh capital since 1870, soon fell into the Havana House stable. It has always been known as The Bear Shop.
“Because there’s a bear in it,” says Paresh to my inquiry. I stop clipping the unbanded Punch Double Corona he’s handed me and raise an eyebrow.
“It’s true!” he laughs. “That bear is around 200 years old and it’s been in there forever. Everyone in Cardiff knows The Bear Shop, we still have people coming in all the time, showing their kids. Generations of Cardiff people have done it.”
Er, okay. So, apparently, the aforementioned bear is a brown one called Bruno and was first brought to the shop in about 1900. He loves a cigar.
Shops in Oxford and Bath followed, and Patel stuck to the formula that has worked for him.
“We move in straight away after purchase – not a day closed, if we can help it – and try to add value by tidying up and adding new stock,” he says. “I don’t look to change everything overnight; these places have been around for years – scores of years in some cases – and they have a loyal customer base. We don’t want to alienate people, we want them to be excited about new owners. And we want to gradually introduce new customers, too, with different and interesting new lines.”
When it comes to cigars, this often means New World cigars to compete with those from Cuba. “New World positioning in the market has increased dramatically,” he continues. “It used to be virtually 100% Cuban and it’s a lot closer now. Customers – especially young people – hear about new blends and boutique manufacturers and they want to try them. Oxford is a young market, for example. Pipe sales are huge and the student market is keen to explore the cigar world.”
The irony of Patel’s position as chairman of the UK’s AITS is not lost on him. When he first entered the business, he found that newcomers weren’t exactly welcomed.
“At one time, there was very much an old boys’ club feeling to the industry, and we’ve tried hard to change that. I paid my dues and worked my way up, and, over time, you fit in. Times are different now and we try hard to welcome new blood. We need all the support we can get.”
It seems that every couple of years or so, the industry faces a potentially fatal legislative obstacle – smoking bans, plain packaging, TPD2. What does the future hold?
“There will always be people who see value in an artisan, luxury product that gives them peace, sociability, and time out from their busy lives,” Patel says.
“I’m committed to the trade now, come what may. We have to keep it buoyant, opportunistic and optimistic. If we can achieve that, there’s no reason people can’t be here in 50 years, enjoying this cigar, like us.”
The silky wrapper of the Punch is smouldering gently in the autumn sunshine and I hope he’s right. It would be a travesty if UK pleasure seekers were no longer able to sample stunning examples of cigar art like this. So it’s a good thing that people like Paresh Patel are fighting the fight on the frontline on our behalf.