Creative risk turns cigar bar into reality

It was a cold day in January, and Dan Hoffman was perched on a five-gallon bucket in his open garage, racing to finish a cigar before his fingers froze.

“But I got numb and ended up throwing $20 down the drain. It was ridiculous,” said Hoffman who, at a friend’s suggestion, decided to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. And so was born Fort Wayne’s first true cigar bar – an enterprise notable both for its recession-resisting entrepreneurial spirit and for the ingenuity with which it evades Fort Wayne’s overly ambitious no-smoking law.

“This is a gentlemen’s gentlemen’s club,” the 44-year-old TV sales executive said, distinguishing his new Esquire Cigar Club from places where you can still see naked women while drinking yourself into a stupor, so long as you don’t smoke. And an unmistakably refined atmosphere does indeed permeate the 120-year-old Wayne Township No. 2 School, which last year was moved from its original Illinois Road location to 1036 Thomas Road to make room for a shopping center.

At a cost of about $300,000, the old one-room brick schoolhouse has been both restored and made new, its plush furnishings, rich wooden trim and tin ceilings combined with flat-screen televisions, a poker table, a building-wide music system, a walk-in humidor, wireless
Internet capability, a conference room and a ventilation system Hoffman is convinced will be more than a match for the smoke he hopes will soon fill the place.

But isn’t smoking illegal in Fort Wayne businesses, even those catering to the over-21 crowd, as the Esquire Cigar Club will?

Of course it is – which makes Hoffman’s venture a combination of guts and genius.

Allowing customers to smoke was relatively easy. Because the city’s ordinance exempts tobacco shops, all Hoffman had to do was convince bureaucrats that cigar sales would account for at least 60 percent of his revenue.

But you can’t really have a cigar bar without liquor. And if Hoffman sold even a drop of it, he’d be running a no-smoking tavern, not a tobacco store. So how can his customers enjoy a smoke and a drink at the same time?

Simple: They’ll bring their own booze.

The retail store is open to the public. But for a monthly fee of $100, plus a mandatory purchase of at least $50 worth of cigars, as many as 100 “platinum” members will receive a locker they can stock with their favorite liquors, plus access to a refrigerator in which to store beer and other cold drinks. As many as 100 “diamond” memberships are also available for $50 per month, plus a $35 monthly humidor expenditure. At that price, you won’t get a locker – but you will get the company and conversation of people who, despite the nanny state’s best efforts, cling to a way of life that is becoming as anachronistic as, well, one-room schoolhouses.

And that suits Hoffman just fine.

“I’m an ‘old-school’ guy. I wanted a ‘throwback’ feeling here,” he said Monday, in between talks with contractors and inspectors doing their best to prepare for Friday’s opening. “I want a club where people can get to know each other; where you can just sit and talk and not be afraid to bring your wife. This is the most fantastic thing I’ve ever done.”

It’s even more fantastic, Hoffman said, because wife Brandi – whose cystic fibrosis forced him to smoke in the garage in the first place – supports his venture despite the obvious financial risk.

The Esquire will be open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday. The bar will be closed Sunday, except during football season. Memberships must be purchased annually.

Perhaps surprisingly, Hoffman does not oppose the smoking ban – and not just because a law that has helped to drive some bars out of business created a void he hopes to fill. He understands why many people don’t want to be exposed to smoke; he just believes adults who don’t share that view should be afforded the same courtesy, especially when their own livelihoods are on the line.

“A lot of people died to protect our freedoms,” he said.
Yes, they have – although you’d never know it by the speed at which politicians scramble to protect us from ourselves, as if life could ever be scrubbed free of even the smallest risk. Life is full of choices, and Hoffman properly insists adults who choose to smoke a legal product should be able to do so in Fort Wayne someplace other than a cold garage.


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