Cigar Industry Goes Up In Flames

Peter Huynh/Photography Intern

The number of tobacco sellers in Irvine has been shrinking over the past couple of years. Last summer University Town Center’s (UTC) The Noize Music, where many in the campus community bought cigarettes, also closed its doors. What is happening to these little places? It seems that many factors are working against their existence, not the least of which may be a stronger anti-tobacco sentiment emerging in Irvine, both on and off campus. What we are seeing may well be a sign of the times.

Irvine Spectrum-bound cigar enthusiasts must be having that experience in droves these days, along with perhaps the feeling that a practical joke is afoot. As of July, what was once the Spectrum’s Cuban Cigar Factory is now Bonjour-Chaton, a Hello Kitty emporium.

Standing in front of the display window featuring Hello Kitty in every form and variation, from pillow to purse to giant, plush disembodied head, no doubt some would-be cigar smokers may feel that some insult has been added to their injury.

It was certainly not amusing to at least one shopper who arrived there looking forward to a cigar. Clad in a black swishy jacket and matching baseball cap, he looked on in horror, then began ranting in expletives. Finally, as if realizing there must be some kind of mistake, he walked in determinately to talk to the man behind the counter. He walked out a minute later, still grumbling, and went to buy cigarettes at the kiosk by the carousel.

UC Irvine itself has tried for some time to limit exposure to secondhand smoke, ultimately hoping to follow in the footsteps of the University of Michigan, which became entirely smoke-free this past summer. According to an American College Health Association survey in 2009, already only 1.3 percent of UCI students are daily smokers, while 7.4 percent smoke occasionally. The UCI campus currently “restricts” smoking in certain areas, but lacks the ability to enforce the restriction.

“There is a lack of language in existing laws to enforce the policy. UC campuses have been waiting on something to give enforcement language some teeth,” said Jasmine Blackburn, Manager of Tobacco at UCI’s Heath Education Center.

In the case of the Cuban Cigar Factory at Irvine Spectrum, its disappearance might be due to a move away from tobacco by Irvine Company retail. The cigar franchise had been at the Spectrum for 13 years. However, when its lease came up for renewal this year, Salim Chagan, its owner since 2003, got what he refers to as “a tedious run-around” from the Spectrum management.

“They kept saying ‘we’ll discuss it,’ and putting it off,” he said.

When he eventually got a meeting, he was offered various reasons why he was not eligible for a new lease, including a revenue decline. Chagan admits his business had suffered in the recession, along with many others. Even he himself had realized that he did not have the resources to expand anymore — which is why he had already made plans to sell to an investor, whose hands the lease would ultimately have ended up in had the Irvine Company agreed to renew it.

“They wouldn’t even let us pass the lease onto someone with deeper pockets, someone who would make the business bigger and better,” Chagan said.

This to him was a sign that revenue was not the real issue. He said the Irvine Company had developed a prejudice against tobacco stores. He kept pushing.

“Then, they finally fessed up,” he said. “They admitted they didn’t want smoking at the Spectrum. They told me, ‘your business model doesn’t work in our environment.’ I tried everything in my power, but I was powerless. They were inflexible.”

The Irvine Company, however, gave a different account of the incident. Stacie Ellis, from the company’s Retail Properties Marketing Department, claimed that Chagan himself made the decision to close the store.

“The Cuban Cigar Factory elected to close its shop due to poor sales. That was their choice,” she said, adding that, “Local cigar aficionados are encouraged to visit Newport Tobacco at Fashion Island, which has been a tenant for 22 years.”

Newport Tobacco, owned by Annie and Richard Hallajian, has indeed been at Fashion Island since 1989. It was even honored in a press release from the Irvine Company in 2008. The same press release also notes that Mrs. Hallajian had been the Treasurer of the Fashion Island Merchant Association Board of Directors for 15 years prior. It is unclear whether this has any impact on the store’s standing, and comments could be obtained.

The Irvine Company has generally been cracking down on smoking in its shopping centers since May of 2010 as part of the city’s efforts to encourage a voluntary smoking restriction near local businesses.
“While Irvine Company does not have an official stance on smoking, there are 'No Smoking' signs in key locations at some of our shopping centers in areas populated with children or where dining tables are in close proximity,” Ellis said.

The Noize appears to have closed for different reasons. The location in UTC, which this past summer became Dancer’s Choice, a dance-accessory supply offering pointe shoes, tutus and legwarmers, did not offer sufficient foot traffic to attract browsers to the music shop. According to former Noize employee Michael Martelle, its owner, Varejan Kalousgian, opted to close and wait for a new location. Kalousgian had been on good terms with the Irvine Company, but he himself did not like that his business had come to depend on tobacco so much.

“He didn’t like the fact that he was turning into a cigarette shop,” Martelle said. “The Irvine Company was totally cool with us … and as far as I heard was [even] open to Noize moving into the Spectrum if the right spot opened up.”

As for UCI, the administration’s wait for a way to enforce smoking restrictions on campus seems to be over. Assembly Bill 795, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 8, will allow universities to issue citations and collect fines for smoking in restricted areas effective Jan. 1, 2012.

In Irvine, the constant morphing of the retail landscape — the daily appearance and disappearance of stores — is old hat. Everything is always getting bigger, sleeker and more homogeneous. This process is not always subtle. It is easy to take favorite stores for granted and, with the turnover speed of Irvine’s retail locations, sometimes there is no chance to say goodbye.