It was a few years ago that Tim Polk first sat down with a friend to talk about opening a high end cigar shop. At the time, Polk said he couldn’t imagine being so encumbered with managing a retail business and was far too enamored with the island nation of Cuba, a country he has visited almost monthly since 1998. Chasing the romance he found in the somewhat raw land, Polk again left the U.S. for Cuba rather than stay home and toil with the 9 to 5.
But after a month on his beloved island, Polk ran out of money and returned to Chicago’s suburbs to begin work on Casa de Puros, which opened just before the new year on Madison Street.
“I was broke,” Polk said with a laugh. “I came back and said, you know what, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
On the ground floor of a recently erected condominium building on Forest Park’s bustling strip, Polk and his friend have opened a cigar shop with grand plans for the space. Casa de Puros, which means House of Cigars, has more than 1,700-square feet of storefront to play with and Polk says money is no object. Polk’s friend is a silent partner in the business providing the cash for a luxurious renovation, he said.
“Selection, selection, selection,” Polk said. “We want to have every cigar that anybody could want. This is going to be world class.”
The unfinished store at 7410 Madison St. is expected to include a walk-in humidor, retail space and a smoking lounge by March or April, Polk said. Though Illinois has recently become a smoke-free state, patrons of Casa de Puros will be allowed to smoke there. The legislation allows tobacco shops in existence prior to Jan. 1, 2008, when the smoking ban took effect, to remain as safe havens for smoking aficionados. Hence, Polk said, the rush to get the doors open in 2007
At present, Casa de Puros features a few seats huddled around a small table near the entrance and customers are encouraged to ignore much of the unfinished space with the help of a few black curtains. Polk’s sales pitch to newcomers includes a rough sketch of the store’s proposed renovations and there will, of course, be a decidedly Cuban atmosphere.
“You have to see [Cuba] for yourself,” Polk said. “It’s the culture. I’ve become addicted to the music and the people.”
With tobacco sales expected to provide at least 80 percent of Casa de Puros’ revenue, customers should expect a range of prices. Cigars will sell for as little $2.50 each, said Polk, to as much as $25 each. In a small case that displays the shop’s current inventory, Casa de Puros has Padrons for $4, as well as Ashton VSG cigars that retail for almost $17.
A third partner in the business, local real estate broker Andy Gagliardo, said he expects the store’s clientele to be mostly local. The shop will likely cater to a decidedly upscale customer, which is a noted trend on Madison Street.
Executive Director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development Laurie Kokenes described the shop as a “specialty retailer.” Such stores have been popping up on Madison Street in recent years, including a wine shop and several art retailers.
“Casa de Puros fills a niche that doesn’t exist on Madison Street,” Kokenes said in an e-mail. “This specialty retailer is a welcome addition to the dynamic mix of established businesses, and we expect they will bring new customers to Madison Street.”
Store owners up and down the street routinely comment on the cooperative atmosphere that exists, and said part of what draws customers to Forest Park is the cross-marketing efforts intended to benefit more than one business. Polk expects to join that relationship and hopes to speak with several restaurants on how his smoking lounge might accommodate diners waiting for a table to open up.
Those relationships, in part, are what drew Polk and his partners to open their business in Forest Park. All three partners are graduates of Oak Park and River Forest High School in neighboring Oak Park, and all three have deep ties to the surrounding communities. Gagliardo, who described his role as a semi-silent partner focused on promotions, has a real estate office in River Forest. Polk lives in Oak Park and has both social and business ties to a number of entrepreneurs in Forest Park.
“It’s definitely going to be local,” Gagliardo said of the customer base.