‘We don’t sell cigars; we sell mini-vacations,” said Mike Khalil, the new owner of Casa De Purros, “Doctors, lawyers, garbagemen, everyone likes a vacation. It takes a good hour to smoke a good cigar.” Khalil partnered with founder Stephen Schuler to take over operation of the high-end cigar lounge, 7410 Madison St., in April. Khalil already had extensive experience selling cigars and operating cigar lounges in Villa Park and Countryside. He has many improvements in mind for the Forest Park lounge, but he wants most to a comfortable welcoming environment for his customers.
Khalil has fine tobacco in his blood, so to speak. As a boy, he toiled in his grandfather’s tobacco fields in his native Jordan.
“My grandfather had olive trees and grew tobacco,” he recalled. “I was 9 when I was harvesting tobacco.” It was hard work in the hot sun. “I came to the U.S. so I wouldn’t have to touch tobacco again.”
The young Jordanian came to America primarily to complete his education. “I was 17 years old and had no family here.”(His lounges are now staffed by family members.) He studied at the College of Du Page and Triton College to earn his degree in electrical engineering. However, “Dr. Mike” never practiced this trade. He found himself being drawn back into his grandfather’s business.
In 1995, at the height of the cigar craze, he opened 8 to 8 Cigars in Villa Park. The upscale lounge is celebrating its 20th Anniversary and set the blueprint for Khalil’s other cigar businesses. Unlike most lounges, Khalil does not charge a membership fee for smokers to relax in the comfortable settings he provides. “Our lounges are available to people who buy our cigars.”
Creating a welcoming atmosphere for Casa De Purros customers is the job of Khalil’s manager, Jim Cosmos. The two young men have much in common. They both use the same barber: “Gillette.” Besides sporting shaved heads and sharing a passion for cigars, both worked hard in their youth at family businesses.
“My family owned Cosmos Restaurant in Oak Park,” Cosmos recalled. “I was 10 years old washing dishes.” The young dishwasher’s parents were from Greece and were no strangers to hard work. Cosmos filled in wherever needed, waiting tables at 15. Like Khalil, he was looking for an easier way to earn money than working for the family business, which closed in the late ’80s.
Cosmos compares the cigar experience to a ceremony.
“Cigars bring people together,” he said. “We see white collar guys talking to blue collar guys. There are no barriers.” A cigar lounge is a place where smokers can relax on leather couches and chat with people they wouldn’t normally meet. They are also great places to watch sports, with big crowds drawn to Blackhawk and Bear games.
“We have mostly men,” Khalil noted, “Cops, firemen, bankers. About 20 percent of our customers are female.” The lounge carries 600-700 different brands, and stocks 3,000 to 4,000 cigars. “Our average price is $9 to $13,” Khalil said, which he considers affordable for an hour of pleasure. “Our priciest is $79.95 but we have $200 cigars at our other locations.
“Cigars and wine are like brothers and sisters,” he said. “The soil and weather determines the quality of the product. Both are fermented and aged.” However, cigars are much more labor-intensive than wine. “It takes from 18 months to two years to make a cigar,” Khalil explained, “A cigar will be touched by hand over 200 times before it is ready for sale.” To create unique, satisfying flavors, tobacco from various countries are blended into one cigar.
“You don’t inhale a cigar,” he said, “So the taste buds are everything.” Besides selling cigars with pleasant blends, the lounge sells cigars flavored with spices and sweets.
“There are so many types of cigars, it can be overwhelming,” Cosmos admitted. “So, we educate the customer little by little.” Most of the lounge’s cigars come from Central and South America. These areas have the best growing conditions and the cheapest labor. “We get our best cigars from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Cuba is still two years out before hitting the U.S. market.” Cosmos predicts that American investors will get behind Cuba’s cigar production. “They can produce a hybrid of tobacco from Cuba and Nicaragua to really elevate the taste.”
To further educate the public, Casa De Purros will host monthly events. “We’ll have seminars, lectures and manufacturers who will talk about storing and aging cigars,” Cosmos said. They will even have a demonstration by cigar rollers, so customers can see how their stogies are created.
Khalil believes cigar lounges are a boon to local economies. “We’re a destination business, selling a niche product. Only 3 percent of the population smokes cigars.”
Cigar lovers won’t be satisfied just to visiting his lounge. “They still need to eat and drink,” he said, referring to the many restaurants and bars that surround his shop. “I’ll bring more business to the neighborhood.”
He has already joined the Chamber of Commerce and will participate in the upcoming Music Fest. They will be providing a tent where customers can sample their cigars. However, Khalil believes cigars are best enjoyed inside in a climate-controlled atmosphere.
To ensure his customer’s comfort, Casa De Purros is equipped with a powerful air filtration system that completely scrubs the air nine times an hour. This means 7-8 smokers can sit around puffing without enduring a haze in the air.
The lounge also provides other creature comforts, like coffee and soft drinks. Cosmos intends to create a VIP Room. There will be no charge for membership but VIPs will have to sign an agreement promising to spend a certain monthly amount at Casa De Purros or one of their other locations.
Speaking of which, Blackhawk’s Coach Joel Quenneville frequents Khalil’s Casa De Montecristo lounge because they carry his favorite cigar, the B56. Coach “Q” even signed a box of them.
Chicago’s hockey fans are dreaming of Quenneville lighting up a victory cigar at the end of this season.