Pat Braniff, that guy who puffs on a big cigar as he plants flowers or plows snow for the public works department, enthusiastically describes Casa de Puros to his friends as a great cigar store and much more.
A cigar gourmet with a discerning palate when it comes to cigars, Braniff is impressed with the selection he finds at the 7410 Madison St. location.
Julienne Tooles, one of Casa’s three owners, said that he has 500 brands of cigars in his temperature controlled walk-in humidor, almost all of them coming from Latin American countries like Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic where the tobacco is grown and the cigars are rolled.
Braniff said he also appreciates Casa’s knowledgeable staff. Tooles laughed and said that he’s like a cigar sommelier. “We can break down a cigar in its entirety for you,” he said. “If I don’t know something about a particular brand, Brandon Prince—another owner—will. We can tell you about the notes of the cigar and its after taste, if it’s sweet or lite or if, when you smoke it, you will feel like you’re in a fight with a real man!”
Prince and Tooles can even advise you on which foods pair well with different cigars. For example, some pair well with chocolate and others with Scotch.
“Just as craft beers or premium spirits,” a website called Statista reported, “cigars might buck the general secular trend of declining alcohol and tobacco sales as sophisticated consumers might consume less in total but could at the same time be willing to spend more on each individual occasion.”
You won’t find a pack of Swisher Sweets at Casa de Puros (Spanish for “house of cigars”). The least expensive smoke costs $4.50 and the most expensive will set you back $85.
As much as Braniff appreciates the selection and quality of the product Casa sells, he keeps coming back also for the relationships created and maintained in Casa’s two lounges.
“The cigar shop is more than just a place to smoke a cigar,” he said. “It’s a place where you are treated like brothers and sisters. The conversation there is generally the most interesting part of the experience.”
“I started coming to the cigar lounge with a book and my headphones,” recalled Jim Michael, who lives a short walk away from Casa. “I’d sit and read after work to unwind. As time went on, I got to know the regulars and then eventually became one. At this point, I smoke more cigars than I should just because I love the place.”
And that emotionally safe environment is intentional. Prince said he and Tooles work hard at creating what he calls a “family oriented” type of lounge.
“When customers come in they can tell jokes and laugh. It can be a one-hour vacation from real life. It’s like a man cave where we show sports on big screens in both lounges. They also talk about business and network with others here. And they can talk about real life things as well,” said Prince.
Tooles added, “We are cigar salesmen, therapists, and networkers. We hear so much about other people’s business, because they feel comfortable coming when we set the environment that way.”
“I come here almost daily,” said Dr. Kevin O’Mara, “because of the camaraderie and friendship that exists between everyone that I meet there. I travel a great deal, and this is one of the top cigar lounges in the United States.”
Another patron, Cass Davis, put it this way: “I have visited a significant number of cigar lounges around the country, and this is the one of the most laid back, relaxing and mature environments available.”
Tooles said the group of people who hang out at Casa is very diverse. They have a mix of professionals and what he calls hard working people, municipal workers, executives, police officers from Chicago, persons who are Black, white and Brown.
And women. Tooles said that 30 percent of their customers are women. When asked if the men come in to pick up women, like in a bar, he laughed and said, “Just the opposite. The women come in to pick up men!”
He added that the men don’t seem to mind the presence of women in their man cave. Prince said the men welcome the women because they provide a “different energy” to the room. He added that the trend both nationally and around this area is that cigar smokers are getting younger.
Braniff confirmed that what Tooles said about the welcoming atmosphere is not just a marketing line, saying he experiences the people there as “family and friends.”
“We do talk about what’s going on in the world today,” Braniff said. “About 75 percent of the people hanging out there will be Black. I’m not Black so I do a lot of listening when the conversation turns to subjects like Black Lives Matter and what they’ve gone through. And of course I do empathize with my friends and support them.”
Prince said that getting through the state mandated shutdown was rough, that they lost 80 percent of their business during that time. Some revenue from deliveries and getting the PPP and EIDL loans from the federal government is what allowed them to survive. But now that they have reopened, business has been good.
“Since we’ve reopened,” said Tooles, “we’ve been packed every single day.”
And it helps that the two entrepreneurs are doing business in a favorable market. Statista reported that this year cigar sales in the U.S. will total $9.4 billion with almost 14 billion cigars being sold.
Both men are only 30 years old and said they learned about cigars and how to run a business through on the job training. When Tooles started working at Case de Puros five years ago, he told his boss, “I don’t want to just work for you. I want you to teach me what goes on behind the scenes and how a cigar shop works.”
Then when Prince started working at Casa three years ago the two men started planning and dreaming. When they told the owner at that time of their desire to buy the business, he said that he would sell if they could come up with the cash. When their application for a loan was denied by lenders, they got over that bump in the road by taking on a third investor named Greg Walker, who has never been involved in the day to day operation of the business.
The two entrepreneurs seem to have made their cigar shop and lounge a destination, attracting customers from as far away as Schaumburg and Park Forest, and closer to home from Maywood and the West Side of Chicago.
“If you have not had the pleasure,” said Cass Davis, “treat yourself, you won’t be disappointed.”