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It’s boom or bust for cigar lounges on Las Vegas Strip

Ryan Moore stared thoughtfully at the cigar in his hand, a wisp of rich smoke curling into the air.

His lunch break was almost over, judging from the remnants of that $13 stogie, and he was already planning his next smoke.

“It’s funny, I was just thinking about tonight and where we’re going for dinner,” says Moore, 29, a watchmaker who works in the Forum Shops at Caesars. “I was trying to think of a place where you can smoke cigars.”

That’s the million dollar question for today’s cigar aficionados. Once poised to become The Next Big Thing, cigar lounges on the Strip have become almost A Thing of the Past. There’s The Lounge in Andre’s restaurant at Monte Carlo and Casa Fuente at Forum Shops, where Moore takes his daily lunch/cigar break. While there are plenty of places to buy cigars, there aren’t too many places left specifically designed for lounging and cigar smoking. In the early 2000s, the Strip boasted at least half a dozen cigar lounges, say local shop owners.

“Cigar sales are still good but it’s cooled way off,” says Michael Frey, co-owner of Casa Fuente and co-partner in FreyBoy Tobacco with his brother, Robert. Frey also owns the off-Strip Cigar Box and four cigar humidor-kiosks on the Strip. His Rhumbar lounge at The Mirage also is cigar-friendly.

Frey has become the cigar king of the Strip thanks to both the cigar boom and the bust.

Frey entered the cigar retail industry in 1995, right after cigars started heating up to become one of the most popular trends of the decade. He quickly built a cigar empire on the Strip and, in 2005, Casa Fuente became its crown jewel. It is the first licensed store for the famous Arturo Fuente brand.

“When I come to Vegas, this is my one stop,” says Tom Tubbs, a tourist from Florida. He sat in the lounge at Casa Fuente on a recent Friday, enjoying a drink and a cigar with his son, son-in-law and friend. “This is the kind of place for a real cigar smoker.”

Frey moved to Las Vegas in 1958 when he was about 6 months old. After high school, he went to California where he attended college and worked in show business. He worked in production on several television shows, including “Dallas,” “Knots Landing” and “The Waltons.” But he didn’t like show business so he decided to turn his vice into a vocation. A longtime cigar smoker, Frey thought he could make a successful business out of it in his hometown.

“I was just sort of in between careers and I was looking for something to do,” Frey says. “Vegas was booming, cigars were booming and no one was doing cigars right on the Strip.”

The cigar bust happened in 1997 when tobacco became such a high-priced commodity that it priced retailers out of the business. It also lost favor with the casual smoker. A second bust occurred during the recession of 2007.

“Where it’s hurt in this town, it’s still a discretionary item,” Frey says. “When people have a steak and a martini, buying that $15 cigar after dinner has really dropped off. Convention business has dropped and those are the guys and gals that used to smoke. But I see some of that coming back.”

The boom and the bust helped and hurt Rich Galdieri’s Strip business. He opened the Las Vegas Cigar Co. on Las Vegas Boulevard in 1989 where Paris’ Eiffel Tower now stands. There, Cuban and Dominican cigar rollers made Galdieri’s cigars, sometimes demonstrating their craft in the Strip shop. When construction started on the Paris hotel in 1996, he moved to the south end of the Strip near Mandalay Bay.

“The good thing for me was that everyone was smoking cigars during the boom,” Galdieri says. “The bad thing for me was finding tobacco. But it was a great time, it was a great business.”

Eventually, celebrities and retailers such as Frey opened up their shops and lounges on the Strip, offering a wide variety of cigars. Galdieri sold only his brand.

“It hurt when all these places came in,” he says. “It was nice being the only game in town.”

He lasted on the Strip until 2007, when his rent was $14,000 a month. He had started out paying $2,000 a month. The high rent and the recession forced him to consolidate into his shop on Eastern Avenue and Sunset Road.

“Since cigars got so popular, since they opened their lounges, they had a big variety,” Galdieri says. “Cigar Aficionado started rating all the cigars. In the meantime, I’m still making my own product. I kind of got lost in the shuffle. I should have put in other cigars but I was still making money.”

Since the cigar bust and the recession, the cost of cigars has dropped, Frey says. Manufacturers are making less expensive cigars, trying to hit the sweet spot of $5 to $7, he adds.

“People still like to smoke. It’s just a nice part of that whole ‘get away to Vegas and enjoy yourself’ thing,” he says. “Cigars are here to stay, you know. With the demand slacking off, it’s given growers a chance to concentrate on growing great tobacco. And now everyone’s getting ready for the next boom, when Cuba opens up. In Vegas, I think it will be a boom market. People will be eating up Cubans (cigars).”

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.

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