Photo By R. Clayton McKee/Freelance

Cigarettes may have gone out of style as healthy living became fashionable, but for many Houstonians, enjoying a cigar has never lost its appeal.

Established businesses and new ventures alike have profited from puffing customers.

Popular spots in the area for cigar aficionados include the Briar Shoppe, 2412 Times Blvd., and Serious Cigars, 2901 W Loop S. Freeway.

Bill Scoggins describes his Briar Shoppe as an “old-time pipe shop.” He inherited the Briar Shoppe from his mother, Donna Wheatley, and her sister Patricia O’Connor, who took over the family business from their mother, Alice Amason.

Scoggins admired his grandmother – especially for her ability to create a successful business in what was a male-dominated world at the time.

A trailblazer

After becoming the sole breadwinner for her family in 1946 when her husband left town, Amason started out as a clerk in a drugstore and then moved into management at the St. Regis Candy and Liquor Store across the street from the Rice Hotel.

She heard continual requests for cigars and lighters. So, instead of stocking the shelves with more candy, Amason brought in more tobacco and smoking accessories.

She later rented concession space in the front window of Sav-On Drug Co. on Main Street and soon was able to buy the entire store.

“She was a very savvy businesswoman,” Scoggins said. “She was a really strong go-getter.”

When the building began to deteriorate, Amason moved in 1965 to a location closer to the Texas Medical Center. In 1993, she moved the Briar Shoppe again, this time to its current site in Rice Village.

Wheatley and O’Connor took over the business in the 1970s. When Wheatley died, Scoggins, his wife Tara and his sister took over.

Scoggins remembers coming to the store as a child.

“I came to the shop almost every day,” he said. “Most people don’t get to see their grandmother every day. It fostered a wonderful relationship.”

While Scoggins tried out other careers before entering the family business, he said he always loved the shop.

“It always felt like home,” he said. “As a teenager, I was selling pipes, cigars and tobacco.”

Scoggins still has the recipes for several tobacco blends that his grandmother developed, and some customers continue to buy the same concoctions from him that they once purchased from her.

“It’s my legacy,” Scoggins said. “I almost feel like it’s my destiny, and I’m happy to carry it on. I think she’d be happy to know the business she worked so hard for is still running so well.”

The cigar boom in the 1990s brought more competition for the store.

“We used to be one of the only shops in Houston,” Scoggins said. “Now there are probably 100.”

Out-of-control hobby

Serious Cigars is a business that was sparked by the boom.

Owner Ron Lesseraux has been smoking cigars for years.

“It was a hobby that kind of got out of control,” he said.

Lesseraux was living in Washington, D.C., when the cigar craze took off.

“There were not enough cigars made for consumption,” he said.

In 1996, Lesseraux moved to Houston. He said he noticed a gap in the local cigar market.

“A lot of the cigars I liked weren’t available here,” he said. “No one had them. So, I started buying and selling them to shops around here.”

Lesseraux had a background in software development. In 1996, he built a website where he could try his hand at selling products online.

He said few businesses had then realized the potential of an online shop.

The first order came in a couple weeks after the website went live.

“Then it was wait a couple months before the next order,” Lesseraux recalled. “Soon, it was rush home from work at 5 p.m. to fill out orders and get them shipped by 7 p.m.”

The model worked.

“I was getting more than a couple orders a day,” Lesseraux said. “I just didn’t have the time.”

In 2003, he and his wife Jeanne Marie opened a store on FM 1960.

“We decided we either had to stop or get more serious,” Lesseraux said.

Business has been growing steadily since and Serious Cigars has three locations. The second shop started just blocks from the Galleria but recently moved to a 7,000-square-foot space at 2901 West Loop. A third store opened last year by the airport, 15655 JFK Blvd, Suite B.

Lesseraux said the risk of opening a business based on a hobby has paid off.

“We were able to roll the dice and take a chance,” he said. “Now, I love coming to work every day.

“Cigars seem to be more popular than ever,” he said. “There’s definitely far more cigars imported in the country now that during the boom.”

The industry has changed over the years. Lesseraux offers a smoking lounge and a private lounge that includes locker space for members.

“In 2000, more people started dedicating space to lounge areas,” he said.

$15 cigars popular

The cigars at Lesseraux’s shop range from $2 to $100 each. The smokes in the $15 range are most popular.

“People view them as an affordable luxury,” he said.

Lesseraux said he enjoys smoking cigars because it requires him to create some downtime.

“You can’t just smoke a cigar in five minutes,” he said. “You have to sit down, take an hour and enjoy a cigar, relax and wind down.”

Scoggins is drawn to cigars for the same reason.

“Smoking a cigar gives you time to reflect,” he said.

“It’s a time to sit down and discuss.”

By Lindsay Peyton