59th Anniversary Issue: The Boom and Beyond

Cigar Boom- David Berkebile

“My Sicilian mother stopped asking me when I was going to get a “real job” and started telling her friends that her son worked in the cigar industry.” That was how Georgetown Tobacco Vice President Walter Gorski recalls the impact of the mid-90s “Cigar Boom.”

In 1992, Cigar Aficionado was first published, bringing the joy of smoking premium cigars to an entirely new audience.  Once considered a pastime reserved for old men, politicians and mobsters, the young, hip celebrities that graced the covers of Cigar Aficionado created a new image of who a cigar smoker could be— including movie stars, professional athletes and (gasp) women.

And to think Georgetown Tobacco Owner and President, David Berkebile, might have missed it: “I retired when I was 35…. The crew even got together and got me a pocket watch,” Fortunately for all of us, two years of living in the country was about all David could take of retirement.  He returned to actively leading the company in 1976 and has never looked back.

Always an innovator, David continued to grow the business in ways unique to the industry back in the 70s and 80s.  He built a mail order division, created his own catalog, and advertised nationally in publications like ‘The New Yorker,’ ‘Smithsonian Magazine,’ and ‘House and Garden.’  The stores and mail order did well, but nothing could compare to the astonishing growth that happened with “The Boom.”

Having already been in business for 30 years before the boom began, the growth was “indescribable,” according to David. “I had to hire a doorman to manage the flow of people coming into the store.  There was literally a line of people around the block.”  The biggest challenge for every retailer at the time was inventory.  The best premium cigar makers did not cut corners to meet the new demand and given that it takes a minimum of 18 months to produce a premium cigar, shortages were rampant.  As a general practice, we limited the number of certain cigars people could buy, like the Padron 1964 Anniversary and the Fuente Fuente Opus X, so that more people could enjoy them.  Having started working here in 1996, I can remember customers fighting over Elie Bleu humidors and trying to bribe us to set cigars aside for them when certain shipments came in. It was wild.

Trying to take advantage of the rise in demand, hundreds of new cigar manufacturers came onto the scene, often creating an inferior product.  Fortunately, as a well-established and respected company, many of the manufacturers prioritized shipments to stores like ours and when it came to bringing in new companies, David was very selective.

I went to my first trade show in 1997, at the height of the boom.  This an annual convention, at which retailers are able to connect with all of the cigar, pipe and accessories manufacturers to see and try what’s new and make decisions about what to bring into their stores.  As soon as people saw Georgetown Tobacco on my name badge, they were literally trying to pull me into their booths. It got so uncomfortable that I turned my badge around so no one could see where I worked.  What surprised me was how David approached the show.

Rather than try and hide like I was, I watched David start in one corner and go booth by booth through every aisle of the convention center.  What has stuck with me from that day is that David was less interested in the products being sold than in who the people were actually selling them. “At the time, if I thought I could help somebody I would,” recalls David.

What I took away was an invaluable business lesson about the importance of great relationships and doing business with people that you like and trust.  Understanding the stories behind the products is what makes our jobs so fun, as we share that knowledge with our customers in the store, online, and even in the Caucus Brief.  It’s also demonstrative of how Georgetown Tobacco has thrived for 59 years.

In 1997, Georgetown Tobacco grew 100% over the year prior.  Sending out over 100,000 catalogs a year, both the store on M St., our store in Tyson’s Corner Center and Mail Order were booming. “I thought it would last five years.  Turns out it was only two,” remembers David.  By July of 1998, the boom ended. “It was like the hula hoop. It was over.”

Cigar sales nationally declined after that, until a world-wide pandemic sparked a new “mini-boom” in 2021.  As Covid-19 forced everyone to be at home, more people found time to enjoy a great cigar. According to the Cigar Association of America, 456 million cigars were imported into the U.S. in 2021, the most since 1997.  We’re experiencing nice growth, but certainly nothing like the 90s.

I was convinced that coming out of Covid, people would be seeking an experience-driven life. And what better way to enhance any experience— a great meal, a gathering with friends, or just reading a book on a Sunday afternoon, than with a great cigar or pipe?

What’s next for Georgetown Tobacco?  David said, “We’ll continue to innovate… to surprise. I’m really happy with what we’re doing with our YouTube channel and social media.  I’m also very fortunate to have many hard working, loyal employees and customers who have been with us for years. What’s next, who knows?”

We appreciate you joining us on that journey!