Backstory

Backstory: Couple turns former campaign bus into mobile cigar lounge

vbridges@newsobserver.comNovember 25, 2013 

Husband and wife team Michelle and James Bartlett started Dr. Jimmy B. Cigars, a company that brings cigars to parties and private events and also operates a bus that doubles as a smoking lounge.

VIRGINIA BRIDGES — vbridges@newsobserver.com

  • Advice from James and Michelle Bartlett

    • Have a business plan and take a leap of faith.

    • Relationships are key.

    • Capitalize on social media

— In a previous life, the 40-foot-long executive coach with plush leather seats and matching u-shaped bench was Sen. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express,” used to connect with voters on his presidential campaigns.

Now, it’s home base for a one-year-old Raleigh small business that’s promoting a different campaign, one promoting a right to enjoy a decent cigar indoors.

“We were finding when we talked to people, when we were just going out to different cigar events, that there were limited places to smoke,” said James Bartlett, who, along with his wife, Michelle, launched Dr. Jimmy B. Cigars in September 2012. “This was a way where people could enjoy cigars in different places.”

For starting at about $300 an hour, the owners bring the plush mobile cigar lounge with three air purifier units to public events and private parties. The company will also set up a carpet and chairs and serve and cut cigars under a tent.

“We honestly thought it would take off in the wedding market,” said Michelle Bartlett, but most of the company’s about 20 jobs have been centered on corporate events and tailgating.

The company also sells cigars, which are sealed in plastic and come with a humidity control packet, on the bus and in five locations, including White Rabbit Brewing in Angier and Havana Grill in Cary.

Dr. Jimmy B. Cigars stems from the couple’s frequent travel for work, and the cigar bars where they would go to unwind. The company name comes from a former neighbor and pays tribute to James Bartlett’s Ph.D.

For about a year, the Bartletts, who are professors at N.C. State University, discussed ways to build a business around their hobby. They considered opening a bar, their own blend of cigar, and a smoking lounge.

Smoking regulations, enacted by cities and counties across the Triangle, started to hinder the Bartletts’ ability to smoke cigars in public, they said, or buy a decent cigar after 6 p.m.

They decided to invest their personal savings in a model, already in use in larger cities across the nation, that brought the smoking lounge to the people.

A bus broker connected them to the bus owner, who lived in Georgia. They test drove it in August 2012, and bought it the following month. They updated the kitchen and added two televisions and a PlayStation.

They left brochures at local cigar shops and started using social media. They post pictures and tag customers on Facebook and participate in Twitter’s #FollowFriday, which allows users to recommend certain people or businesses to follow. The couple shares most of the business’s duties, but Michelle handles the contracts and quotes, while James drives the bus.

The pair recently started working with former N.C. State and Cincinnati Reds third baseman Matt Mangini in an effort to increase distribution of their individually wrapped cigars, which have a shelf life of about six months. Last month, the Bartletts started the Carolina Cigar Society, an enthusiasts’ club mixed with social and professional networking.

“When people smoke cigars, it doesn’t matter what race you are, your religion, your political affiliation. People who enjoy cigars are in a family,” Michelle Bartlett said. “You share that common bond.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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